How Do I Empower Others Without Losing All of My Own?
During recent coaching sessions with executives involved in leading organisational transformations, a common challenge emerged around their leadership authority. As individuals committed to the futures of their organisations and their employees, these executives have studied and tried to implement modern leadership practices. One of those practices is the concept of Servant Leadership. But, as is often the case, the practice is proving more difficult than the theory…
First of all, let me provide a definition of Servant Leadership. According to Wikipedia:
Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader's main focus is the thriving of their company or organization. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.
With that in mind, let’s now explore the challenges our executives have been experiencing.
Challenge 1: Strategic Direction
“As a Servant Leader, I can’t set direction; I have to let others find their own direction and set their own strategy. But now my team’s all pulling in different directions.”
Let’s bust a myth quickly - Servant Leadership does not mean you allow a strategy vacuum, which others fill however they want. Servant Leadership is about creating the conditions for our teams to succeed. To succeed, individuals need to know what outcomes they’re aiming for and understand their role in contributing to that outcome. This isn’t telling people how to do their job, how to achieve that outcome - the Servant Leader empowers their teams to figure that part out and then supports them in doing so. But people do need to know where they’re headed.
However, we need to reconsider how strategy is developed and enable our teams to contribute to setting strategic direction. In her book, Seeing Around Corners, Rita McGrath tells us that “Snow melts from the edge”, meaning that it is those employees with most frequent access to customers, products and technology that will spot emerging trends. Those employees are not our executive teams - they are front-line staff. We must find ways to draw these insights up and listen to them to inform our strategic choices. Learn more about this in an article I wrote with Tristan Kromer on Adaptive Strategy.
This may sound like an argument for deferring strategy decisions to those lower down the organisation. But whilst front-line employees are brilliantly placed to spot changes in consumer patterns, they do not necessarily have visibility of other factors that should inform strategic choices - things like regulatory changes, competitor analysis, anticipated ROI or investments to name just a few. The leader’s job is to take insights from the ground and consider them in the wider context in which the organisation operates.
Challenge 2: My Experience No Longer Counts
“As a Servant Leader, I’m not allowed a voice. My experience and opinion don’t count.”
There is something a little self-indulgent about this complaint. It’s not that you don’t have a voice or that your experience and opinion no longer matter; it’s that your voice and opinion no longer matter the most. One of the biggest adjustments for individuals that have grown up in more traditional leadership cultures and been promoted on the basis of their growing experience and expertise is the idea that they don’t have to have (and most certainly haven’t even got) all the answers.
Servant Leadership is about removing your own ego. You do not have a monopoly on knowledge. You are also steeped in assumptions about what can and cannot be done, which those newer to the organisation can help us challenge. Servant Leadership is about enabling others to grow and develop and contribute. This means creating a safe space for this - for others to ask and explore questions, try new things, get things wrong and self-correct. It doesn’t mean you never share your thoughts and ideas, but when you offer your opinion first or forcefully, you effectively remove that safe space.
Challenge 3: Not Everyone Wants Me to be a Servant Leader
“Some of my team have said to me: bring the old Martin back, we miss him!”.
One of the core components of Servant Leadership is the one-to-one relationships you have and a focus on individual needs:
The mode of servant leadership (‘manifested through one-on-one prioritizing of follower individual needs, interests, and goals above those of the leader’) reflects a recognition that each individual follower is unique, and has different needs, interests, desires, goals, strengths, and limitations. While generic organizational policies and systems exist to ensure equity, each leader-follower relationship can take many different forms. The servant leader takes an interest in understanding each follower's background, core values, beliefs, assumptions, and idiosyncratic behaviors. (Servant Leadership: A systematic review and call for future research by Eva et al, The Leadership Quarterly, Vol.30, Issue 1, February 2019).
If you’re hearing this complaint from team members, it means you’re not understanding their individual needs and adapting your leadership style to enable them to thrive. Find out from them what it is you used to give them which you no longer are. Explore with them ways in which that need might be met. Maybe it is you being more directive at times. Maybe it’s you asking better questions and developing your coaching skills.
Challenge 4: I’m Accountable for a Level of Detail I No Longer Have
“I’ve embraced Servant Leadership, but my boss hasn’t. Now I'm being asked for details I no longer have and I’m directly accountable for things I have limited influence over.”
This is an undeniably uncomfortable position to be in and I have a great deal of empathy for it. I’ve often said that change must start somewhere, so let that change start with you. But it takes enormous courage to do this, to lead yourself and your teams in a way that runs counter to organisational norms.
But being a Servant Leader means you put the needs of your teams first, above your needs and above the needs of your boss. Again, this doesn’t mean ignoring your needs or your boss’ needs. But it does mean finding new ways to meet them that support the needs of your team.
I recommend gradual adoption of Servant Leadership approaches as you seek to develop your own, your teams’ and your boss’ understanding of what Servant Leadership is (and what it is not). Take the time to explain to everyone involved your motivations for adapting your leadership approach. Explore and iterate new ways of working, seeking out and acting on honest feedback.
My final reflection on this challenge relates to something I see often - organisations or individuals lurching from one extreme to another. One day, we’re waterfall, the next everything has to be agile. One day we’ve got a wishy-washy strategy, the next we’ve got 100 OKRs. One day, we’re a hierarchical, command-and-control leadership team, the next we’re Servant Leaders.
This lurching is unhelpful for everyone. It encourages resistance from those who do not understand or agree with the change. It means people are confused and exhausted. It means useful and modern approaches to leadership and change are misunderstood and misused in the urgency to adopt them, countering their potential benefits.
There is never one right way to do leadership. Some people would describe these concepts as ‘fads’, best ignored. But they are evolutions in our thinking and practice. The best thing you can do is commit to your own and others' evolution by educating yourself and others in them. Understand the nature of the leadership challenge presenting at any given time and draw out of your ever-growing toolbox the most appropriate and effective combination of leadership tools and approaches you can find.