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Into the era of servant leadership

A couple of months ago I wrote a post on Psychological Safety and its role in supporting a collaborative environment for modern ways of working. And as we hear more about agile and new ways of working, we are also hearing more about the importance of servant leadership for optimal engagement and innovation.

If we also take into the account the recent Banking Royal Commission (in Australia), we’ve seen how widespread the command and control style leadership is across the financial sector. We saw evidence of poor leadership, misaligned metrics and an absence of business ethics. Senior executives were either out of touch with the voice of the customer and the employee, or simply chose not to listen.

In this environment of old, formal power, then it’s no surprise that employees have been aware of questionable practices but most haven’t felt safe speaking out. This style of leadership, that supports a culture of fear, is losing relevance in a disruptive world where power is being redistributed.

And new ways of working means new ways of leading and engaging, so it’s no surprise that servant leadership, as a style to inspire employees, is gaining currency.

Not so new really

Just as the notion of ‘psychological safety’ is not new, neither is servant leadership.

Back in 1970, Robert Greenleaf coined the term in a paper called “The Servant as Leader” and has since established the Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership. It’s here we find a description of this people-centric leadership practice:

‘Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, build better organizations and ultimately creates a more caring world.

Greenleaf’s briefer definition of servant leadership is:

The servant leader is servant first. It beings with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.

Leading by serving

As servant leadership is gaining popularity with agile teams, we can see the contrast with a leader-centric style that focuses on building and exercising power. To genuinely serve the well-being and growth of others is to let go of formal or ‘old power’ and give way to shared power. This means putting one’s ego aside, distributing decision making, listening without judgement to enable self-organised teams. For many leaders, this represents a significant shift in mindset and behaviours.

To put people over profits signals a climate of psychological safety that, as the Banking Royal Commission has sadly revealed, is largely lacking in the banking culture. The importance of senior leaders modelling and rewarding the right behaviours cannot be underestimated. According to Greenleaf, a good leader must first become a good servant.

Why we need it now

Whilst the concept has been around since 1970, a climate of high uncertainty and ambiguity calls for leadership approaches that empower others and tap into a range of ideas and expertise.

Servant leadership is even more relevant now because:

- [endif]It empowers others - with more autonomy and less control, self-organising teams can flourish and see their diverse ideas valued.

- It suits disruptive environments - by understanding that the leader is not the only one with answers, the sharing of problems is an ideal approach for an environment fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity

- Promotes empathy - a leader who demonstrates empathy will be rewarded with higher productivity and improved team morale.

The intense dynamic of the current business environment means we need to lead and think differently.

Make it work for you

As I say over and over, new ways of working means new ways of thinking and doing, including the way we lead others and behave as team members.

If we want to help people thrive in an environment of ambiguity and complexity, they need to feel listened to, and feel safe to speak up and experiment with a leader who is committed to their growth and well-being.

It makes sense that leadership approaches that genuinely put people over profits will improve overall business performance and the employee experience.

If you want to find out more about building change leadership capability in a complex and disruptive environment, please reach out. With Dr Jen Frahm, we have developed a unique and effective agile learning program to help leaders shift mindsets and behaviours to equip them for continuous and relentless change.

vironment, please reach out. With Dr Jen Frahm, we have developed a unique and effective agile learning program to help leaders shift mindsets and behaviours to equip them for continuous and relentless change.

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