I recently attended an event that focused on the idea and practice of Servant Leadership. I was impressed. It was a decent sized group of adults with a fair mix of men and women. All of them were senior business professionals of one kind or another, and they were all keyed into the idea of Servant Leadership, to one degree or another. What they all seemed to agree on were the 5 main ways of being a Servant Leader:
- Be accepting
- Be authentic
- Be present
- Be vulnerable
- Be useful
We had 5 tables around the room, and each table took an aspect of being a Servant Leader and discussed it. We all ended up with many points or distinctions that could be made about our chosen aspect. My table had number 5, that of being useful. Below are 6 key elements of being useful as a leader that emerged for us, and my own reflections on each of them:
- To create an environment for success
- To step forward or back as needed to make the system work
- To mine your own talents and transfer capabilities/knowledge
- Two questions: How can I help? What do you need?
- To ensure that your company’s wider footprint is useful as well
- To have a useful vision
The first element seems obvious, and yet so often it is overlooked. It’s almost a given that most businesses are aware of their immediate office environment, lighting, posture supportive chairs etc. The environment that matters the most to me is one where each person within the business nurtures a positive regard for the other. This ultimately creates an environment where you would not want others to have any less of an opportunity in life than you have. The servant leader in this case can be most useful by embodying this themselves.
The second element connects for me, to an insight I had whilst driving my car around busy London roads. I noticed that there were occasions when, even though I absolutely had the right of way, that by not giving way to others I was ignoring the wider issue. That of the build-up of traffic flow leading back into other parts of London; the wider system. Yet if I allowed someone through then it could move, even just a little bit, and others behind me would have an example to follow that was perhaps different from how they had previously thought. This insight has subsequently influenced my approach to leadership in business. Stepping forward or back as per clearly presented needs (or as per my vision of the whole). Simply taking a parcel to the post office or offering support to someone who needs it at whatever level of the business can be the difference that makes the difference, even just a little bit. And even just a little bit of flexibility can be what the system needs to make it flow.
Mining your own talents is a fast track to being vulnerable in front of your colleagues. This is because it is a form of learning. It is where you take unconscious competence and make it explicitly accessible to others. The reward is both in the giving away of the newly tacit knowledge and in the emerging awareness that existing talents and skills can be developed even further and communicated with increasing clarity. The act of transferring capabilities is a step further, in that the information transferred by the leader is even more consciously engaged. The leader is literally living with the ongoing lived development of the person they are working with; making sense of the other persons journey through their eyes as well as they can.
The two questions, how can I help and what do you need are inherently servant like in nature. They are also the very definition of being useful to the person to whom you are asking the questions of. They must of course be balanced within the context of the wider whole, time and degrees of impact in the service of the wider vision. However, there is no getting around the fact that by asking either of these questions you will be getting into the nitty gritty in short order. And what you learn is often very rich. For example, what a person really needs can be quite different from what you think it is, and therefore what might motivate them or enable them to do well can be best discovered by asking them directly what they actually need. Asked alongside the question how can I help? sets the context more firmly within the business environment, focused on their core responsibilities. This question can help a person to feel secure enough to ask for help i.e. training that they might not otherwise feel comfortable to ask for.
Having your company’s wider footprint become useful is a development somewhat of the earlier insights from stepping forward and back. Whether your company has a global or local footprint it will always have a wider impact than the immediate focal points of your business plan. Whilst we can never be fully mindful of the myriad ways in which our companies have an impact further afield, we can always strive to reduce the potential harm to others we might otherwise cause, and to help others to have a better quality of life than they might otherwise have. As is becoming increasingly clear that we live in a deeply interconnected world, our thoughts and deeds have a much stronger chance of impacting on others across the globe. Threats from climate change, viral insights or fake news spread on social media, cyber-attacks/increased security and advances in medicine through internet enabled collaboration across the globe are just a few examples of how whatever we do impacts everyone else, to some degree or other.
Which brings me onto the last element, that of having a useful vision. In this case for me it has a similar essence to having a vision for my company’s wider footprint. Although this vision has grown over time it has always aimed to include as many people as possible, to the degree that I would my own family; within a framework of aligned personal and company goals, meaningful rewards and ongoing personal development. Working together to create meaningful and productive working lives that support and nurture families, futures and the next generations. This vision means that from time to time the more lucrative rewards of business ownership are deferred to some degree. However, in the long term the environment is more sustainable, the people are more motivated and more people can experience a greater quality of life.