Armed with an interest in servant leadership as a concept and team of people to lead, I started implementing the mindset of a servant leader in my daily work as a manufacturing operations leader.
I learned what servant leadership is "not" through the hard lessons of trial and error. Here are my learnings in hopes that you can avoid these same missteps.
Here are the top 3 mistakes I made as I practiced servant leadership:
What is "Servant Leadership"
Traditional views of an organization show a hierarchy of many employees at the bottom and fewer leaders at the top.
Servant leadership flips the traditional org structure upside down and asks that those in leadership positions spend their time serving the employees at the bottom.
One visual that is really helpful for me when I think of Servant Leadership is to picture a curling team, the stone is pushed and one person is furiously sweeping in front of the stone as it travels to its destination.
The stone represents your employees, moving forward and doing their work. You are the sweeper, helping clear any obstacles so the employee can be their best selves.
Servant leadership doesn't mean I'll do it for you
The goal of servant leadership is to remove the barriers from the employees so that they can perform their duties without unnecessary roadblocks.
The founder of Servant Leadership, Robert Greenleaf, stated:
"Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"
This implies that personal growth still has to happen in the employee, and growth doesn't happen without friction in their work. They still have to do the work in order to grow.
Servant leadership doesn't mean I'll lower my expectations
When I was trying to embody the characteristics of servant leadership, I would get asked about hard to reach goals from well meaning employees who wanted me to lower the goal.
They had put in a modest amount of effort, and the goal still didn't come easily.
I knew that the goals we set as a team were paramount to our success, and therefore we couldn't just lower the bar because it was hard to achieve.
The line between "I will figure this out for you" and "I know you can figure this out" can be uncomfortable for a leader who is really trying to emulate the characteristics of a servant leader.
In situations where high expectations are set, remember that your job as a leader is to help clear the path for the employee to reach the goal.
Servant leadership doesn't mean I'll intervene all the time
One of the most key things a servant leader must maintain is trust with their employees and the broader organization.
I have gotten into a few sticky situations as an operations leader, because I was trying to embody the mindset of a servant leader, but I really didn't have a good understanding of when I should "do" something and when I should not.
For example, we had a 24x7 rotation, so there were 4 teams performing the same work every week. One team had an issue with the way another team was performing a task and leaving it for their team to finish. They wanted me to intervene and play mediator between the two teams.
I knew that conflicts are best worked out directly between the two groups, but my servant leadership hat was on and instead I intervened and tried to mediate a solution.
This created a distrust in the organization between the two teams and between everyone and myself as the leader. I started to get individuals coming to me to ask for help to solve their inter-team or inter-personal issues, rather than working the issue out themselves.
The slippery slope was hard to undo, and eventually I had to host conflict resolution training for the teams so they would understand the expectation of how I wanted conflicts to be solved between individuals and teams.
Even when you are trying to be a servant leader, remember that you don't have to intervene all the time. Some issues are best left for the employee to go fix on their own. Consider instead to give them the tools to fix the issue and to build their confidence in knowing that you believe in their capability. Then remember to follow up and ask how it went. The issues may take a while to get resolved, but the employees will learn new conflict resolution skills that will serve them for a lifetime.
Go forth and serve
Now that you have learned the lessons that I learned, go forth and serve your teams. You might make some mistakes along the way, but people will see that you are trying to serve them and that you are growing each day.
Don't be afraid to fail, be afraid to not try!
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I've tried to emulate Servant Leadership throughout my career as an operations leader, and I've (painfully) learned these 3 mistakes.— Jennifer Biggs (@biggsyjm) February 23, 2021
Learn from me and save yourself the trouble: