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  • Writer's pictureAshwin Nazareth

Servant Leadership: Philosophy or Buzzword

A lot has been said on the topic of servant leadership. There are countless axioms online that make reference to the topic and entire keynote speeches, videos, and TED talks dedicated to promoting the ideology in the past few years. But what is it exactly? And is it just another one of those social media leadership fads that sound good on paper but are impossible to put into practice?

Servant Leadership: a brief history

The term Servant Leadership or Servant Based Leadership was formally coined in the 1970s in an essay by Robert Greenleaf, who later went on to found an institute in the same name dedicated to furthering this management philosophy. The thought process behind servant leadership however can be traced back to many literary works, some of which inspired Greenleaf himself.

The need for a new 'alternative management philosophy' was born out of frustrations with the command and control leadership styles which were more at home during the early industrial revolution. However as work became more specialized and more people became highly skilled, the success of a company seemed to be more about what the employees could do well rather than what the bosses could instruct the frontline staff to do.

Okay let's put that into perspective

Imagine you're a factory owner in the 1940s or 1950s, you're probably at your job because you've inherited a multi-generational business passed down from your family or you're a first-generation entrepreneur intending to create a family legacy. You are the primary custodian of knowledge regarding processes, marketing, customer behavior, etc. You're probably a one-person committee for decision making, and the only people you trust are those closest to you - siblings, childhood friends, maybe even a few select in-laws. No 'outsiders' basically. Frontline staff on the other hand are just factory workers, brought in to contribute their time rather than their ideas or thoughts. After all, what would they know? You're the one teaching them right?

Well, the scenario above may have been perfectly reasonable half a century ago but things have, for the most part, changed. Companies are often large, geographically dispersed, and owned by a faceless mass of investors. Most importantly, on the inside, they are most likely managed and operated by a collection of outsiders who have come together with no common bonds beyond having the 'right skillet' to further the company's goals. It's also now common to poach employees from competitors because of what value they can bring to your business, and 'smart business' to listen to frontline employees' ideas on process improvements because they're always closer to the ground than management is. How things have changed.

So if you're hiring people for their expertise and not just their time, and they bring knowledge rather than are waiting for you to teach them how to do their jobs - what exactly is your role as a leader anymore?

It's all about facilitation

"How can I help you?" should be the first question that comes to your mind in all situations if you've adopted this leadership philosophy. It's anchored in the trust that you've hired the right people for the job and that they are the specialists in their field. Their greatest hurdles in working towards the company's goals are not ideas or skills but rather things like overcoming bureaucracy, approval speed, and access to resources - all things which you as their leader are well-positioned to assist them with. This is where the servant part of the equation comes into play.

The main goal in servant leadership is enabling your people to do their best work by busying yourself with the removal of any roadblocks they face. Of course, there is still going to be a large amount of managerial work left including cascading vision and goals, coaching, and checking in on production quality, but everything should be done through the lens of facilitating rather than - "Hey guys, these are MY goals. Here's how you are going to help me achieve them".

A slight word of caution though, it's easy to accidentally go down the proverbial rabbit hole of thinking your job is now to take on every minor complaint the team has to the point of them transferring accountability to you. The team is very much accountable for their output. Your job is to remove the distractions and hurdles that lie outside their scope of expertise, in the areas we talked about earlier.

Sounds good, should I take the plunge then?

In today's economy, the answer can always be YES! However, it's important to consider the goals for your team and the stage in the development of your company. We believe that it's not a fad, and it most definitely brings many benefits to any organization that's gotten its recruitment right or just wants to move forward with flatter structures and reduced managerial burden.

If you're confused about where to start or what this all means, drop either Navvir or Ashwin a LinkedIn DM for a casual chat. If you'd rather have a formal conversation about how we can help reinforce this philosophy in your operations processes, contact us today.

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