Servant Leadership: Servant First, Leader Second

It was with great joy that I recently learned that my client, the UN World Food Program (WFP), just won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. I have had the honor of being the Executive Coach to more than a dozen of the leaders in this organization for several years now.

The largest humanitarian organization in the world, the WFP was honored for their efforts in fighting hunger, promoting peace in areas affected by continuing conflicts, and averting insidious efforts at using hunger as a weapon of war.

It is no small task.

In working with clients from the UN WFP, a distinguishing characteristic is evident: each has a sincere, committed desire to be of service to the world. Many are the very definition of servant leaders.

What is a Servant Leader?

The term servant leader was conceived by Robert Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader,” first published in 1970.

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types…”

Working with the WFP, especially during these unsettled times, makes me so proud.

World Disruption Highlights the Value of Servant Leadership

The ongoing world crisis has given a new recognition to servant leadership.

Benjamin Laker writing in Forbes noted how ongoing economic instability has shifted the dynamics of doing business: many organizations must be more flexibly structured to remain in business.

“When small teams within an organization are self-organizing and driving innovation and improvement through customer interactions, leadership can focus on providing clear strategic intent and direction, providing a guiding light for its agile teams to follow.”

This collaborative structure, noted David Cobb, lecturer in talent management, innovation and leadership, allows for more interaction not only with – but between teams, a structure he’s called the “Broken Triangle.”

The Broken Triangle illustrates:

  • Rather than individual efforts, cooperative work is recognized.
  • Group efforts determine rewards – not individual effort.
  • Individual rewards are recognized by the contributions to the group.

And while the structure of an organization may change, it still needs a committed leader. Instead of the traditional role as an enforcer of rules, a leader becomes an enabler. Listening to the feedback of groups, a leader enables, by providing a guiding light for their teams to follow.

Cobb stresses the new structure is not idealistic, but instead inverts the pyramid of importance, focusing on assisting customer-facing teams. And in today’s unsettled business climate, such a strategy allows organizations to maintain a competitive edge while fostering growth and innovation.

Maintaining Peace During the Pandemic

The pandemic has affected everyone worldwide.

For leaders, however, chaos doesn’t happen sporadically. Disruptions are often a part of their daily role, attempting to navigate smoothly amidst a myriad of human actions that oftentimes erupt into heated workplace tensions.

Vivian Giang, writing in Fast Company, has some suggestions to follow when smooth sailing suddenly turns into collaborative chaos:

  1. Transform foes into allies. When those around us begin to trust us more, they won’t feel as threatened. Transforming our mindset about “foes” can also be empowering – for all involved.
  2. Amp up those communication abilities. Misunderstandings and tensions often arise over miscommunication. Leaders must make sure to understand the range of communication styles in those they work with.
  3. Learn to listen impartially. Don’t stop someone from communicating, because it fosters a feeling of “you’re not listening to me.”
  4. Be aware of hidden motives. Because of the tumultuous times, extraneous issues may be brought up. Learn to zoom in on what is relevant – and never waiver from cultivating peace when faced with any conflict.

Inspiration or Motivation: Which Is It?

International author and speaker on management and leadership Kevin L. McCrudden cites that research over many years has shown money has rarely been the highest form of motivation.

Using the United Nations as an example, he notes that when hired, people are energized and inspired, often filled with enthusiasm.

Then, something happens. That once-inspired employee becomes frustrated.

“Ultimately, people come to work for their direct manager; or, conversely, they leave because of their direct manager. He or she either “inspires” or “motivates” staff, or is uninspiring or demotivating.”

He cites Peter Drucker, American management icon, who said:

“Leadership is doing the right things; management is doing things right.”

Leaders must continually inspire and motivate, a challenging responsibility during these chaotic times. Yet, we know that impactful leaders can foster energized and enthusiastic organizations. As McCrudden noted:  “The culture of rewarding positive performance enables people to feel good about working hard and doing their job well.”

Today, more than ever before, leaders need to develop their own inner peace, draw on it, and cultivate that peace in those they lead. Leaders must listen loudly, foster respect, recognize efforts, and be a lighthouse of strength that is boldly visible to their team.

In the words of Simon Sinek,

“A boss has the title, a leader has the people.”

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For Effective Leadership Amid COVID-19, Strengthen the Gratitude Muscle

In striving for strong leadership, there’s a plethora of books, seminars and workshops for guidance explaining just what makes up an impactful leader.

Yet, oftentimes the simplest strategies can be overlooked.

Like practicing gratitude.

It’s powerful.

The Many Benefits of Being Grateful

According to Star Dargin, author of Leading with Gratitude:  21st Century Solutions to Boost Engagement and Innovation, gratitude is powerfully positive:

Studies show that gratitude improves well-being and health; people who are grateful live longer, their bodies heal more quickly, and they experience less depression.

Dargin writes that in going through dozens of books on leadership, she found similar words being repeated such as: appreciation, thankfulness, recognition and positivity. She calls them ‘flavors’ of gratitude – without being true gratitude.

Dargin digs deeper and states engagement, celebration and recognition are methods a leader can use to show gratitude, but are not quite gratitude, either. She sums up by explaining that using the word gratitude in its pure form – by saying, “I’m grateful” comes from the heart.

How does a leader who practices gratitude perform?

According to Dargin, they don’t act defensively. They listen more. They are accepting.

She gives an example of a coaching client, who though talented and skilled, felt the CIO undermined him. He didn’t feel gratitude.

Through her coaching sessions, she was able to shift her client’s focus to one of gratitude. As a result, he was able to recognize a few things about the CIO to be grateful for. Her client then showed more innovation and discovered ways to interact with the CIO. He no longer thought about resigning from the company.

“If you count all your assets, you always show a profit.”

-Robert Quillen

Transforming from Reluctance to Gratefulness

Consultant Stephanie Pollack teaches the power of appreciation and gratitude.

Kira M. Newman, writing in Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, notes that Pollack was hired to assist in an organization’s transition that created an upheaval for employees. Everything was changing:  leadership, culture and rules – much as COVID-19 has altered life for everyone.

Stephanie explained to reluctant employees about the power of recognizing the good things in their lives and expressing their thanks. She witnessed a transformation:

After one employee composed a genuine thank you note and posted it on an ‘appreciation wall,’ everyone was soon doing the same. Although the employees began the retreat with frustration and anxieties, at the end, Pollack noticed in everyone a willingness to move forward together, in a different way.

Studies link gratitude in the workplace to:

  • Less stress, fewer health complaints, reduced sick days
  • Greater positive emotions, higher satisfaction with jobs and with coworkers

Newman also notes the power of gratitude: it recognizes all the positives in our lives – outside of ourselves. Culturally we tend to believe we alone are responsible for our own promotions and careers – and are hesitant to acknowledge any reliance on others.

As a leader, are you taking the time to notice the good? Are you being grateful for even the very smallest things – and not letting them go unnoticed?

Gratitude:  A Simple Ingredient in the Recipe of Life

Sometimes, the simple things in life really are free – and bring rich rewards.

Such is gratitude. Simple to practice as a leader, with an avalanche of impactful benefits.

Perhaps out of the chaos and pain we have collectively experienced because of COVID-19, we can come away with a stronger sense of gratitude for the good in our lives.

Sabina Nawaz writing in Harvard Business Review notes that in a crisis, thanking others is vital. And while we often feel more thankful than we actually express, states Nawaz, thankfulness seems to be least expressed at work.

The ongoing pandemic and global unrest has understandably left people feeling worried, weary and anxious. As a leader, it’s important to take time to focus on the positives in our organizations – that may have been overlooked in the tumultuous times we’re living in.

Nawaz offers suggestions to leaders to cultivate an atmosphere of gratitude:

  1. Schedule a gratitude shower. Set aside a time each day for a few minutes and type out compliments for fellow workers.
  2. Be specific with your thanks. Dig deeper and take the time to contemplate & explain the way it benefited you.
  3. Honor someone each week by naming a Star Attraction. It’s a powerful way to boost positive energy. When we’re feeling stressed, we sometimes overlook the hard work & efforts our team members are putting forth. This is a great way to emphasize a “we” rather than a “me” focus.
  4. Make gratitude a pay it forward act. To those who have been thanked for their efforts, encourage them to write a note of appreciation to someone else.
  5. Show gratitude as a team. Along with others, combine your gratitude efforts for even greater impact that has a ripple effect of positivity throughout the organization.

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.”

— William Arthur Ward

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Leading Through Grief in a Post COVID World

During the 1950s, Harry Levinson said “all change is loss, and loss must be mourned.”

The economic losses caused by COVID-19 have brought harsh realities: layoffs turning into terminations and financial limbo becoming the norm for many.

Yet, there are losses that lie deeper than financial calamities.

The losses vary in their scope and depth: some have lost loved ones. For others, days of the office coffee break and comradery are gone. Social events, whether a relaxed dinner out with friends or large family gatherings, have taken a step back. We’ve all lost our cherished routine. We’re all grieving in some way.

Leaders are Impacted by Grief, Too

Leaders are not immune to this time of grief, of profound change. As we witness those around us who are worn, weary and working on auto pilot, we too, are affected.

Denial is a common survival mode. For us to continue to be strong, bold leaders, we must move from denial, recognize the grief in others, and show empathy and compassion for those we lead – and for our own feelings, too.

For those around us that are hurting, we must take time to listen.

Really listen. Bring people together to share their stories, their feelings. And as a leader, affirm confidently that they will emerge stronger from this crisis – even if it may not seem so at the moment.

Unchecked Grief Can Have Profound Impacts

As a leader, ask yourself: Am I allowing for the mourning process in my organization?

Folks are numb with grief. Unchecked, grief can overwhelm the body. According to Marissa Levin writing in Inc., grief can cause significant physiological, neurological and emotional changes. Memory is affected – and it can be years before full cognitive abilities return.

Levin wrote of three professors from major business schools who followed the performance of 75,000 Danish companies two years before – and after – the CEO suffered a family loss. Their findings reveal the profound impact of loss and grief, such as at least a 10% decrease in financial performance following the loss of a loved one.

Additionally, Levin writes that grief can cause increased physical ailments and can even increase risk of a heart attack by 21 times.

Aaron De Smet writes in McKinsey & Company, “the prolonged levels of uncertainty and disruption will only add to the grief and anxiety that employees experience.”

Now is not the time for worn out, compassionless phrases like, “Time heals,” or “You’ll get over it.” Nor is it a time to judge others, either. It’s a time to come together to express feelings, losses and expectations.

“How far you go in life depends on your being

tender with the young, compassionate with the aged,

sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong.

Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.”

– George Washington Carver

Mourning the Losses and Moving Toward Healing

De Smet writes the grieving process helps us recognize and accept our emotions. But where to start?

According to De Smet:

  1. Limit denial. No one knows how life will be post COVID-19, so refrain from careless phrases like “toughing this out.” Be mindful of people’s emotional challenges: ask questions, acknowledge feelings. Set aside time for this for your staff – and yourself as well.
  2. Learn what people miss – and acknowledge it instead of taking a “just get over it” mentality. Have staff bring in photos or mementos of what they’re missing. One team found this reduced the sense of loss and created stronger bonds of trust.
  3. Combine empathy and compassion. “It’s not the efficacy of the action that helps, but the willingness and genuine intention to help or support that is key,” writes De Smet.

Levin also notes ways to move through grief: While they may sound simple, they are impactful:

  • Know that you’re not alone in your grief
  • Ask for – and accept – help

We must all give ourselves permission to grieve fully. Take time away from the business you lead to heal, for as Anne Grant so aptly states:

“Grief is a normal and natural response to loss. It is originally an unlearned feeling process. Keeping grief inside increases your pain.”

And, as most, if not all, of us have experienced, pain keeps us from being our most productive selves.

Sarah Deren in Fast Company writes that however hard loss is, by not sugarcoating it, resiliency is born. She urges leaders to recognize and acknowledge the losses your staff is experiencing and affirm that together, you can – and will – emerge stronger.

Leadership in a Post COVID-19 World

No one can predict what a post COVID-19 world will look like. We’re all experiencing an upheaval that is affecting each of us the same – but differently.

As a leader, by demonstrating compassion and empathy during this time, by designating a time regularly for your employees to share their grief and concerns, you can heal as a team and your organization can move from pandemic panic to post pandemic resiliency.

“Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.”

-Anne Roiphe

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Behind Every Crisis, New Opportunity Awaits Leaders

COVID struck the world with little warning.

There was no preparation. That’s the hallmark of a crisis: sudden, intense upheaval that disrupts life – or business – in every way. A wrong move could bring even more disaster.

Yet behind every crisis is a yet-to-be-discovered opportunity. Shrouded by the intensity of a crisis, new ways of doing business await the leader who through vision and holding, will emerge from a challenge – and be stronger from it.

And her resilience, her capacity to recover from the difficult times, will serve as an anchor when another crisis occurs.

“Any deep crisis is an opportunity to make your life extraordinary in some way.”

— Martha Beck, Author

A Great Leader Possesses Vision and Holding

In Harvard Business Review, Gianpiero Petriglieri explains the psychology involved in effective leadership during a crisis.

In his work over the past 20 years, each time he asks the question, “What makes a good leader?” responses from managers, students and senior executives offered the same response: vision. It’s an ideal people can strive for; it gives a sense of direction to follow.

But a true leader cannot rest on vision alone. During a crisis, many leaders take action, Petriglieri notes, but often flounder. What they need, he believes, is a type of holding.

In psychology, the word has a precise meaning: it is the way a person, usually one in authority, contains and interprets events taking place during precarious times. During the pandemic, a leader with holding reassures his team that the company can withstand the crisis, that jobs will be secure, and further provides strategies for developing new business in the future.

He cites a recent disaster: the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While some executives lost faith in the company, others reinforced their efforts and commitment. Despite the immensity of the spill, those who worked closely with their bosses and colleagues on clean-up efforts and heard upper management’s positive messages, were reassured. Their belief in BP’s integrity and future viability was strengthened.

Petriglieri summed up the benefits of holding:

“Being held as we work through a crisis… is more useful than being told how bright the future is.”

Powerful Leadership During A Crisis

For leaders, strategizing new business methods amidst a crisis requires thoughtful deliberation, but a pandemic adds the burdens of health and safety concerns as well.

Chris Nichols, Shoma Chatterjee Hayden and Chris Trendler wrote in Harvard Business Review that after conducting more than 21,000 leadership assessments among C-suite executives, their CEO Genome research team discovered:

To move forward in a crisis, four specific behaviors are necessary:

  1. Decide rapidly. Top leaders analyze information, glean what matters, and make decisions with confidence.
  2. Fearlessly adapt. Great leaders are not afraid to ask questions when needed or bring in expertise to develop new strategic plans.
  3. Consistently deliver. Ensure priorities are documented and review them frequently.
  4. Engage with your team. Check in daily, making sure to communicate on a personal level first – then focus on business.

Self-Care During Times of Crisis is Essential

Leaders are expected to take care of everyone and everything. Yet, making a commitment to self-care is vital: how can we take care of others if we don’t first take care of ourselves?

“An empty lantern provides no light.

Self-care is the fuel that allows your light to shine brightly.”– Unknown

While we’re expressing empathy for others, we need to acknowledge that we need empathy as well. A McKinsey & Co. article noted the tremendous importance of taking care of ourselves. And don’t forget the power of gratitude: the more gratitude we give, the more abundance we receive as well.

It’s also vital to take time to re-discover what we love. When we find ourselves feeling depleted, it’s time to divert, to do something we enjoy. Whether that’s finding a power spot out in nature or taking a brief respite in the solitude right within the office, do it.

McKinsey & Co. noted that because of the pandemic, many leaders are talking about their companies’ purpose and what they stand for. Sharing stories of how your company goes above and beyond during the pandemic lifts others up – and serves as an inspiration for all.

We tend to focus on the negative during a crisis. But for true leaders, there is a deeper realization that it’s time to do business another way…a better way.

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” -John C. Maxwell

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To Question or To Answer: What Does a Great Leader Do?

A common fallacy is that great leaders never have to ask questions – they inherently have all the answers.

But authentic leaders know that nothing could be further from the truth.

Impactful Leaders Realize the Power in Asking Questions

Jim Schleckser writing in Inc. compared a leader’s capacity to answer every question directed to them to that of a switchboard operator, trying to make the right connections to solve all the organization’s issues. And that, he says, not only limits leadership, but limits the organization’s growth as well.

Bold, impactful leaders know the tremendous power in asking questions. By asking the right questions, team members learn to strategize on their own to solve issues. And in this discovery, they strengthen their ability to figure out problems and heighten their self-esteem in the process: and that’s a win-win situation for growth and expansion.

“Good leaders ask great questions that inspire others to dream more, think more, learn more, do more, and become more.”

-John C. Maxwell

But there are times when leaders must ask questions – not only as part of personal growth, but of leadership growth as well.

And what are the common questions successful leaders oftentimes ask?

Most Leaders Will Relate to These Common Questions

As a Forbes Coaches Council Expert Panel wrote, there’s no shame in a successful business professional asking questions. Yet some leaders feel embarrassed and conflicted, realizing that others look to them for answers.

The Council discovered oftentimes many leaders question the same issues. Among the most commonly asked questions leaders faced:

  1. What do I do now? Leaders often ask this when their companies are flourishing, as they ponder the future.
  2. What do I need to change? Everyone realizes how difficult change is. Authentic leaders accept (and welcome) change when necessary to achieve strategic goals.
  3. Is it normal to feel like an imposter? Many leaders feel that others see inflated images of their abilities. Imposter syndrome is all too common.
  4. What if I don’t have all the answers? Appearing to have all the answers makes some leaders feel invulnerable. True leaders know they don’t have the answers to all questions…no one does.
  5. Is self-doubt normal? As the Forbes Council noted, all leaders have their own self-doubts – and think they’re the only ones who do. Not so. It’s a part of being human.
  6. How do I respond to sexist comments? Many leaders admit to being caught off guard and wish they had been better prepared.

Most leaders will be able to relate to these questions.

The realization that other successful leaders have the same internal dialogue may better enable us to reach out to others and share thoughts and reflections. The result? Deeper, more meaningful partnerships built on authenticity.

Creating Effective Dialogue in the New Virtual Reality

Whether it’s asking questions or providing answers, many regular face-to-face meetings have been replaced by a virtual environment as part of the new era of social distancing. For some, it’s an awkward way of communication.

Melissa Raffoni writing in Harvard Business Review notes that not only is it more difficult to ‘read’ people via on-line meetings, but distractions can easily pull people’s attention away in many different directions. All is not lost, Reffoni says – it’s a matter of requiring new skills, whether a bit of technical know-how or re-thinking strategy.

She offers 5 questions to ask as we lead in the new virtual environment:

  1. Are we being strategic enough?
  2. How up to date are our communication plans?
  3. Review employee responsibilities in the new virtual environment: some people may thrive online; others need more support. Are our employees thriving on-line? If not, what do they need to flourish?
  4. How well are we focusing – and communicating – about the big picture?
  5. How can we further strengthen company culture?

Raffoni quotes Michael Porter from “What Is Strategy?”: “New [strategic] positions open up because of change…new needs emerge as societies evolve.”

Here’s a tip: Not all questions need to be directed outward. Most impactful leaders realize the importance of self-reflection, of time spent alone asking ourselves key questions. This can be a deep, profoundly insightful way to learn more about ourselves and how we interpret our experiences.

We all realize now that there is a new normal in life as a result of the pandemic. What is that new normal? It’s a realization that there isn’t one. What a paradox, right?

Bold leaders realize that there isn’t just one new normal, ask meaningful questions, seek impactful answers, and through their resilience, adapt to new ways of doing business. Today, may we all ask the important questions to spark great change.

“The little girl who asks, “Why is the sky blue?” becomes the woman who changes the world.”

-Sheryl Sandberg

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