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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