In comic books and movies, the superhero always comes to possess some incredible power or skill, and he must decide whether to use it for domination or for the public good. For the rest of us, power is not quite as dynamic. More importantly, it seldom belongs to us. Power usually comes in the form of some type of leadership position, and rather than a battle between good and evil, we must grapple with what sort of leader to become.
It would be a mistake – and a common one – to assume that power should come with greater control. This is an attractive mistake, since people naturally seek greater control over their lives.
To the servant leader, however, power or control is not itself a goal, but rather a sacred set of obligations to the organization (community, team, group) that comes from its members.
With the right outlook, entering a leadership position is not like becoming super-powered from a blast of radiation, but it still opens up a wealth of new opportunities to better serve others. The parts of the position that are mistaken for “power” should instead be viewed as the tools to be used in the service mission.
Tools of the Trade
Writers and scholars have organized countless lists of the so-called “principles” of servant leadership. Typically, these will include everything from “listening” to “building community” as essential features of the philosophy. While these lists are helpful as resources, just keep a simple illustration in mind to grasp the core element:
Leaders are not the ones at the front of a group, being followed. True leaders are at the back of the group, making sure everyone is moving together and no one is left behind.
As a servant leader, you should know that your team is not there to make you look good; you are in charge of assisting your team, collectively and as individuals, to ensure that everyone has the support, direction, and confidence necessary to succeed. In some cases, this may mean listening, providing emotional support, or even using persuasive skills to get everyone on board. These are the tools of a servant leader—soft skills and interpersonal abilities that the leader uses to provide great service.
The tools and skills you need to do this will vary greatly, and acquiring them depends on your willingness to invest great time and energy in knowing your team’s strengths and weaknesses. It is also best to work closely with them, rather than to direct them from afar.
The Golden Rule
A great example of both the ideals and failings of servant leaders is the public sector. Elected or otherwise, public officials are unquestionably servants—or at least, they are supposed to be. Important figures in the civil sector were surveyed regarding what they think makes a good leader, and nestled among the top four qualities of public servants is selflessness—that is, putting their duty to their constituents ahead of their own interests or gain.
Now, if the cynic in you is dismissive of public officials proclaiming their selflessness and honesty, bear in mind that, as a leader, you now have the opportunity to either reinforce or contradict these negative stereotypes.
If you hate seeing your representatives favor friends and supporters just because they can—why accept that from yourself? You tire of learning that your elected leaders have been out partying, traveling, and taking every perk available to them instead of working for you —so how often do you reward yourself ahead of your peers?
To gauge whether you are applying a double standard as a leader, take a critical look at what behavior disgusts and disappoints you in civil servants and elected officials. The scale and the setting may be different, but the negative image they create is the same.
All in This Together
The problem with popular notions of leadership, and part of why civil servants so often disappoint, is that they tend to rely on a pyramid structure of leadership. Those at the bottom support those above them, with one slightly smaller layer resting on top of the slightly larger one beneath it until finally one bright, shining individual or small group ascends to the highest point, enjoying all the perks and benefits of the top seat.
The leaders developed through this model are too often simply those who wanted to get themselves to the next level, not those who empowered their peers to elevate the whole group. In essence, these leaders are above those they lead.
This creates a sort of closed-door leadership, where higher-ups are segregated from the rest and the distinction between “leadership” and “everyone else” is reinforced on both sides. Even worse, it fosters competition—among the team, between different leaders, or even between the leaders and their own team.
What a servant leader recognizes is that leaders are still part of the group, and they can’t move anywhere—upward, forward, onward—without taking the whole group along. Engagement is critical for both parties to succeed, but leaders must take the initiative to keep the door open and to communication strong.
The Power of Yes
A fantastic way to foster collaboration and reduce competitiveness is to try a simple technique: always say yes.
For anyone who has ever practiced or watched improv comedy, this technique might be familiar. To keep the act going, each new improvised idea has to be embraced and built upon by the other comics, otherwise, the act collapses. The same concept can be applied in the workplace; even if you want to move in a different direction or support a different idea, find a way to say “Yes!” to alternatives and bring them into the fold.
This tactic may seem like more work than merely shooting down bad ideas or using authority to pick a direction, but saying yes does something more important than preserving momentum: it creates inclusion. The more that each person on your team feels like a valued, active member, the more he or she will want to support the mission of the team and the vision you are sharing with them.
With Great Power…
To succeed as a leader, it is important to never forget that any power your position carries comes from your subordinates, not from your superiors. How you influence your team or organization depends on how well you enable them. As the tagline from Spider-Man says, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
That may be a fine motto for superheroes who are inherently powerful as individuals, but for an accountable leader, the motto should be “Great power is great responsibility.” Your team is counting on you to empower them—not yourself. The team’s success counts on your service.
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