Are You a True Servant Leader?

March 20, 2012

As a leader, are you adding value to your people? Without being a burden, that is?

In this age of autonomous, collaborative teams, true servant leaders need to ask themselves just that. At least as a starting point. I submit that the real answer to this question needs to come from those that you are serving, and not from within.

This question is important because the problem with the traditional, command-and-control model of management is that employees have to contend with overhead to provide a flow of information about what they are doing – and knowledge workers are the ones who know most about what they are dong – to others in management so that these managers can “direct” the employees more effectively.

And the overhead changes every time there is new leadership. Employees are continually contending with providing reports and information tailored to the preferred format of whoever is requiring the information. The unfortunate part about this is that too many management decisions are made with distorted information from offices or conference rooms that are at least once-removed from where the real action and day-to-day decisions are being made.

Speaking of distortion, there are also times when a form of a reality distortion field is involved; this was not confined to Steve Jobs. He excelled at it, but more than a few managers have the capacity of bending reality to their perspective as opposed to really hearing the employee’s take on the subject and working constructively with the employee to solve the real problem at hand.

When an employee enters a management reality distortion field like this, the positional authority of the manager can make for both an uncomfortable and less than helpful dialog that leaves the employee worse off than before, because a) the employee must still take action to satisfy the actual needs of the situation on the ground, and b) take additional action to satisfy the needs of management.

True servant leadership in a lean and agile context is a “go and see” approach – in real time, not through reports and not by summoning others to your office. An agile servant-leader adds value to those responsible for delivering to the customer without adding overhead. The focus is on improving the flow of value to the customer and supporting those who have direct responsibility for that delivery.