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Lesson #4 – Servant Leadership

Jean Bye

This column is the fourth of seven installments based on Jean Bye’s 2022 Hoyt Memorial Lecture delivered at CastExpo in Columbus, Ohio.

When we are young, we see leadership as an opportunity to be in charge, to have our own way, or to be our own boss. As we experience leadership, we realize the extreme amount of responsibility being a leader encompasses.

As a leader, you are responsible for the success of the organization and the livelihood of the employees. When you wait too long to deal with a toxic employee, and it makes life miserable for others—that is on you. I have seen the impact of several toxic employees on our organization. Many of them were extremely talented technically, but hard on the team. The solution is to embrace generous severance. As a servant leader you must do what is most important for the team’s health —even when the person is talented. 

Another leadership lesson is the realization that we cannot succeed as individual achievers. Even working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you cannot accomplish the goals of the organization without a full team motivated, educated, and pulling in the same direction. A lot of good books have been written on this subject but following are four things I personally found most important.
First, encourage initiative. Initiative is having the emotional commitment to try something new and to see it through. As a supervisor, allow employees to make their own mistakes if they are learning from their mistakes. Avoid telling them I told you so. Teach them to fail fast and to recognize when something is not working the way they thought it would. Give them the confidence to let go of it and try the next thing.

If you are a younger employee, sometimes you may have a boss who is too busy to get you answers and you see something that needs your initiative. You have a choice of waiting until your boss tells you, ask your boss what to do, recommend some actions, act and immediately tell your boss what you did, or finally, act on your own and routinely report back to your boss. Different solutions may be correct in different situations with various levels of risks (and different bosses), but often the best initiative lands in the last one where you take the initiative to act on your own and keep your boss well informed along the way.

Second, empathy builds loyalty. I’ve found over the years that it is so easy to build a negative fantasy. Negative fantasies are when, in the absence of full information, you think the worst. If you can step into the shoes of the other person, this often helps us overcome our natural tendency to create these negative fantasies. If you are going to create a fantasy in the absence of facts, why not create a positive fantasy and think the best of the person?

Third, think of your job as to be a servant. If you did nothing during a day except support and keep the team doing their best—that might be the most important value you can bring. When someone is overwhelmed, support them. Do not be afraid to dive in and get dirty. While you do not want to step in front of your employees’ team, and you don’t want to let them off the hook for what they can or should be doing—there is a time for pitching in and supporting the team. Be there to serve them instead of seeing that they are there to serve you.

Fourth, focus on communication. Be intentional about your communication style. Face the speaker. Make eye contact. Listen to non-verbal cues. Don’t interrupt, judge, jump to a conclusion, or start planning what you will say while they are still talking. Do stay focused, listen for intent, and ask clarifying questions.

Style matters, as well. Some people need longer conversational pauses, and if you like to fill the pauses you will shut down communication. If you really want to hear what they are thinking, allow pauses to match their communication style not yours. Another point in communication is what we often refer to as “Minnesota nice.” You may have to ask three times to get the real answer if the other person is simply being polite. An example might be when you ask someone if they have any thoughts on a subject and they do not … If you can ask them in three different ways, you may find they eventually believe you truly want to hear what they were hesitant to say. They may see you were not just asking out of politeness, but genuinely want to hear. Or simply be quiet. Police know that there are times they will get more information by being quiet and letting the other person fill that quiet. So be very intentional on how you use communication.

Zoom has helped many of us be more aware of our communication since it forces us to pause and doesn’t allow us to talk over the top of someone. If you are talking to someone who doesn’t give pauses to let you speak, you may find you have to say, “I’ve listened to you, now it is time for me to give me input.” Make an assertive comment that says, “My thoughts are important.”

TAKEAWAY #4: Servant leadership means putting the needs of the team ahead of your own needs and desires. Be intentional about truly listening and building up those around you. By putting others first your career will be enhanced.