Selfless love should be our overarching ethic.
For the follower of Jesus, the idea and example for servant leadership has been on the table for a very long time. Selfless love should be our overarching ethic — that thing we strive for in our life-long quest to be increasingly like Jesus in our leadership style. So compelling is the model, that the concept has spread beyond the circle of faith and permeated the secular world, where the introduction of servant leadership principles has proved to bring extremely positive change to the workplace; increasing satisfaction, productivity, and therefore, economic success. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that a principle modeled by Jesus Himself would yield such extraordinary benefit.
Fast forward 30 years from my first experience and understanding of servant leadership, and the idea has thickened and further formed in my mind. From both the journey of leading and the experiences of being led, I’ve come to believe that there is a three-part equation to true and effective servant leadership.
Lest you think I’m referring to the endless books, videos, and podcasts available on the subject of servant leadership (all valuable in some form), I believe there is a vastly greater importance to the commitment to understand those you are gifted to lead. My natural tendency is to evaluate ad nauseum my own gifts, needs and entitlements. While it is important to understand these things about myself, my commitment to servant leadership compels me to seek out, search for, inspire and confirm the possibilities for growth, achievement, joy and fulfillment in those under my leadership. The call to servant leadership compels me to care more about their fulfillment than my own, ultimately understanding that their success will equate to my joy and fulfillment as a leader. To do that well requires a constant and active commitment to understanding who they are.
One of my most memorable failures lies in this part of the servant leadership equation. I had the privilege to work with a young leader whose gifts I studied well, and had great confidence in. In keeping with my desire to grow his influence, I gave him a leadership role within my team. His methods used to achieve the excellence we held up as a standard were different than mine but aligned fully with the vision. In my naivety, and fearing failure, I continually dabbled in his arena, bringing frustration to him, and eventual disengagement. When he stopped engaging, I wrongly read that as an inability to commit to the rigors of leadership — something I see now as a leadership failure on my part. I was so concerned about failure (both his and mine), that I crippled his opportunity to grow under my leadership. Therefore, he gave up.
It’s a bit overused, the word, empower. Webster defines this as “to give official authority to.” To bring further clarity, Webster defines authority as “power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior.” That definition represents a lot of loss of control and most leaders struggle with this, particularly in the areas of their own gifting. It’s simply easier to empower someone to do something that you have no interest in or gifting for. I could cite countless incidents when my leadership has produced sloppy seconds when it comes to the real meaning of empowerment. The often-seen enactment of this verb falls short of its true meaning, largely for two reasons: the leader’s unwillingness to accept perceived failure, and a lack of time and attention given to point number one. The potential for failure is sharply diminished by a deeper and more complete understanding of the gifting and capability of someone we lead. When we choose to empower someone, we must match the authority we give them to the responsibility we place on their shoulders. We can’t override that, even when we fear for them or ourselves in the process. Mentoring, asking for clarification, making suggestions…all of these should be a natural part of empowering someone within a relationship of trust. But, in my experience, taking back control, or overriding decisions surrounding their version of “influencing thought, opinion or behavior” is crippling to the empowered, and hampering to the growth of both the person and the organization. The long and short? Don’t empower someone you don’t fully trust, and don’t allow yourself to believe that you have the only right way to achieve a shared vision. Finally, give people permission to try and fail. You will also need that permission from those you lead.
Taking a step to empower is not a “one and done” move. In fact, I would argue that it’s often easier to lead yourself than empower someone to grow in their leadership. After all the studying and releasing is done, accountability becomes a large and vital piece of servant leadership. Without clarity on what constitutes success, and a defined path for accountability along the journey, you endanger both your organization and the one you empower. Accountability isn’t the same as stepping back into the process inappropriately. Rather, it is a mutual understanding of goals and expectations and a systematic approach to their achievement that is understood by both parties. This understanding should create a safe space, with a large dose of encouragement, openness and patience, but also a clear and pre-determined clarity on consequences. Without this in place, your empowerment of one leader can sharply affect the success of other leaders within your organization and the organization’s success as a whole.
In a nutshell? Be a loving student of those you lead…be brave and selfless enough to let them fly…provide boundaries and accountability, but don’t dictate methodology — only vision and values.