The best leaders are those who truly learn to serve others.
They learn how to put employees first.
They learn how to flip the hierarchy.
Even though the hierarchy of most organizations flow from the many up to the few, the best leaders know that their job is actually to flip that hierarchy to help the many figure out how to do their best work.
There’s been decades of research on varying models of leadership—transformational leadership, servant leadership, authentic leadership, and on and on—but while they differ in the details almost all are united in their assertion that leadership isn’t just about being in charge, but also about serving those in your charge.
But for all that is said and written about leaders as servants, there’s very few words about exactly how that is done. There’s a difference between taking care of your people and being taken advantage of by your people. So in this article, we’ll outline five different ways great leaders serve their team not by giving up their power, but by using it to empower their team.
Remove What’s Blocking Their Progress
The first way that great leaders serve the team is to remove what’s blocking their progress. There’s an outdated model of management that assumes the primary role of a manager or team leader is to monitor performance and allocate resources—to make sure objectives are met. But in the modern workplace, merely monitoring performance doesn’t ensure goals are met. We work in the most collaborative era in the history of work, and that means much of an individual’s or team’se success is going to depend on outside factors. And that means it’s the leader’s job to watch out for those outside factors and work to eliminate any that are blocking the team.
That does mean leaders need to monitor performance, but it also means that merely giving individual feedback on performance isn’t enough. It means fighting for extra resources at times, or building relationships with other teams or clients whose work is also needed to achieve the objective. Sometimes it even means fighting internally up the hierarchy to get the resources or permission the team needs. It’s not about merely tracking progress; it’s about seeing down the road and removing the obstacle that block progress.
Invest in Growth and Development
The second way that great leaders serve the team is to invest in growth and development. And this investment is usually above and beyond whatever training and development opportunities are available by default. Great leaders make sure their people are aware of what development opportunities are available, but also fight for their people to be a part of them. In addition, great leaders create their own development opportunities, either by starting small things like book clubs or large things like finding the budget to attend conferences and workshops together.
Growth and development also means having regular conversations about individual team member’s career ambitions and co-creating plans to get them there. Sometimes, that even means having very honest conversations about how one star team member’s future lies somewhere outside the organization and still finding ways to help them develop the skills and find the opportunities needed to get there. Great leaders know every team is temporary. So, the best teams are ones that leave each team member ready to thrive on new teams as well. And the same extends to organizations. The way to become a great place to work is to also be a great place to have worked as well.
Encourage Candor and Risk -Taking
The third way that great leaders serve the team is to encourage candor and risk-taking. Teams function best when there is diversity of thought and also freedom felt by each individual to express that diversity of thought. This idea was first popularized by researcher Amy Edmondson, who coined the term “psychological safety” to describe a team climate marked by the freedom to express oneself and take risks. Great leaders make psychological safety part of their team’s climate.
When teams feel psychological safety, they speak up more during brainstorming and decision meetings and speak up much more when they disagree with the consensus. As a result, the team explores more possibilities and makes better informed decisions. And when a team feels psychological safety, members of the team are skilled in debating ideas but doing so with mutual trust and respect. This keeps the disagreement task focused and prevents it from devolving into personal conflict. And when a team feels psychological safety, individual members of the team know they can try slightly different approaches to getting their work done. If they risk and win, they discover a better way to work. And if they risk and fail, they know that there are lessons to be learned and their leaders will help them turn failure into a learning opportunity. When that happens, everyone wins.
Foster Common Understanding
The fourth way that great leaders serve their team is to foster a sense of common understanding. Common understanding is the extent to which the members of a team know each other’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. They know their roles and responsibilities and have clear expectations—both what’s expected from them and what’s expected from everybody else on the team. They know who is working on what, and when it’s approximately going to be delivered. And they know when anyone else on the team is facing roadblocks and how to help.
But common understanding goes beyond just clarity of roles and responsibilities. Team members don’t just know the project; they know the people. They know each other’s work preferences and style. They know each other’s work rhythms. They know how to communicate best with each member of the team. As a result, collaboration soars and the team is able to achieve much more. This happens because great leaders take the time to get the team together for more than just reviewing tasks and delegating assignments. They take the time to let members of the team get to truly know each other—time that can feel wasted at first. But eventually, the return on that investment of time pays off in common understanding and enhanced collaboration.
Remind Them Why They’re Working
And the final way great leaders serve the team is to remind them why they’re working. Constantly. Great leaders keep purpose and mission at the center of their focus and remind the entire team how the effort their putting in serves that great purpose. This doesn’t necessarily mean that leaders can recite the company mission or vision statement at a whim (although that might help). Instead, it means that leaders can connect that mission statement to the day-to-day tasks the team is involved in.
Leaders answer the question of “why?” with “who” is served by the work that they do.
This who could be customers, stakeholders, society, or someone else. But it is always a real person who really gets help from the work being done. We know from research on “prosocial motivation” that humans are strongly motivated by a desire to help others. And we know from the experiences of teams and companies large and small that when you put a specific “who” at the center of the work, you get a more motivated and engaged worker. And so great leaders often become great storytellers, collecting and telling the stories of how the team is helping make others’ lives (or work) better.
There is a lot more to servant leadership than just these five simple actions. But what all five of these actions have in common is that they’re not about just blindly giving up power and turning all decisions and authority over to the team. That may work in some contexts. But more often, great leaders use the power given to them (by the organizational chart and by the consent of their team) to serve their team by providing for them what they can’t get on their own. Great leaders are servant leaders, not just servants. They know that because they’re in charge, they can better serve the people in their charge and help them do their best work ever.
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