When you go on holiday this summer, will you be preoccupied with how things are going at work? Do you have low trust in your team’s ability to manage without you? Or perhaps your team doesn’t trust you, and they can’t wait for you to go on vacation, so they don’t have to look over their shoulder every minute of the day. Regardless of your situation, there’s never a right time to take a vacation from building trust.
The most important part of leadership is what happens when you’re not there.
High-control leaders are afraid to take time off of work and delegate to their team members. They’re concerned that when they’re not around, people will get off-course and do something stupid that will reflect badly on the leader. Trusted servant leaders, on the other hand, develop and empower their people so that they will perform just as well, if not better, on their own as they do when the leader is present.
This is especially critical in today’s remote and hybrid work culture. When you as the leader are physically located alongside your people, it’s easy to observe their working behaviors. But that’s an impossibility in today’s environment. The real proof that you are a trusted servant leader is how your people perform on their own. They know you trust them and they want to live up to the standards you have demonstrated.
That’s why I’d like to invite you to join me for the 8-week Summer of Trust leadership reflection series. Every Monday, from July 11 through August 29, you’ll receive a weekly email containing…
An inspirational and thought-provoking message on how to become a trusted servant leader
Practical actions steps for that week’s focus area that will help you implement the mindsets and skillsets of trusted servant leaders
A downloadable tool or resource to help you in your leadership journey of building trust
In my line of work, I get the opportunity to interact with leaders from a wide variety of organizations from a diverse range industries, including government and non-profits. A common factor that most are dealing with right now is adjusting to the new world of hybrid work.
Hybrid work means team members work from both the office and remotely. Some organizations employ a formal schedule that requires employees to be in the office certain days of the week, while others leave it to the discretion of the team member to be in the office as needed, usually for key meetings or events. Many organizations are trying to find the model that works best for their specific needs and goals.
The Great Trust Experiment
Although working virtually has been “a thing” for many years, the pandemic forced it upon organizations at a scale that couldn’t have been imagined just a few years ago. Literally overnight, organizations were forced to adopt a new model of working if they wanted to survive. Employers had to extend massive amount of trust to their employees in what I have called “The Great Trust Experiment.” By most accounts, the shift has been a success, with organizations experiencing increased growth and productivity, and employees reporting higher levels of well-being and satisfaction.
But old habits die hard. Many organizations are either calling their employees back to the office full-time or requiring them to be in the office certain days of the week.
Why? Well, most companies are saying that employees’ physical presence in the office is required to foster a healthy organizational culture, or that in-person interaction is required for innovative and creative work to take place.
Are those important factors? Absolutely. Is being in the office a prerequisite for those things to flourish? No.
So, I’m calling B.S.
The Opposite of Trust is not Distrust—it’s Control
I think the root factor driving most of these decisions is control.
We are in the early days of a transformation of how work is being defined in the 21st century. No longer is work a place you go to, but rather something you do. Since the very nature of work is being redefined, it’s also redefining the nature of leadership.
Since the industrial revolution, leadership has been governed by a command-and-control approach, where leaders were designated to make decisions (issue commands) and dictate (control) how the work is done. Employees have long been “human resources” that are merely a means to an end.
The digital age has rendered command-and-control leadership obsolete. For many occupations, work can be accomplished from literally anywhere, yet our mindset and approach to leadership is struggling to adapt to this new reality.
No Going Back to The “Old Days”
The genie is out of the bottle regarding remote work and there’s no putting it back in. The pandemic has caused people to re-evaluate their relationship with work and they’ve learned there’s a better way. And unlike any time in the past, employees have the lion’s share of power to make decisions about where and how they want to work.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating against the value and necessity of in-person work. Nothing yet invented can replace human-to-human interaction, and I doubt it ever will (although, I wouldn’t be surprised to see future technological innovation that closely mimics in-person interaction). I think in-person gatherings are critically important for team formation, bonding, and cultural development.
But I think it’s lazy leadership to blanketly mandate employees be in the office because “that’s what the office is for,” or “that’s how we did it before the pandemic.” I just had a conversation with a client this week who expressed her organization’s employees are struggling with being required to be in the office yet spend the entire day alone participating in virtual meetings.
A New Model of Leadership is Needed
We need more honest and introspective discussion about how organizations must shift in the years ahead if they want to attract and retain the best talent. We must adopt new mindsets about what leadership looks like and how our organizations operate in the future, rather than being stuck in our current mindsets of believing innovation/culture/teamwork/etc., can only happen when we’re together in person.
I think the future of work will look differently for each organization and employee. I think it will be a mosaic of options that take into account the unique needs of all the parties involved, but in order for that to happen, there has to be trust. Organizations need to let go of control and adopt a service-minded approach to leading.
Trusted servant leaders look to bring out the best in their team members. They put the needs of their followers ahead of their own. When team members believe their leader (and by extension, their organization) has their best interests at heart and is there to support them in achieving their goals, trust grows by leaps and bounds.
There are many questions we need to answer as we seek to define what work looks like in the hybrid world. I don’t have all the answers, and in fact, probably only have one: trusted servant leaders will be key to unleashing the potential and power of people and organizations in the years ahead.
There are a few four-letter words that leaders would like to use more at work. You can probably guess the words I’m thinking of because you’ve almost certainly wanted to use them yourself! (Or perhaps you have…or do!)
Although there is some research that advocates the benefits of cursing at work, I’m still old-school in my approach. My mother would frequently remind me that the language we use reflects our level of intelligence and maturity, so instead of using curse words, we should find better ways to express ourselves. I still roll that way.
So, you won’t be surprised that I’m not advocating leaders more frequently use the four-letter words that begin with F, S, and D. No, I’m suggesting leaders use the four-letter word that begins with L.
Most people have probably heard the “love passage” from the Bible read at a wedding or other special occasions. According to 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
I don’t know a better representation of the qualities of a trusted servant leader than the virtues listed in this passage. But if you ask someone who works for a self-serving leader to describe their boss, you’ll hear the opposite of these characteristics. Self-serving leaders are seldom perceived as patient or kind. They tend to envy others with more influence, brag about their accomplishments, and so on.
I believe servant leadership is love in action. And if love is the answer, perhaps the question is, “What do servant leaders lead with?
Do you want to know if your people see you as a servant leader? Well, if you’re up for the challenge, consider doing this:
List the personal traits from this passage and rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 (least to most) as to how much they describe you as a leader.
If you’re courageous, ask your team members to do the same. Make it anonymous.
Once you get the feedback, set up a meeting with your team, share what you’ve learned, and ask them how you could improve on the traits where you scored low.
Then—this is key—make changes in your leadership style to show them you are serious about improving.
One of the great things about love is that you don’t always have to say the word to let people know how you feel. You can demonstrate it through your everyday actions and interactions with your people. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with saying the word, too.
Love. It’s the four-letter word leaders need to use more often at work.
Life has been turned inside out and upside down the last few years, hasn’t it?
Political and social unrest, a global pandemic, a massive shift to remote work, record levels of low trust in institutions, supply chain bottlenecks, the Great Resignation, rising inflation, and now war in Ukraine, are just a few of the challenges affecting us in one way or another. We live in a topsy turvy world.
You may not want to hear this, but your leadership needs to be turned inside out and upside down, too.
What do I mean by that? I mean you can’t approach today’s leadership challenges with yesterday’s solutions. The tired and worn command and control style of leadership doesn’t work in today’s fast paced workplace. Leaders must be nimble, move quickly, and develop empowered teams who take ownership of their own work. Nor do today’s employees want to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. They want leaders who partner with them in a side-by-side fashion, they want autonomy without abandonment, and they want to work with people and organizations who serve a greater purpose than the almighty dollar.
The most persistent barrier to being a servant leader is a heart motivated by self-interest that views the world with an attitude of “give a little, take a lot.” Self-serving leaders put their own agenda, safety, status, and gratification ahead of others who are impacted by the leaders’ thoughts and actions. If leaders don’t get their heart right, they will never become servant leaders.
Upside Down Leadership
Simple Truth #3 from our book captures what it means to turn your leadership upside down:
Servant leaders turn the traditional pyramid upside down.
Command and control leadership loves the traditional hierarchical pyramid because it seems to make everything clean, simple, and easy. The leader is at the top and gets to issue commands to everyone further down the pyramid. What’s wrong with that? The minute you think you work for the person above you, you assume that person—your boss—is responsible and your job is to be responsive to your boss’s whims or wishes.
“Boss watching” can become a popular sport where people get promoted based on their upward-influencing skills. As a result, all the energy of the organization moves up the hierarchy, away from customers and the frontline folks who are closest to the action.
Servant leaders know how to correct this situation by philosophically turning the pyramid upside down. Customer contact people and the customers are at the top of the organization, and everyone in the leadership hierarchy works for them. This one change makes a major difference in who is responsible and who is responsive.
I believe that trusted servant leaders are the answer to today’s challenges. People are looking for deeper purpose and meaning as a way to meet the rapid changes happening in their lives. They are also looking for leaders they can trust and believe in—leaders whose focus is on serving the greater good.
You can be that leader! But, first you need to turn your leadership inside out—get your heart right and the actions will follow. Then, turn your leadership upside down—flip the organizational pyramid and start serving your people instead of them serving you.
“How do you practice servant leadership and build trust in a toxic culture where servant leadership isn’t valued, and can even be looked upon as being a weakness?”
That was the question I received in a recent training class I conducted, and unfortunately, it’s a common one. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of high-trust and servant leader-led cultures (see here, here, and here), many still view it as being a “soft” management style or “letting the inmates run the prison” (which, by the way, isn’t that a telling metaphor for today’s workplace?!).
There isn’t a single, magic solution you can implement to address this challenge. Believe me, if there was, I’d be selling it door-to-door. However, there are some commonsense principles you can apply to help you influence your organization for the better. Here are four things to consider:
1. Be the trust you want to see in the world. Ok, I borrowed and modified the famous saying attributed to Ghandi—”Be the change you want to see in the world”—but you get the idea. All organizational culture change starts with one person. In cases involving trust, someone has to make the first move to extend trust to others. Until that happens, trust can’t grow. If you want your organization’s culture to be more trustworthy, you be more trustworthy. Don’t underestimate the influence you can have on others.
2. Build a coalition. The first coalition to build is with your team. Work with your people to create a high-trust, service-minded culture that sets itself apart from all the other teams in your organization. There’s nothing like creating a winning team that causes others in the organization to say, “Wow, look what they’re doing! How come my team isn’t performing that way?” Once your team becomes living proof of the benefits of servant leadership, start sharing your learnings with other open-minded leaders.
3. Practice shuttle diplomacy. If you’re not familiar with the term, shuttle diplomacy is when a third-party acts as the mediator or conduit between two other parties who are reluctant to hold direct discussions. If you’re faced with senior leaders who aren’t sold on the idea of servant leadership, it can be helpful to enlist the advocacy of a third-party who is trusted and respected by those senior leaders. If you struggle with gaining credibility of senior leaders, gain the confidence and support of individuals who already have that credibility and get them to lobby on your behalf. Yes, it can be tiring and frustrating to influence indirectly, but sometimes it’s a reality of organizational politics. By the way, organizational politics is really just “relationship management.” Rather than thinking of it in negative terms, think of it as a necessary strategy for navigating organizational life.
4. Choose your playground. Remember what it was like as a kid playing on the playground at school or at the park? Sometimes there would be a group of kids that “didn’t play well with others,” and after trying to gain their friendship for a period of time and failing, we’d move to another playground and find a crowd that was more welcoming. In a sense, many workplaces are just adult playgrounds and that dynamic still exists. Some people “don’t play well with others” and aren’t open to changing their ways or trying new things. If you’ve been giving your best effort to positively influence your organization and nothing is changing, you may need to consider finding a new playground. I’m not encouraging you to fire off a resignation email to your boss, but I am reminding you that you have a choice. Invest your time and energy where you feel it can have the greatest impact.
Trust is a team sport, not a solo endeavor. You can build a high-trust, servant leadership culture by modeling the kind of behavior you want to see, creating a winning team, and building a supportive network. If your efforts aren’t being rewarded, you may need to find a different audience who is more receptive to your message. But don’t lose heart! The world is in desperate need for leaders who put the needs of others ahead of their own and your efforts will eventually bear fruit.
Effective leadership is an influence process where leaders implement everyday, commonsense approaches that help people and organizations thrive. Yet somehow, many of these fundamental principles are still missing from most workplaces.
The book covers a wide-ranging list of leadership skills certain to bring out the best in people. One of the things that make our approach different is the down-to-earth practicality of what we recommend. Instead of outcome or trait statements, the authors share leadership behaviors that get results.
How about you? What day-to-day leadership behaviors have made a big difference in your effectiveness as a leader?
Below are five examples of commonsense practices from our book. Are any of these on your list of simple leadership truths? Which of these have been powerful in your life as a leader? Which do you wish you would have learned earlier? What else would you include?
1. See Feedback as a Gift
Giving feedback to the boss doesn’t come naturally to most people, so getting honest feedback from your team members may be difficult. They may fear being the messenger bearing bad news, so they hesitate to be candid.
If you are lucky enough to receive feedback from one of your team members, remember—they’re giving you a gift. Limit yourself to three responses. Make sure the first thing you say is “Thank you!” Then follow up with “This is so helpful,” and “Is there anything else you think I should know?”
2. Help People Win
It’s hard for people to feel good about themselves if they are constantly falling short of their goals. That’s why it’s so important for you as a leader to do everything you can to help people win—accomplish their goals—by ensuring the following:
Make sure your people’s goals are clear, observable, and measurable.
As their leader, work together with your people to track progress.
When performance is going well or falling short of expectations, give them appropriate praising, redirecting, or coaching—or reexamine whether your leadership style matches the person’s development level on a specific goal.
3. Admit Your Mistakes
If you make a mistake, own it. Admit what you did, apologize if necessary, and then put a plan in place to not repeat the mistake. Here are some best practices you can follow:
Be prompt. Address the mistake as soon as possible. Delay can make it appear you’re trying to avoid or cover up the issue.
Accept responsibility. Own your behavior and any damage it caused.
Highlight the learning. Let your team know what you’ve learned and what you’ll do differently next time.
Be brief. Don’t over-apologize or beat yourself up. Mistakes happen.
4. Extend Trust
Many leaders are afraid to give up too much control for fear that something will come back to bite them. They think it isn’t worth the risk to give up control. Are you willing to give up control and trust others? If you struggle to relinquish control and trust others, start with baby steps:
Identify low-risk situations where you feel comfortable extending trust.
Assess a person’s trustworthiness by gauging their competence to handle the task, integrity to do the right thing, and commitment to follow through.
As you become more comfortable giving up control and learn that others can be trusted, extend more trust as situations allow.
5. Rebuild Trust When Broken
Leaders inevitably do something to erode trust—and when that happens, it’s good to have a process to follow to rebuild it. Trust can usually be restored if both parties are willing to work at it. If you have eroded trust in a relationship, follow this process to begin restoring it:
Acknowledge. The first step in restoring trust is to acknowledge there is a problem. Identify the cause of low trust and what behaviors you need to change.
Apologize. Take ownership of your role in eroding trust and express remorse for the harm it has caused.
Act. Commit to not repeating the behavior and act in a more trustworthy way in the future.
Interested in learning more? Join Ken and I for a special webinar on January 26 where we will be highlighting key concepts from our book. The event is free, courtesy of The Ken Blanchard Companies. Use this link to register.
We believe that leadership is an inside job; it’s a question of the heart. If you have the right character and intention, the right leadership actions will follow. You can’t “fake it ’till you make it” in leadership. People see right through the outward facade into the motivations of your heart.
The most persistent barrier to becoming a trusted servant leader is a heart guided by self-interest that looks at the world as a “give a little, take lot” proposition. Self-serving leaders put their own agenda, safety, status, and gratification ahead of others who are impacted by the leaders’ thoughts and actions.
The shift from self-serving leadership to leadership that serves others is a change of heart. If leaders don’t get the heart right, they will never become servant leaders. A misguided heart will color their thinking, impact their behavior, and cause them to begin every day by asking “What’s in it for me today?”
Our friend and best-selling author Jon Gordon says, “You don’t have to be great to serve, but you do have to serve to be a great leader.” The key to being a successful leader is pretty simple when you get to the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue is the heart is the issue.
Is your heart motivated to serve others or to serve yourself?
Download this free eBook to get an excerpt of some of the simple truths we discuss, see the full table of contents, and learn more about the story behind why we wrote the book.
Leadership is a complex endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.
We often tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and that’s true in the field of leadership. To prove my point, go to Amazon.com and search their book listings for the word “leadership” and see how many returns you get (but wait until you finish reading this article!).
What if I told you the key to being a successful leader was to make common sense common practice, and to do that, you need to remember and follow some important simple truths?
Ken Blanchard and I hold that belief and we’ve seen it proven throughout our careers. In our forthcoming book, Simple Truths of Leadership—52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust (February 1, 2022, Barrett-Kohler Publishers), we share a collection of simple truths that reflect common sense practices people can use to make their work and life—as well as the lives of the people they care about—happier and more satisfying.
Effective leadership is an inside job. It is a question of the heart. It’s all about a leader’s character and intention. Why are you leading? Is it to serve or to be served?
The most persistent barrier to being a servant leader is a heart motivated by self-interest. Self-serving leaders put their own agenda, safety, status, and gratification ahead of others who are impacted by the leaders’ thoughts and actions.
The shift from self-serving leadership to leadership that serves others is motivated by a change of heart. If leaders don’t get their heart right, they will never become servant leaders.
The following are two critical simple truths and suggestions on how to be a trusted servant leader.
Simple Truth—Servant leadership is the best way to achieve both great results and great relationships.
Organizational leaders often have an either/or attitude toward results and people. For example, leaders who focus only on results may have trouble creating great relationships with their people and leaders who focus mainly on relationships may have trouble getting desired results.
Yet you can get both great results and great relationships if you understand the two parts of servant leadership:
The leadership aspect focuses on vision, direction, and results—where you as a leader hope to take your people. Leaders should involve others in setting direction and determining desired results, but if people don’t know where they’re headed or what they’re meant to accomplish, the fault lies with the leader.
The servant aspect focuses on working side by side in relationship with your people. Once the vision and direction are clear, the leader’s role shifts to service—helping people accomplish the agreed-upon goals.
Making Common Sense Common Practice
This one-two punch of the aspects of servant leadership enables you to create both great results and great relationships:
Let your people know what they’re being asked to do by setting the vision and direction with their help. In other words, vision and direction, while the responsibility of the leader, is not a top-down process.
During implementation, assure your people you are there to serve, not to be served. Your responsibility is to help them accomplish their goals through training, feedback, listening, and communication.
Servant leadership is the vehicle to building trust. Servant leaders act in ways that inspire trust in their followers. They are distinguished by putting the needs of their followers ahead of their own.
When team members believe their leader has their best interests at heart and is there to support them in achieving their goals, trust in their leader grows by leaps and bounds.
Trust is an outcome. If we act in trustworthy ways, we build trust. If we behave in an untrustworthy manner, we erode trust. It’s common sense—but not always common practice.
Simple Truth—Leadership begins with trust.
Some leaders charge headlong into setting strategies and goals for their teams without giving much thought to building trust. Yet trust is the foundation of any successful, healthy relationship. When you have the trust of your team, all things are possible. Creativity, innovation, productivity, efficiency, and morale flourish. If your team doesn’t trust you, you get resistance, disengagement, apathy, and, ultimately, failure.
The most successful leaders realize their number one priority is to build trust with their team. Trustworthy leaders demonstrate competence in their roles, act with integrity, show care and concern for team members, and honor their commitments by following through on their promises.
Making Common Sense Common Practice
Does your team perceive you as trustworthy? If you’re not sure, ask them. Here are a few sample questions:
Do you have confidence in my leadership/management abilities? Where or how can I improve?
Do I walk my talk? Where can I be more consistent in my behavior?
How well do I listen to you? Do our interactions leave you feeling heard, valued, and supported?
Am I dependable? Do you trust that I’ll follow through on my commitments?
Demonstrating your vulnerability by having a discussion with your people about trust is a powerful way to introduce servant leadership in your workplace.
Leadership is complex but we don’t need to make it complicated. Following simple truths of leadership is the way to turn common sense into common practice. Keep it simple!
Power. The word itself evokes a reaction. What thoughts or feelings do you have when you think of power? Perhaps you picture an organizational chart where the boxes at the top are imbued with more power than those below. Maybe you imagine an iron fist, representative of a person who rules over others with absolute authority. Or perhaps the word power conjures up feelings of nervousness, anxiety, or fear, based on negative experiences you’ve had in the past. On the flip side, maybe the word power emboldens you with excitement, energy, or drive to exert your influence on people and circumstances in your life.
I recently spoke at the Training 2020 Conference & Expo on the topic of Servant Leadership. After my presentation, a participant approached me to discuss how servant leaders use power. You see, she had noticed on one of my PowerPoint slides that I had said servant leaders “seek more influence.” That seemed contradictory to her. Servant leaders seeking more power? Why?
I explained that power is a dynamic present in all of our relationships and it’s one we need to properly manage to help our relationships develop to their fullest potential. In and of itself, power is amoral; it’s neither good or bad. The way we use power is what determines its value.
But what is power? How do we get it? And once we have it, how do we keep it?
In his book, The Power Paradox: How we gain and lose influence, author and U.C. Berkeley professor of psychology Dacher Keltner, shares twenty “power principles” that range from how we earn power, how to retain it, why power can be a good thing, when we’re likely to abuse it, and the dangerous consequences of powerlessness.
Keltner defines power as the capacity to make a difference in the world, particularly by stirring others in our social networks. Focusing on the needs and desires of others is key, and four specific social practices—empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, and telling stories—are ways we develop power and sustain it over time. These four keys are in alignment with the benevolent use of power in a servant leadership context.
Enduring Power Comes from a Focus on Others
1. Enduring power comes from empathy—We express empathy when we focus on what other people are feeling. We attune ourselves to their mannerisms, language, expressions, and tone of voice to gain a sense of their emotions. This promotes a sense of connection and trust with others that allows them to be vulnerable and authentic in their behavior. We can promote empathy in several practical ways: asking open-ended questions, listening actively, asking others what they would do in a given situation before offering advice, and soliciting the opinions of those in less powerful positions.
2. Enduring power comes from giving—Giving, without the expectation of receiving something in return, is a tremendous trust builder and leads to people being willing to grant you power in relationships. Keltner focuses on a particular form of giving: touch. Whether it’s politicians shaking hands, athletes high-fiving each other, or a boss giving an affirmative pat on the back, there is tremendous power in the human touch. A reassuring touch on the shoulder or warm embrace causes the release of oxytocin in the brain, a neurochemical that promotes trust, cooperation, and sharing, and also lowers blood pressure and fights the negative effects of the stress-inducing hormone cortisol. The overarching principle of giving is that it’s a way of providing reward and recognition to others that promotes goodwill.
The key to enduring power is simple: Stay focused on other people. Prioritize others’ interests as much as your own. Bring the good in others to completion, and do not bring the bad in others to completion. Take delight in the delights of others, as they make a difference in the world. — Dacher Keltner
3. Enduring power comes from expressing gratitude—Gratitude is the feeling of appreciation we have for things that are given us, whether it’s an experience, a person, an opportunity, or a thing. Importantly, it’s something that has been given to us, not something we’ve attained on our own. Expressing gratitude is a way to confer esteem on others and we can do that in a number of ways: acknowledging people in public, notes or emails of affirmation, and spending time with others. Expression of gratitude spreads goodwill within a team and causes social bonding.
4. Enduring power comes from telling stories that unite—Abraham Lincoln is an excellent example of a leader who used the power of storytelling to communicate important truths and unite people in working toward a common goal. Families, sports teams, businesses, and organizations of all kinds have a history that is communicated through story. Members of these groups establish their identities and understand their role in the group based on those stories. Stories enhance the interests of others and reduces the stress of working in a group. They also help us interpret the events going on around us and shape the way we deal with the challenges we encounter. Stories bring us together and foster the sharing of power that is necessary in organizational life.
Power is often perceived in a negative light. The natural reaction of many is to associate power with Machiavellian attempts at preserving self-interest and exerting dominance over others. It doesn’t have to be that way. Servant leaders know the best use of power is in service to others, and the four principles Keltner advocates are an excellent way to develop and sustain power in a way that allows you to influence others to make a positive difference in the world.
I recently watched an excellent TED talk, which I think you’ll love, too. It’s about why the best leaders make loving employees a higher priority than profit.
Since the talk is only 9 minutes long, and the topic is an important, yet nuanced one, I have interviewed the speaker, Matt Tenney, to give you a deeper exploration of the topic. After you watch the video of Matt’s talk, I think you’ll enjoy my interview with him, which is below.
1. When you talk about loving employees, you say you’re not talking about a touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy emotional feeling, but rather being concerned about the long-term well-being of team members. Can you give some examples of how leaders can show commitment to an employee’s well-being?
Some general examples include frequently asking about and seeking out ways that we as leaders can help team members to be happier both at work and at home.
This can include removing obstacles that prevent people from doing their best work, reducing bureaucracy, facilitating skillful communication around problems in the workplace, setting clear boundaries between home and work so that employees don’t feel that they need to be checking emails and texts when they’re not at work, and investing time and resources in helping team members grow both personally and professionally.
A specific and counter intuitive, yet extremely impactful example of being committed to the well-being of team members, is refusing the demands of a customer when those demands create unnecessary negative impacts on the well-being of team members. This is something most, if not all, business leaders can relate to.
We have all dealt with external customers who are extremely demanding, not very grateful, and who create lots of stress for team members. A leader who is truly committed to the well-being of team members as the top priority would have a candid conversation with this customer and let them know that if they do not change their ways, the organization would no longer be able to serve them.
This doesn’t mean that the leader doesn’t love the customer. The leader could certainly refer that customer to a competitor who would take care of them.
Supporting team members in this way is a powerful demonstration of love and a powerful way to build loyalty with team members. And, I’m confident than in almost all cases, this can actually improve the profitability of the organization. Oftentimes we find that the most difficult customers are the ones with the lowest gross margins, providing the least amount of profit for the company, despite being the most work.
By finding someone else to serve them, we can create a huge synergistic effect that improves business outcomes. This can give us more time to serve the customers that are easy to work with, who are often the ones with higher gross margins, and who provide us with more referrals.
Also, by making the lives of our employees easier, they will be better equipped to serve those customers well. And, of course, there are side benefits like reducing sick days and improving overall productivity.
2. You share the example of Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines as models of love in action and the success it brings. Why haven’t more leaders and organizations adopted the same approach? What gets in their way?
There are a lot of reasons that leaders and organizations, especially companies, fail to prioritize people over profit.
In some cases, unfortunately, it’s because owners and senior leaders are greedy and self-serving, and only care about enriching themselves. However, I think this only true for a small percentage of profit-focused companies.
I believe the vast majority of leaders want to prioritize people over profit, but there are many forces that prevent them from doing it. In the case of most publicly traded companies, leaders face incredible pressure from the board to maximize stock performance.
Unfortunately, most shareholders have no connection to a company other than the stock they own. They’ve never met a single employee in the company they own. Thus, the company is nothing but numbers on an exchange listing to them. As a result, these shareholders generally only care about whether the numbers are going up or down. And, they want them to be going up every quarter.
Thus, most boards hire and incentivize senior leaders based on their abilities to make the numbers go up every quarter. It only takes a bad quarter or two, and leaders start losing their jobs. That type of pressure to hit the numbers in the short term makes it very hard to do the things necessary to create a culture that drives long-term success, which is a people-first culture. However, all leaders face similar pressure to hit the numbers to some degree.
And, it seems that the bulk of the conditioning all leaders have received most of their lives has been to prioritize winning, or hitting goals, over loving well. This just seems to be what our modern culture values most, especially in the for-profit business world. This conditioning to focus on goals and winning is not easy to overcome, and it hinders our ability to love well.
3. What role does ‘trust’ play in loving your employees?
Trust is an absolute non-negotiable requirement for loving team members.
If members cannot trust leaders, it is essentially impossible for the leader to consistently have a positive impact on the well-being have team members. There will always be a subtle anxiety present whenever trust is absent. This is going in the complete opposite direction of making a positive impact on well-being.
Also, giving trust away is a powerful way to demonstrate love. When leaders convey unquestionable trust and their team members, those team members are empowered to grow personally and professionally, and to be the best version of themselves.
4. What are the top 3-5 behaviors/actions/strategies you suggest leaders follow to start putting these concepts into practice?
First, and most important, we need to consciously make love the top priority to begin undoing the conditioning that I mentioned earlier.
An easy but effective way to do this is to change one’s job description. This doesn’t mean asking HR to officially rewrite your job description. What it means is just internally, for yourself, rewriting the job description in a way that reflects what’s most important. Most job descriptions start with a description of the responsibilities to the organization. Instead, I recommend people rewrite their job description so that it starts with this:
“My job is to help the people I work with to thrive: to help them to grow both personally and professionally and to do my best to contribute to their long-term well-being.“
Everything else in the job description would be listed as additional responsibilities. Once the new job description is written, I recommend reading it out loud multiple times every day to gradually undo the conditioning that leads us to believe that achieving the goal and winning are what’s most important.
By reading the new job description out loud multiple times each day, we are telling the brain that loving well is important to us. As a result, we start to see more opportunities to love better, and we’re much more open to opportunities to develop our ability to love better.
It’s kind of like when you buy a new car, or learn a new name, and then, suddenly, you start seeing it or hearing it all over the place. This doesn’t happen because that name or that car just magically multiplied all around you. It happens because the part of the brain that filters out information we don’t think is important has stopped filtering that information out, and is allowing us to see what we now think is important.
Second, we need to look at the problem of being too busy. Most leaders I’m aware of try to do too many things. Unfortunately, there is a direct, negative correlation between how busy we are and how likely we are to love team members. The busier we are, the less likely we are to love well. This was demonstrated in the now famous Good Samaritan study conducted at Princeton University.
So, I highly recommend taking measures to do less and spend more time just being. For those who think that their productivity will somehow go down, I think you’ll be surprised. I feel very confident that your productivity will increase. Productivity is not a function of how many tasks we complete. It’s a function of the value we produce.
Doing less helps you to get clearer on what really matters and spend more time doing that. And, of course, the most important example of this is getting clear on the truth that what is most important in life is loving well. By reducing the number of things we do, we are much more likely to love better.
Third, we need to work on the bad habit of being distracted. I would guess that most people spend 90% of their time distracted either by obsessive use of technology or by their own thinking (or both). This, of course leads to increased anxiety, which makes us much less likely to love well. And, it also means that we’re habitually distracted when we’re interacting with other human beings. If we are distracted when interacting with others, people don’t feel loved in our presence because they don’t feel as though we are truly there with them. The simplest yet perhaps most tangible way to demonstrate love is to give a person our complete and undivided attention, to be fully present with them.
This is why I’m a huge advocate have engaging in mindfulness training. With mindfulness training, we can systematically break the habit of being distracted and cultivate a new habit of being mindfully self-aware and fully present. Mindfulness empowers us to consistently embody love.
Frankenboss – noun; 1. A mean boss that terrorizes his or her employees; 2. A boss whose behavior closely resembles that of a half-brained monster; 3. A jerk.
With Halloween just a few days away, I told my wife that I wanted to write an article about the bad, clueless behaviors that make a leader a “Frankenboss” (see definition above). Sadly enough, it only took us about 3 minutes to brainstorm the following list. If any of these describe your leadership style, you might want to take a look in the mirror and examine the face that’s peering back at you…you might have bolts growing out the sides of your neck.
You might be a Frankenboss if you…
1. Lose your temper – Some leaders think by yelling or cursing at employees they are motivating them. Baloney! Losing your temper only shows a lack of maturity and self-control. There’s no room for yelling and screaming in today’s workplace. Our society has finally awoken to the damaging effects of bullying in our school system so why should it be any different at work? No one should have to go to work and fear getting reamed out by their boss. If you have troubles controlling your temper then do something to fix it.
2. Don’t follow through on your commitments – One of the quickest ways to erode trust with your followers is to not follow through on commitments. As a leader, your people look to you to see what behavior is acceptable, and if you have a habit of not following through on your commitments, it sends an unspoken message to your team that it’s OK for them to not follow through on their commitments either.
3. Don’t pay attention, multi-task, or aren’t “present” in meetings – Some studies say that body language accounts for 50-70% of communication. Multi-tasking on your phone, being preoccupied with other thoughts and priorities, or simply exhibiting an attitude of boredom or impatience in meetings all send the message to your team that you’d rather be any place else than meeting with them. It’s rude and disrespectful to your team to act that way. If you can’t be fully engaged and devote the time and energy needed to meet with your team, then be honest with them and work to arrange your schedule so that you can give them 100% of your focus. They deserve it.
4. Are driven by your ego – The heart of leadership is about giving, not receiving. Self-serving leaders may be successful in the short-term, but they won’t be able to create a sustainable followership over time. I’m not saying it’s not important for leaders to have a healthy self-esteem because it’s very important. If you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s going to be hard to generate the self-confidence needed to lead assertively, but there is a difference between self-confidence and egoism. Ken Blanchard likes to say that selfless leaders don’t think less of themselves, they just think about themselves less.
5. Avoid conflict – Successful leaders know how to effectively manage conflict in their teams. Conflict in and of itself is not a bad thing, but our culture tends to have a negative view of conflict and neglect the benefits of creativity, better decision-making, and innovation that it can bring. Frankenbosses tend to either completely avoid conflict by sweeping issues under the rug or they go to the extreme by choosing to make a mountain out of every molehill. Good leaders learn how to diagnose the situation at hand and use the appropriate conflict management style.
6. Don’t give feedback – Your people need to know how they’re performing, both good and bad. A hallmark of trusted leaders is their open communication style. They share information about themselves, the organization, and they keep their employees apprised of how they’re performing. Meeting on a quarterly basis to review the employee’s goals and their progress towards attaining those goals is a good performance management practice. It’s not fair to your employees to give them an assignment, never check on how they’re doing, and then blast them with negative feedback when they fail to deliver exactly what you wanted. It’s Leadership 101 – set clear goals, provide the direction and support the person needs, provide coaching and feedback along the way, and then celebrate with them when they achieve the goal.
7. Micromanage – Ugh…even saying the word conjures up stress and anxiety. Micromanaging bosses are like dirty diapers – full of crap and all over your a**. The source of micromanagement comes from several places. The micromanager tends to think their way is the best and only way to do the task, they have control issues, they don’t trust others, and generally are not good at training, delegating, and letting go of work. Then they spend their time re-doing the work of their subordinates until it meets their unrealistic standards and they go around complaining about how overworked and stressed-out they are! Knock it off! A sign of a good leader is what happens in the office when you’re not there. Are people fully competent in the work? Is it meeting quality standards? Are they behaving like good corporate citizens? Micromanagers have to learn to hire the right folks, train them to do the job the right way, monitor their performance, and then get out of their way and let them do their jobs.
8. Throw your team members under the bus – When great bosses experience success, they give the credit to their team. When they encounter failure, they take personal responsibility. Blaming, accusing, or making excuses is a sign of being a weak, insecure leader. Trusted leaders own up to their mistakes, don’t blame others, and work to fix the problem. If you’re prone to throwing your team members under the bus whenever you or they mess up, you’ll find that they will start to withdraw, take less risk, and engage in more CYA behavior. No one likes to be called out in front of others, especially when it’s not justified. Man up and take responsibility.
9. Always play by the book – Leadership is not always black and white. There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to being a leader and the best ones learn to use good judgment and intuition to handle each situation uniquely. There are some instances where you need to treat everyone the same when it comes to critical policies and procedures, but there are also lots of times when you need to weigh the variables involved and make tough decisions. Too many leaders rely upon the organizational policy manual so they don’t have to make tough decisions. It’s much easier to say “Sorry, that’s the policy” than it is to jump into the fray and come up with creative solutions to the problems at hand.
10. You practice “seagull” management – A seagull manager is one who periodically flies in, makes a lot of noise, craps all over everyone, and then flies away. Good leaders are engaged with their team members and have the pulse of what’s going on in the organization. That is much harder work than it is to be a seagull manager, but it also earns you much more respect and trust from your team members because they know you understand what they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis and you have their best interests in mind.
I’m sure you’ve had your own personal experiences with a Frankenboss. What other behaviors would you add to this list? Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you are a scientist running a grand experiment on leadership. Your laboratory is an organization with hundreds of leaders at varying levels, and with technology, you can watch and listen to them 24-hours a day over an extend period of time. Sort of like the TV show Big Brother, except corporate style (and minus all the drama-filled antics). Essentially you get to observe the species Homo Sapiens Laederes in their native environment.
Your quest is to learn the behaviors that make servant leaders stand out from the crowd. In a noisy world where a few celebrity leaders grab the headlines, and everyone tries to copy-cat their way to becoming an overnight leadership success, servant leadership has withstood the test of time as a tried and true approach to effectively leading people and organizations. You would observe at least five key ways servant leaders are different from their counterparts.
Listen more than they talk—A servant leader is much more interested in hearing the viewpoints of others than having their voice be the loudest in the room. Make no mistake, servant leaders clearly articulate their point of view and cast a vision for the organization, but they do so after they’ve spent plenty of time hearing from others, incorporating their ideas, and enlisting others in their cause. As Larry Spears observed in the book Servant Leadership in Action, listening is one of ten key characteristics of a servant leader. Listening involves paying attention to what is said and not said, identifying the will of the group, listening to the leader’s own inner voice, and coalescing that input into a clear plan of action.
Say we more than me—When servant leaders do talk, they focus the attention on their team by speaking in the collective we, rather than the personal me. Servant leaders know that leadership isn’t about them; it’s about others. Robert K. Greenleaf, the father of the modern servant leader movement, said the motive of a servant leader is to serve first, and out of that desire to serve rises a conscious decision to lead. Servant leaders are driven to improve the welfare, contribution, and autonomy of others, not to garner fame, attention, or status for themselves. Their focus is on we, not me.
Flex their leadership style to meet the needs of their followers—Since servant leadership is about doing what’s best for others and helping them to realize their full potential, servant leaders adapt their leadership style to provide the right amount of direction and support their followers need. There is no one best leadership style. If someone is new to a task, the leader provides higher levels of direction to teach the how, what, where, when, and why. If the follower has a moderate level of competence but is unsure of himself, the servant leader uses a supportive style to build the follower’s confidence and help him problem solve. Servant leaders understand their followers have varying levels of competence and commitment on their tasks or goals so they adjust their leadership style to the situation.
Look for opportunities to shine the light on others—As you observe leaders in this mythical experiment, you’d notice that servant leaders make an intentional effort to give people the chance to be in the spotlight and to praise them for their accomplishments. Servant leaders don’t care who gets the credit; they care about helping people and the organization succeed. Ken Blanchard likes to say that “people who feel good about themselves produce good results, and people who produce good results feel good about themselves.” It’s a virtuous process that servant leaders look to perpetuate.
Treat failures as learning moments—Failure is inevitable; learning is optional (click to tweet). Servant leaders view failure as an invaluable teaching tool, and rather than punish or demean people for making a mistake, they turn it into a positive and make it a learning moment. This is possible because servant leaders have a high level of trust with their followers. When people are trusted, they aren’t afraid to take risks and try something new. They know that if they fail, their leader will partner with them to use the opportunity to grow, learn, and do better next time. My friend and fellow servant leader, Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, embodies this philosophy. He believes that creating a culture of learning has been one of the pillars of WD-40’s success, an organization with 93% employee engagement.
Although it would be cool to take part in this kind of mad scientist experiment, it really isn’t necessary. Research about the effectiveness of servant leadership is plentiful and the traits of a servant leader are common sense, albeit not common practice. If you look around and see people engaging in these five behaviors and others like them, chances are they’re servant leaders who are bringing out the best in their people and organizations.