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
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!