At least according to servant leadership and my take on it. He’s supposed to be humble. It’s all about listening to employees. Ideas, needs, challenges. A leader is a person who listens and talks as the last person in the room. It’s about serving the crowd. The tip: profits, efficiency, external company’s image, is worth it.

Before the pandemic, many company owners and executives struggled to understand what remote work really is. It’s not about losing control, it’s not even about the mythical trust. The real reason behind people loving this form of work comes from flexibility and the ability to work on whatever, whenever. If I want to cook diner, I do it. If I want to skip the unnecessary meeting, I do it. If I want to stay at home and not lose my precious private life to traffic, what’s the problem?

Trust issues, control environment, and the art of not giving a damn

If you are a manager, I let you on a little secret. Sometimes, employees don’t do what they are supposed to. Or do it differently than they theoretically should. I did it whenever I felt that my way was better. And it worked, almost every time. In a highly scalable professional environment, hired people are… well, professionals. They don’t expect kid gloves and To-Do list flashed on the refrigerator’s door. They know what has to be done, when, and how. If there are gaps to fill, then, you guessed it, the leader is there to hop in and help.

Many leaders are actually so focused on and even obsessed with outcomes, schedules, and control mechanisms, they track every important variable, except one. People. What they feel, what they know, what they think is best in the current situation. In many cases, open space is not a tool for bringing the team together and exchange knowledge, ideas, and project info. It simply makes the office louder than it should be. Frustrating some, boosting energy for already hyped extraverts, and annoying more fragile individuals. Combined with the push for constant performance measurement instead of delivering value, it creates an inefficient environment and the potential for quick burnout.

Now, when the pandemic set in, executives had no choice but to let go a little. And listen, actually listen. There is no conference room, it’s just a conference. Interaction. Exchange.

The ultimate power comes from giving one

The idea behind servant leadership is that company owners, managers, and even project owners can benefit from the activity and knowledge of those who have less power than them. In a recent article in New York Times, Kevin Roose announced the “YOLO economy”. Times when people draw from the COVID-19 home isolation and decide on their future. Many of them, closed in their homes, won’t go back to the old times. Ways the job was done. Ways people worked – office only. Sometimes even to the old job itself. Sure, it sounds like an exaggeration and it surely is one. Not every branch of the economy can afford to work remotely or with famous “values” on the fluttering company flag. But some of them will have to at least change the approach a little.

In traditional management, the power can be explained as the top-down model. There are leaders, then employees, then customers, and the investors. In the servant leadership approach, this “pyramid of power” looks
exactly the opposite. The leader has the least amount of power. It’s the employees who have it all. They work in the trenches, they know everyday struggles. It’s the people who understand that throwing money on additional employees won’t help the project because the problem is structural. It’s this shy lady who comes every day in red that spots inefficiencies in connecting projects on the 3rd floor, who can smooth things over with a sane suggestion.

In servant leadership, the role of a leader is to keep tabs on things. To have the bird’s eye view, while people on the ground have the autonomy to act. It’s the knowledge, experience, imagination, and civil courage that

What it takes

Few things come to mind. Servant leadership is possible, and most importantly – effective, because of the simple, human traits that we all have. It can be told but it has to be practiced.

  1. Empathy. One definition of a leader is a problem solver. Problems can’t be solved without listening. That requires empathy. The ability to put yourself in other’s shoes is the best way to get things done. In the reality show “Undercover boss”, owners go through characterization and become mere employees for a day or two. In their own companies. That gives them input. What problems do we have, what people think about the direction the company is going? Many top managers, like Apple’s Tim Cook, like to sit through lunch with the team in a cafeteria and just listen. That’s a huge advantage in business operations.
  2. Building bridges. A good waiter puts out uncomfortable situations. If there’s a fly in a soup, you won’t probably pay for it. It’s on a house. A similar thing goes in a professional project environment. When people have different opinions, the leader steps in and heals. Not even the current situation but a long-term relationship between people. If the client felt that this restaurant is classy and took care of him, he will probably come back. It’s a matter of a long game, not a single meal. If a leader can heal wounds from a fiery dispute between co-workers, they will respect each other in the future and become even more efficient.
  3. Zen-like state of mind. Being knowledgeable about surroundings is key. Approaching situations with peace of mind and inner strength not only mitigates stress but keeps you focused and on track.
  4. Actual leadership. A waiter doesn’t tell you what to eat. There’s no order. Instead, the waiter merely suggests. Sometimes, he tries to steer towards a meal of the day. But it’s persuasion, not a mandate.
  5. Courage. Leaders have to build roads, not follow them. The uncharted path is often the most beneficial one. Doing something differently. Creating a marketing strategy that puts us on the opposite side of the market. Throwing unpopular ideas into the crowd that’s keen on something else. That’s the price of being at the helm.
  6. Visualization. A waiter will often answer the question with a poetic landscape, painted just before your eyes. If you ask about the meal and what’s in it, a professional will always paint a picture, not list ingredients. Nobody cares for them, except for those suffering from allergies. It’s about taste. About how the meal makes you feel. How it complements the room. How it enchants your evening. That’s the approach of any good restaurant. Image. Taking this metaphor into the land of projects – always give examples. If there are none, explain to people how something will look and why in that particular way. Give them something to conceptualize and chew on. Something tangible.
  7. Community building. A modern company is not a 19th-century factory. It’s not a family either. It’s something in between and more at the same time. It’s a community. A place where people come to make a living and create. Goals, values, and practical uses for products drive us all. Simply deliver.

A brand is built by values, not logos

What the brand is all about? What does it communicate? To customers, potential employees, people already on board? Buy our products. Use our services. Be satisfied. With more refined taste, these messages are seen across the board. Brands just want to sell stuff. The problem is that selling is not driven by the message anymore. Not in all cases, not for many people. Hyper-personalization forces brands to approach products and work itself differently.

What is so special about you? What is your message? Why people would want to care?