by guest blogger Rick Howe
[January 10, 2014] Although not typically thought of this way, servant leadership can be essential for senior leaders to successfully navigate in complex, fast-paced environments. Servant leadership is a leadership style that puts the needs of others first and encourages maximum development of people.
This may seem a misnomer, but this is not about a senior leader who gracefully holds a door for a busy subordinate. Senior leaders must be able to affect culture and cultural change in their organizations by what they do, purposefully or not.
Some organizations excel at accepting direction and conducting planned operations – Ford Motor Company, the U.S. Army, a successful sports team – they plan and operate expertly. Other organizations thrive on chaos and free thinking with flexible methods like the “Starfish Approach” – Google, your local Fire/EMS agency – they create and react well.
However, what if an organization is operating in an extremely complex, changing environment and its leaders must be agile enough to operate at either extreme, directive to flexible? Perhaps both simultaneously?
Can senior-level leaders be trained in flexible approaches, in addition to their traditional directive education? Senior leaders do provide a vision for their organization but they will face internal resistance to this change – as with any effort.
I don’t believe an organization can reach that kind of a goal without the senior leadership deliberately using and rewarding servant leadership. Okay, not a news flash. Every leadership or management textbook tells us that a high-end practitioner must do it all, all the time, when appropriate.
Being graceful and respectful as a matter of practice alone will not get your organization there. Just as “hope is not a method,” the cultural change required to add agility to a group’s skill sets, while retaining other disciplines, must be deliberate and supported by personnel policies, structure, and doctrine.
I believe the appropriate foundation in leadership is a sincerely expressed, top-down confidence in the judgment of subordinate leaders – in other words, servant leadership. Senior leaders must frequently and publicly reinforce their commitment to those in the organization. Furthermore, senior leaders must support the decisions made by ethical, well-trained, and committed junior and mid-level leaders.
Servant leadership is not a straight line to an agile and successful organization, but you can’t get to mission accomplishment without it. Members of the organization must believe that the senior leadership will support them in their decisions and that they are empowered to take the initiative and be creative.
Richard D. Howe, LTC, U.S. Army (Retired). Rick is trained as an Infantry officer and is a 2005 graduate of the US Army War College and graduate of the Smoke Diver Course, Florida State Fire College, Ocala, Florida.