Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Commander vs. Servant

Increasingly we hear the term ‘servant leadership’ with respect to the evolution of leadership styles.  I think that it is important to understand how and why we have reached this point so that you can evaluate your style and what, if any, changes you need to implement.

Let’s start with a brief history lesson.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the world was basically preparing for war, at war, or recovering from war. In between we threw in the Great Depression. That environment demanded a military style of leadership, the commander.

As we entered the baby boomer stage in the second half of the century, manufacturing was still very much a labour intensive activity.  Production lines of cars and virtually any other commodity were very structured.  Each person had a specific task and the commander structure worked pretty well.   Besides, most managers had little to no formal training in being a ‘boss’ so their default was to that which they knew.

In fact, we did not even begin to produce MBA calibre executives until the 1960’s and 70’s.  The study of leadership amounted to determining what a leader did that was different from that of a manager.  We did not really look at style so much as we determined duties.

The leadership model was still very much defined by results.  Managing by Objectives (MBO’S) and Key Performance Indicator’s (KPI’S) were commonly used to evaluate performance. 

As boomers moved into positions of responsibility in executive levels, many of them leaned heavily on the styles that they grew up with and the ‘top-down’ model persisted. 

But as the economy has changed, this style no longer suits the workplace.
Today we still have production lines but most of the work is done by robots.  AI increasingly takes over in the decision making processes that managers once were required to do.  The information age dictates a more collaborative approach in the workplace.  None of these truths are well suited to a commander style of leadership.  An evolution is necessary.

Fast forward to today’s workplace; compared to the baby boomer era it is characterized by the following;

·       A much better educated and prepared candidate
·       Individuals who are more socially minded
·       People looking for a role in which they can contribute
·       A willingness to change jobs frequently
·       A desire or a need for the individual to be recognized for their contribution on a regular basis
·       A workplace that is far more diversified in all aspects of colour, race, gender, religion, country of origin, and sexual orientation that demands accountability with respect to harassment or discrimination

Thus, servant leadership is one which both anticipates and responds to the needs of the employee.  It is one which creates a climate for people to deploy their skill sets in a creative manner in which they find personal fulfillment while concurrently achieving the goals and expectations of the employer.

The servant leader recognizes that morality, ethics and legality are critical to their performance.  Overall evaluation depends only in part on the achievement of objectives.  The manner in which those objectives are achieved is of equal or greater importance.

The servant leader understands that building and equipping a team and then defining the objectives of that team are more important than dictating how the results should be achieved.

The servant leader acknowledges that others likely know more about the ‘how’ than they do.  But the servant leader understands the ‘why’.

The servant leader does not keep their hands on the pulse of the business but on the pulse of the people.  The difference is subtle but critical…

With the perspective of time and place it is easier to see how this evolution came about and why.

We would like to think that a servant leader would always have been successful and in specific circumstances that may be true.  But the reality is that in 1950, the servant leader would have failed more often than not.  The times demanded a different leader.

Likewise, the commander may work today, in specific circumstances.  But more often than not, it is doomed to failure.

Where are you on this continuum?  We are all growing and evolving in our leadership styles.  But if you are still closer to the commander, it may be time to take a closer look at what success really looks like in the 21st century.