Reflections from a Reluctant Servant Leader

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Reflections from a Reluctant Servant Leader

If today’s leaders are going to succeed they have to develop a new skill – the ability to serve. They have to learn there’s no shame in following someone else’s lead.

The idea of servant leadership would strike a traditional leader as odd. A traditional leader is brought up to think of him or herself as a kind of warrior. Not a paint black stripes on the face, or carry a spear type, but someone other people are glad to stand behind when things get tough.

That leader-as-warrior mentality carries many leaders through their early careers. They may even build a track record of success with that kind of behavior. But then life happens.

You have setbacks, you work hard to overcome them, but you still fail. And the leaders ahead of you will, at some point, fail to live up to your expectations. On the other hand, sometimes they inspire you in unexpected ways. It’s that ability to inspire, to create something meaningful out of failure that makes a servant leader.

If we’re lucky, we learn that lesson while we’re young and malleable, our leadership style is not yet fully formed. New approaches still fit, and you can learn on the job.

It’s the best kind of leadership development, on the job, dealing with real problems, in real time, with real deadlines. There are consequences for your actions. And let’s face it. Some of us need to learn the hard way.

For instance, Iet’s say your team is struggling with an important project. Brash and impatient, you push and push, demanding longer hours and more commitment, as though they aren’t already working their hearts out. It’s a bad move, however, and it blows up in your face.

The day you’re supposed to present a polished, completed software prototype, you still have bugs, errors, a mess. Worse, you’re revealing that fact the day of the deadline, with no warning.

Why? Because you didn’t listen when your teammates tried to tell you, you were moving too fast, that they needed more time for testing, that the code wasn’t ready.

So, you have to go to your boss, who you admire, and tell him that you failed. Not your team, you. You failed to deliver.

You think you’ll be fired for sure. The code’s for a tough client with no patience for missed deliverables or excuses.

You go into your boss’ office head down, ashamed. You manage to look him in the eye as you recount your tale of woe, but it’s one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. And then you wait.

He says your name.

You look up, suck in a surreptitious breath and wait for the axe to fall.

“It’s okay.”


“It’s okay,” he repeats. “I knew you weren’t going to be able to make the deadline. I asked for an

extension a week ago.”

You stare. “We have an extension?”

He smiles and nods. “Now, show me what you’ve got, then we’re gonna get the team together, and we’re gonna tackle this thing a different way.”

You can’t believe it.

“You knew all the time that I was gonna fail?”

It occurs to you that you should be angry, but you’re too surprised, too curious, too relieved for that. You just want answers.

“I did,” he said.

“Why didn’t help me?”

“You didn’t ask for help.”

At that point you have to sit down. It’s so simple, and so poignant. You failed because you didn’t ask for help.

“You drove your team to exhaustion trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It never occurred to you to try something different,” he said simply. “To ask for a fresh perspective. You didn’t collaborate. You just barked out orders, and your team followed them.”

“To my doom,” you whisper.

He laughed softly. “Yup. To your doom. You ready to try again?”

You are. But first, you apologize to your team, admit that you led them in the wrong direction. Then you ask for their input, this time with your boss’ support every step of the way.

Ultimately, you finish the code, deliver the software, the client is pleased, and your team is happy.

And your boss? A few months later he promotes you.

“You’ve proven yourself,” he says when you ask him why. After all, your failure is no longer quite so fresh, but it wasn’t that long ago.

“This isn’t about your technical skills,” he explains. “You’ve proven yourself as a leader. The way you’ve managed your team. The way they interact with you. The speed you’re able to work and bring projects through to completion. It’s only possible because they trust you now. And more importantly, you trust them enough to ask for help when you need it.”

You thank him, and the experience becomes a frame on the reel of life’s great moments.

Leaders today are struggling between the traditional and the new normal. Change has become this weird, shaky bridge that too many leaders slip and fall off of. Only it’s not the mistakes that do them in. It’s the exit interviews with peers and coworkers, the sour reputations that follow them from company to company or into the media like a bad smell that provide that last thrust of the knife.

It’s why servant leadership works. When you’re a servant leader, the people around you are happy to share in the blame. They feel some responsibility for any failure to succeed or perform, and they’re only to happy too speak with optimism about their plans to recover, to create a new or better solution.

But when you’re a traditional leader who craves command and control, barking and yelling, pointing fingers and telling everyone around you what to do, you’re usually alone when things go wrong. Because to lead effectively, sometimes you must follow.