servant leaders

Every teacher, coach, scoutmaster, professor, administrator, or manager I’ve ever worked or studied under has had to earn my respect for me to find them credible. When they fell short, I worked around them. When they failed, I left or avoided them. I feel fortunate to say they mostly earned it, especially the overwhelming majority of teachers. But I’ve had more than one contentious relationship with a boss, and I think the contrast is important to examine.

My teachers (speaking broadly if not universally) were compelled by a desire to help me. They needed a paycheck like the rest of us, but they chose a profession that prioritized individual well-being. Starting from a place of such excellent intent buys you a lot of credibility with me, even if you’re imperfect in how to execute it. They model servant-leadership in the most literal way possible.

In high school, I revisited past teachers from my elementary or middle school years on several occasions. We’d talk about how I was doing of course, but I’d learn personal information about them for perhaps the first time, too. What I remember most was the universal humility. “You owe me nothing” was the message, despite that I obviously owed them a great deal.

Folks you work for often didn’t set out to do that. Leadership of the caliber that teachers purposefully embrace is, for others, a byproduct or new requirement on a journey that had other motivations. They have some other goals in mind, and you’re a tool to help reach those goals. It takes conscious effort to re-calibrate your priorities when you enter management, and not enough folks recognize and work on that challenge directly.

Credibility to me, then, is fundamentally whether you’ve convinced me our interests are sufficiently aligned and whether you have the skills & motivation necessary to keep them that way.

I approach leadership the same way as my teachers: You owe me nothing. The job is to care deeply about the needs, strengths, and weaknesses of everyone I’m leading and expect nothing in return that personally benefits me. Implicit expectations of personal return pulls you into the gravity well of modeling a toxic family. I think many first-time leaders are shocked by the inherent loneliness of these relationships, and the idea of calling it a family comforts them. You need clarity and resolve to resist it. It’s emotionally exhausting to do it successfully.

If the power structures of your organization aren’t transparently and purposefully modeling servant-leadership, you have far deeper challenges than you will ever realize. Without the credibility of servant-leadership, you will never hear the truth.