Java with Joe: Leading as a Servant: Yes,There’s a Risk, But It’s Well Worth Taking.

One of the first postings I made to this blog dealt with the subject of why people are often fearful of adopting the principles of servant leadership. Some three years later, the issue continues to come up in my conversations with leaders at all levels, so I think it might be worth another look.

To make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start with what it means to be servant leader. It means putting the success of your organization and its people ahead of your own personal power. It means giving up the idea that your job is telling people what to do and then making sure they do it. Instead, it means seeing your role as engaging your people around a mission that creates a sense of higher purpose for their work , then clearing away the obstacles that prevent them from being and becoming their best selves at work.

Being a servant leader means trusting the people around you to make good decisions, and giving them room to grow (even if that means that sometimes they will fail). It means supporting and celebrating them for the value they add, consistently applying what Jim Collins refers to as the Window and Mirror concept—looking “out” to give credit to others when things go well, and looking “in” to take responsibility when things go wrong.

Some traditional command and control leaders do actually apply some of these concepts, at least some of the time, but when it comes right down to it, servant leadership and command and control leadership are two very different animals. Recognizing that difference, more and more people these days seem to gravitate toward servant leadership. In part, that’s because it seems like a better fit for their personality and their core values. But it’s also because of the abundant evidence that “servant led” companies—and companies that apply servant leadership principles, even by another name—actually outperform companies where command and control is the dominant leadership model. (To look at some of that evidence, you might start with Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, by James Sipe and Don Frick; or Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose, by Raj Sisodia and Jag Sheth.)

And yet—to get back to how we opened this discussion—many people who aspire to become servant leaders are actually fearful of doing so. Why?

Essentially, it comes down to their being afraid that deviating from a traditional command and control leadership model will make them look weak in the eyes of the people who report to them—and even worse, it may have the same effect on the people to whom they report. And let’s be clear, if those fears are realized, there’s some significant risk involved.

There’s the risk that your own team will lose confidence in your leadership and start to feel adrift, and that as a result performance will suffer. And there’s the risk that other leaders—and in particular, your boss—will lose confidence in you. If that happens, you can probably say good-bye to that promotion or that prized assignment. In other words, if you work in a primarily command and control environment, becoming a servant leader could conceivably put your job, and by extension your career, at risk.

But then, you have to ask yourself: Is this a risk I should take? Obviously that’s a question only you can answer, depending on your own personal situation. But I think a strong case can be made that the answer to that question is Yes. In my mind, more often than not, leading as a servant is worth the risk.

For one thing, the worst part about facing any risk is just managing the fear involved. But quite often, the fear associated with any given risk is way out of proportion to the risk itself. We often manufacture fear, letting ourselves imagine the worst possible outcome, even when that possibility is actually quite small. This is often the case when we talk about becoming a servant leader.

Take the fear that if you move in the direction of servant leadership, your team will lose focus and its performance will suffer. Is this a real or manufactured fear? Of course, anything can happen, but as I’ve indicated above, servant leadership works. Servant led organizations typically outperform command and control organizations on virtually every key business metric, as you’ll see if you look at those books I recommended. So let’s suppose you start behaving like a servant leader—setting out a clear vision for your organization but at the same time becoming more genuinely collaborative; giving your people more room to take the initiative, but at the same time giving them more room to make mistakes, and helping them learn from those mistakes. At first the people you lead may wonder if you’re really serious, and they may be slow to trust that you really want them to take more responsibility. They may test your commitment in ways that are not always easy for you to handle. But trust me, if you stick with the program, eventually most of your people will be energized by what you’re doing and the results will be dramatic.

And what about the risk and attendant fear that the other leaders in your organization, including your boss, will lose confidence in you, damaging your chances for advancement. How big is this risk, actually? Well, in my experience, there’s a good chance that your adoption of servant leadership principles will go largely unnoticed, at least at first.  (Just don’t come in on Day One wearing an “I’m a Servant Leader” sweatshirt!) And while it’s certainly possible that other leaders will have doubts about the path you’ve chosen when they do take notice, as your team’s performance starts to take off, the results should overcome those doubts. Who knows…those other leaders may even start to follow your example. After all, as the saying goes, “The flame of a single candle can light a thousand others.”

But what if your fear turns out to be real? What if your boss just doesn’t get it, results notwithstanding? What if you’re basically told to “act like a leader,”  to “get tough,” and “take charge.” This is, unfortunately, a real possibility. And if it does happen, you’ll have to make a difficult choice. You’ll have to look deep into yourself, and ask whether you’re willing to be someone you don’t want to be in order to stick with that job and that organization. If the answer is no, in the end you may need to make a move. Maybe you can find someone to work for in the organization who seems more likely to see the wisdom of the servant leadership model. But maybe you’ll have to just get off the bus and move to another organization.

So—is there a risk in becoming a servant leader, if you work in a command and control organization? Sure, but being a leader always involves risk. How you handle risk is in fact what determines what kind of leader you are.

And that’s what it always comes down to: what kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of leader do you need to be in order to follow your true north?

As always, your thoughts are most welcome!