Ha. This isn’t an article I ever thought I’d see myself writing. Nevertheless, in a moment of clarity, I’m going to put something down:
I do not believe in servant leadership.
It's a political term that has meaning with reference to ideological visionaries, but it is nothing more than a confusing oxymoron when brought into a professional context. My whole life I’ve been taught to play servant leader and pull alongside the rest, but having worked for really good (and rather tricky) bosses, I’m coming to the conclusion that most people struggle to take charge while positioned as a fellow follower.
Totalitarianism counts, just stay human
At the moment, I work on boats. On boats, there is a captain, and a captain’s word is final. As mine put it to me, it’s kind of like the Italian mafia. There is no argument.
In truth, no matter how ridiculous, when my captain speaks I drop what I’m doing and I hop to it. It is not only the safest way to run a vessel, it is the most seamless. People at the top see more of the full picture than people lower down. It doesn't say anything about those people; it is just the nature of the physics of vantage points.
I’ve spent the last six weeks taking orders from two captains. To make it more exciting, their notions as to the running of things lie at polar ends of the spectrum; perfect 180° antitheses of each other. There was no way to please both simultaneously, and needless to say, only one of them survived the battle for supremacy.
It led me to reflect on why I made the choices I did - and more generally, what motivates anyone to perform when instructed to do so.
Servant leadership disempowers your staff
If a leader undertakes to complete the same jobs set to the people beneath them, it undermines their responsibility. I speak as someone from below. Not only this, it gives the impression of micromanaging. If you hire someone to perform a task, trust them to do it. Hold them accountable, but don’t oversee the entire process. The nascent stages are the critical ones - and yes, your input then is crucial.
Servant leadership highlights ineptitude
Unfortunately, working alongside someone on a simple task more menial than your pay grade would deem can over-humanise you. Nobody wants to reveal a weakness in an area assumed to be beneath their skillset. If you're a little rusty on the practicalities, showing someone else how it's done can create the impression that you're rusty on everything.
How to be a great autocratic boss
The University of Norwich outlines ten types of leadership. The more 'relaxed' stances require utter faith from those who are not in a position of power. If you're not a corporate Casanova or a revolutionary empathetic enough to personally satisfy each employee, you're going to need to earn respect from a greater distance.
I believe there are two cornerstones to winning people’s faith in an authentic but authoritative way:
1. Do the things your juniors can’t
The boss is the boss for a reason, right? People expect a leader to do the things they are not qualified to. They trust too, because without a boss, they have no product for their labour and certainly no income. If that manager sits idle or expends his energy watching the minutae, he's giving his employees the time to notice him do so.
2. A good boss stands as lookout, but also looks down
There is no sense in bossing people about if you cannot trust them to perform.
Unfortunately, group projects suck. They have haunted me for years and I always end up pre-emptively carrying the full workload to prevent possible mishaps. Bad, bad leadership.
However, out in the big scary real world outside of the confines of academia, things work differently. You hire experienced individuals, or people you are willing to make a commitment to developing. Therefore, if you are unable to recognise a job well done when you see it, you are impossible to impress, and people will stop trying.
3. It’s not about a compliment
Leaders have selected people to do their jobs because they are competent. Competence is not worthy of praise, and praise can be patronising. It is about teaching: entrusting your team with further responsibility and consequent privileges. These show your staff your reciprocal reliance on them, just as they rely on you. This heightened responsibility doesn’t need to be framed as a promotion.
For me, being introduced to the grander scheme was enough. Having a mentor talk me through the theory of a yachtmaster, and demonstrate the workings of a vessel ‘beneath the boards’ (every boat is a delicate labyrinth of engines, pipes and electrics) gave me a greater appreciation for my role in making the machine move and an awareness of where I could improve.
I attended an interesting feedback report given by a senior consultant of Bain & Company, whose case centered on the factors that influence whether women in business reach the top rung. The team's conclusion was drawn from parallel sources of evidence from numerous multinationals - and it all comes down to the fact that somebody higher up made a personal investment in developing these women.
In short, good mentorship.
What makes an inspiring CEO
There is one nuance that keeps surfacing, and that is humanness. It isn’t something that can be lifted verbatim off this page, and I've got a lot of learning to do. Everyone has their own approach and boundaries.
The best ‘human' leader I have met arrives early in the morning, taking stock of the many people paid to labour through the night to execute her bidding. Long hours at odd hours are nothing unusual in her line of work. But stopping briefly to check in with the most junior guy dangling off a scaffold at 6am, and then offering around cokes before moving on to do her own boss job commands respect. People move mountains for her, because they know the mountains move (in part) for them.
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