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humble leadership

When you’re a leader, regardless of how long you’ve been in the role or how difficult it was to get there, you are merely ‘overhead’ or ‘in charge’ unless you’re bringing out the best in your employees by being an integral part of the team – unfortunately, many leaders lose sight of this.

Power has the potential to cause leaders to become overly obsessed with results and control and, therefore, treat their employees as a means to an end. In turn this can lead to a ramping up of people’s fear.  Fear of missing targets, fear of losing bonuses, fear of failing; consequently people stop feeling positive emotions and their drive to experiment and learn is stifled.

Take for example a UK based food delivery service. The day to day engagement of its drivers, who deliver food products to millions of households, was dipping while management was becoming increasingly metric-driven in an effort to reduce costs and improve delivery times. Each week managers held performance debriefs with drivers and went through a list of problems, complaints and errors. This was not inspiring on any level, to either party and, eventually, the drivers became resentful.

This type of top-down leadership is outdated, and, more importantly, counterproductive. By focusing too much on control and results and not enough on their people, leaders are making it more difficult to achieve their own desired outcomes.  The key is to help people feel purposeful, motivated and engaged in order that they can do their best at work because they want to and not because they have to.

There are a number of ways to do this.  One of the best is to adopt the humble mind-set of a servant-leader – this concept is captured brilliantly by the motto of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst: Serve To Lead. 

Servant-leaders view their key role as serving employees as they explore and grow, providing tangible and emotional support as they do so.  Servant-leaders have the humility, courage and insight to admit that they can benefit from the expertise of others who have less power than them. They actively seek the ideas and unique contributions of the employees that they serve. This is how servant-leaders create a culture of learning and an atmosphere that encourages followers to become the very best they can.

Humility and servant-leadership do not imply that leaders have low self-esteem or take on an attitude of servility. Instead, servant-leadership emphasises that the responsibility of a leader is to increase the ownership, autonomy and responsibility of followers — to encourage them to think for themselves and try out their own ideas.

Here’s how you can do it.

It sounds deceptively simple.  Rather than telling employees how to do their jobs better, start by asking them how you can help them do their jobs better and then listen to their response.  Consider the food-delivery business I mentioned previously. Once its traditional model was disrupted by newer delivery companies, the management team decided that things needed to change. The company needed to compete on great customer service, but, in order to do so, they needed the support (and good ideas) of their employees who provided that service.

Following internal analysis of their situation the delivery company tried a new approach to invigorate their team.

A new approach. 

Instead of over-analysing the day to day minutiae and problems that the drivers were facing, each manager was trained to simply ask their drivers, “how can I help you deliver excellent service?”  As you can imagine, there was huge scepticism at the beginning. Drivers’ dislike of managers was high and trust was low. However as managers kept asking “how can I help you deliver excellent service?” some drivers started to offer suggestions. For example, one driver suggested new products and another driver thought of a way to report stock shortages more quickly so that customers were not left without the items they had ordered.  As the drivers got credit for their ideas and saw them put in place, they became increasingly willing to offer more ideas, which made the depot managers more impressed and more respectful, which increased the delivery people’s willingness to give ideas and so on – a genuinely virtuous circle.  In the fullness of time, depot managers learned that some of the so-called “mistakes” that drivers were making were actually innovations they had created to streamline processes and still deliver everything on time. These innovations helped the company deliver better customer service.

What it comes down to is this: employees who do the actual work of your organisation often know better than you how to do a great job. Respecting their ideas and encouraging them to try new approaches to improve the business will motivate employees to bring more of themselves to work.

Create a comfortable environment for employees to think of new ideas.

Sometimes the best way for leaders to serve employees and their organisation, is to create a low-risk space for employees to experiment with their ideas. By doing so, leaders encourage employees to push on the boundaries of what they already know.

For example, when a friend of mine (Richard) moved from the UK to India to start his appointment as head of Costumer Relations at an international bank, he learned that one of the expectations of his new job was to visit the branches and put pressure on branch managers to cut costs. Branch staff would spend weeks anxiously preparing for the visit.  Richard changed the nature of these visits. Instead of emphasising his formal power, he would arrive at branches unannounced, starting his visit by serving tea and coffee to the staff. He would hold informal meetings and ask how he could help employees improve their branches. Many of the employees struggled initially to deal with Richard’s novel approach, however, they quickly got used to it, abandoned their cynicism and saw the benefits.

Over the course of one year, Richard visited over eighty branches in twenty-five cities. His consistency and willingness to help convinced employees who were sceptical at first. His informal meetings exposed a number of small irritants that he could alleviate very easily.  For example, programmed training for new bank procedures (training was traditionally     ad hoc), or making upgrades to computer memory so that the old computers could handle new software).  Other innovations generated through Richard’s employee engagement were more radical. For example, one of the branches was inside a shopping mall. One of the employees suggested opening and closing the same time as the mall’s operating hours (rather than the typical branch operating hours). Further, the same team wanted to experiment with working at weekends. Within a few months, this branch’s weekend income generation surpassed its entire weekday income. Had Richard not engaged in the manner that he did, this suggestion, and the increase in turnover, would not have happened.

These experiments paid off. Customer satisfaction increased by 54 percent during the two-year period of Richard’s humble leadership. Interestingly, complaints from customers were reduced by 29 percent during the same period.

Be humble

Leaders often do not see the true value of their staff, especially “lower-level” workers. But when leaders are humble, show respect and ask how they can serve employees as they improve the organisation, the results can be outstanding.

    Serve to Lead

culture, leadership, resilience, team development