A modern servant leadership takes place when the leader helps us to serve the whole community and to collectively achieve what was pursued in the first place.
When I was a young budding politician I had the chance to meet Harri Holkeri. A former prime minister and a chairman of a party, famous for his blunt remark “I’m having a coffee now” that made an impression. He didn’t do it with his status, neither with overemphasizing it (which he certainly did not do), but with his attitude and vision: A job of a politician is not to serve as the mirror of public, but lead the country towards right direction.
This comes to my mind every now and then, as the concept of leadership has been exceptionally much under discussion this year, both in politics as well as in corporate world. Traditionally the leadership deficit has been tried to fill up with a strong leader. This has meant something (but not quite) like a mild leader version of Kekkonen: an authoritative “father figure”, a safe leader who knows how to predict the future and leads us through the divided sea to the promised land.
That however, is a fairytale.
Then what is leadership in the world of disruption, in the era of post-communicative revolution, where decisions are made transparently right under our eyes and in which public opinion has more influence than ever before?
What does leadership mean in the cultures of self-direction, in organizations that are more and more unhierarcically managed? In this complex world, where a leader is not the best expert and does not possess a crystal ball, from which to see the future? What does leadership stand for in a world where changes take place fast and where transformations are part of daily life. Where transformation is not just a house-trained project, that can be scheduled and outsourced for consultants?
At least it does not mean voting for complicated decisions through social media, no matter if its a question of politics or business. Leadership is more than being a mirror for people. Managing with decrees no longer works.
The three core pillars of leadership
These days, three things are emphasised in leadership talk: Self-direction, atmosphere of trust and servant leadership.
- Self-determination seems like a trendy term, but it really is not one. Even though there’s more talk than practises of it, self-directness is a path, which we will walk along also in the future. Here is why: the idea of a person as a part of a mechanism, taking orders and being an obedient unit, whose sole motivation is that bigger paycheck means better car than the neighbour’s, is totally wrong. At best, each and everyone has responsibilities and liberties at work, and also a possibility to have an impact on the course of their work. It is typical for people to seek for purpose. Purpose is created through involvement, when it’s a matter of the organization’s direction, strategy or just being part of a team. Actually it is more about co-determination, with everyone having an ability to direct their own work.The good news is that co-determination doesn’t require innate capabilities, much less its a permanent quality. I dare to argue, that we all fail daily in our pursuit of perfection. The modern idea of a man is based on learning together and trying out new practises. Which as a matter of fact leads us to the next basic thought of leadership: The atmosphere of trust.
- From the outside it is easy to perceive that in politics everybody are jointly responsible for the atmosphere of trust, but no party has done it very well. In the court as well as in the crowd, people are agitated and it seems like everybody are waiting for someone else to calm down, to apologise and to finally give up.Those who have the most power and responsibilities are always the ones more responsible for the atmosphere, but everybody are involved in creating it. At workplaces this usually emerges through a habit of employees waiting that management would create the atmosphere of trust. An inspirational speaker and a research professor Brené Brown once more remained us In Nordic Business Forum: the atmosphere of trust is created by being vulnerable, humane and imperfect.I have to remind you, that in the middle of all these requirements, the enduring hot topic related to leadership is remains “the shitty leaders”. These shitty leaders are the imperfect regular people, who make mistakes and don’t pull off to manage with people perfectly. The atmosphere of trust is a a two-way street. I would say that it is an issue of the whole community. A leader can give an example, but no one can play the victim and become irresponsible.It is everyone’s responsibility (and joy!) to think, how to not act only as a mirror that reflects whatever, but to make things better by themselves.
- I am a little afraid, that the term servant leadership is often used with diverse meanings and sometimes even against its own purpose. A research professor Jari Hakanen from The Finnish institute of occupational health, summarises the concept brilliantly:
‘I think that servant leadership is an important development challenge for many Finnish leaders. This is connected to a great idea of employees also becoming servants to one another’, he says.That is the basic idea of an organisation based on co-determination, non-hierarchical purpose and community. In such an organisation we are all leaders. We all have a purpose, not only in carrying out the organisational strategy, but especially as builders of the community. Hakanen, who has done research on work engagement more persistently than anyone else in Finland, sees that ‘a servant attitude that includes empowerment, empathy and appreciating others, is an essential part of work engagement.’Servant leadership is not an invention of the 21st century, but actually has its roots in the past. However, over the 21st century it has attained a sideshow. Many employees think that servant leadership takes place when the leader is explicitly helping them and their needs. In fact, servant leadership takes place when a leader is particularly helping employees to serve the community and through that help them to achieve the initial collective pursuit.
Also leadership has a trendy purpose, a reason and a meaning for existence under the surface: An endeavour to create something better. A company can be revised through three determinants. The best company is a community that values diversity, diverse tasks and diverse competence, it is a platform for something meaningful. It is a company that succeeds financially and through that creates future capabilities.
There still exists room and need for leadership. It has only gone through a radical change.
When going through a change, things get obviously more stormy than in a safe and static state. Change requires different capabilities, ability to let go, communality based on trust, as well as collective, kind and subservient leadership.
If there is one skill leaders should improve, I’d say it’s the ability to communicate based on continuous interaction. Everything else can be built on top of that.
If you don’t believe it, try it.