Upending the Pyramid: Why Serving Others Matters in the Workplace

While certainly not the author of the idea (or the practice, for that matter) of servant leadership, Robert K. Greenleaf catalyzed a modern “servant leadership movement” in management philosophy over the last 35 years. His famous question about the impact of a leader was this: “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

This is the right question to ask ourselves, whatever theory of leadership we hold. Do the people we lead—do the people we serve—become stronger, gain sharpness, grow in excellence and initiative, develop their own deep sense of worth and purpose as a result of our leadership? And just why is this the right question? It’s really quite simple: the people we lead (serve) do all the work. The more awesome they become, the more awesome their work—period. End of story.

Serve Others First

When Jim Collins went searching for the secret to company greatness, he told his researchers not to discover that the secret was leadership. He knew—and he was dead right about this—that greatness had to be the result of many people doing great things. There weren’t enough leaders in an enterprise to account for greatness. But Collins also discovered that he was dead wrong; leaders create the conditions for people to reach for greatness, or they create the opposite. Depending on your leadership, people will choose to give their all or they will choose to be miserly with their gifts.

The place for leaders to start is with a gut check. Do I want to serve others first? If the answer is “no,” there isn’t much I can do to help you, other than to encourage you toward a deep self-examination of what you want life to add up to. Serving yourself as a chief aim of life cannot lead to good things.

But if the answer is “yes”—that is, you choose to become a leader who will serve others first—I can help in very concrete and practical ways.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I know the people I am serving? Do I know what they value and what their goals are? What do they like and dislike about their jobs? We must explore these areas if we are to know our people well enough to serve them!
  2. Do I show an interest in the success of the people I serve?
  3. Am I providing the coaching and the feedback my people need to grow?
  4. Am I sharing the information that my people want and need.

Then, try this: Make a list of three people you serve—people that you lead. Commit yourself to learn much more about them; make a small list of questions you need to ask them, and then make a plan—with a deadline—of when you are going to take them to lunch or for coffee, and really begin to learn what you need to know.

Delegate Authority and Responsibility

Serving Leaders must delegate both authority and responsibility to the people who do the work. They know that the people on the front lines are closest to the customer, and knowing this, they provide their team members with the authority to take responsibility for the customer’s well-being.

Saying this, and becoming skilled at doing it, are two very different things. It is practically universal that the growth of a manager is most tested on the skill set of delegation. What work should be delegated? Who should do it? How do you gain the person’s commitment to accept and to handle the responsibility? What level of power does the follower need, and can they handle it?

Authority and responsibility are the left and right foot of effectuality. You’re empowered to do it, and you’re accountable to do it. A balanced gait between authority and responsibility is critical to great results. If you have one, but not the other, it isn’t pretty.

If, for example, you have the authority, but not the responsibility…well, that’s just privilege run amok. Power must be harnessed to duty. “To whom much is given, much is required.” Power doesn’t exist for its own sake, and those with great authority are morally responsible to spend their power in service to causes bigger than themselves.

Conversely, and far more prevalent, is the problem of having the responsibility, but not the authority. This is misery! You must get the job done, but you haven’t been given what you need. Someone with authority gave you half of what success requires; you’re out on a limb, and the people in charge can watch how well you do, cut the limb off if you fail, and then protect themselves by pointing fingers at you from their safe perch in the tree.

Managers need a clear road-map to grow their workers’ capacity, gradually. Rather than handing over duties, watching for results, and then yanking everything back under their own control when things fail, managers should learn how to grow their people to step in and step up, responsibility by responsibility. This is how an organization builds leadership bench strength. This is how a business wows its customers. This is how an enterprise wins.

Allow Mistakes and Learning

In a 2006 interview for Human Resource Management, Ritz-Carlton Asia Pacific Vice President Mark DeCocinis talked about the issue of employee mistakes and learning. It’s impossible, DeCocinis declared, “to own and immediately resolve guest problems” without going out on a limb and risking being wrong. Exceptional customer service breaks down if an employee is afraid to make a mistake.

Why is that? Because holding a customer up while you check with the boss is already a bad customer service experience. The customer has suffered whatever went wrong, and now is being asked to wait around while permission is solicited to fix it! From the customer’s standpoint, that’s outrageous!

The same issue of employee mistakes and learning confronts the company that wants employees to accept hard assignments, test new ideas, or fix a longstanding problem. If the employee isn’t allowed to goof it up, the employee won’t ever do anything truly great for the company.

“It’s very important that when someone makes a mistake that they identify it so it can be resolved,” DeCocinis added. “Otherwise, the same mistakes may reoccur. So [we] recognize people for taking ownership of a problem and being part of the solution.”

This is the secret at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Employees are empowered to act without first getting manager sign-off. When an employee is empowered to act, there will be mistakes, which great companies see as part of the cost of doing great business. But in order for these mistakes to become learning opportunities, employees must know they are safe—even rewarded and recognized—for stepping up and saying, “My bad!”

A passionate leader will allow those they serve to take ownership of their mistakes and to become better workers because of them. Combined with attentively delegating both authority and responsibility, and working to truly know the hearts and ambitions of those you serve, these vital Serving Leader behaviors undoubtedly support, empower, and equip mature workers to gain ever-increasing mastery and confidence in the work they’ve been hired to accomplish.

In our Serving Leader Executive Cohorts, which are currently offered in Chicago (IL), Indianapolis (IN), Lancaster (PA), Rochester (NY), and Sugarcreek (OH)—with new cities coming soon—we spend a complete day doing action planning around these three behaviors. In the paragraphs above, I’m talking about the importance of these specific behaviors. The juice is in the doing! Nothing puts me over the moon more than seeing leaders implement specific, measurable action plans that upend the pyramid, equipping and empowering their people to step it up, become more, and deliver greater results.

Photo by Josh Newton


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