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Untitled design 48 e1598980595353

The Value of Servant Leadership


How Can You Keep Your Team Motivated in Challenging Times?

By Beth Hood, founder and director, Verosa Ltd

If we could only offer one piece of advice to leaders in today’s VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – world, it would be this: keep some dry socks handy.

In the trenches of World War I, particularly during the winter of 1914-1915, Trench Foot, as it later became known, was a serious and debilitating problem for the British forces.  The trenches in Flanders and France often sat below sea level and consequently were easily flooded.

After hours and days of standing in soaking wet socks and boots, the painful condition would begin to set in.  The men’s feet would swell and go numb and then the skin would start to turn red or blue.  Untreated feet rapidly became gangrenous and would need to be amputated.

In order to minimise the chances of developing trench foot, soldiers were instructed to wash their feet and to change into dry socks as often as possible.  It was not unusual for soldiers and indeed their senior officers to wash and dry one another’s feet during these difficult times.

Now, we are by no means comparing the socio-politically uncertain times in which we find ourselves with the horrors of WWI, but there is certainly a lesson in leadership here that may well be helpful in today’s COVID19 world.

When the going gets tough – and chances are it may yet get tougher for many of us – leaders must turn our attention more than ever to looking after our most valuable resource – our people.  In uncertain times, a creeping sense of insecurity can paralyse and stifle levels of motivation, creativity and dynamic business development.  It is during these times that leaders have to be able to demonstrate that we believe in our people and empower them to do their very best.  It is time for Servant Leadership.

As Dan Cade, author of  Alive at Work:  The Neuroscience of Helping your People Love what They Do says, ‘When leaders are humble, show respect, and ask how they can serve employees as they improve the organization, the outcomes can be outstanding. And perhaps even more important than better company results, servant leaders get to act like better human beings.’

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Servant Leadership comes in many forms, but at its heart it is about understanding what our teams need from us to make it possible for them to do the (almost) impossible.

For many leaders navigating our way through the current crisis and volatile landscape will see us lean towards pro-activity, decisive action, strategic formulation (and re-formulation).  There will be demonstrations of overt strength, of stepping up, stepping in and lots and lots of energy.  Some organisational systems will move to a command and control dynamic in order to ensure clarity of mission and commitment to that mission.

However, within this (often necessary) crisis management, militaristic style of leadership, there is also room for empowerment and motivation that comes from a different place.  There is room for leading from behind or from within the team and for demonstrating leadership that will produce higher levels of individual motivation and a deeper commitment to the business vision and to you as an authentic, human being of a leader.

Consider these options for showing solidarity, support and gratitude for your teams at this time:

  • Lead by example: Stand shoulder to shoulder in the mud with your people.  If this means taking on some of the work yourself when the heat is turned up, then do it.  Yes, delegation and clear lines of responsibility are important, but in times of crisis, leaders who are prepared to ‘get their hands dirty’ with the rest of their team will be better respected, trusted and served than those who are not.
  • Demonstrate emotional intelligence: Take time to listen and really understand the needs of your people.  They are individuals and will all have differing experiences and pressures that impact upon them at the moment.  Challenge yourself to not to try and solve problems initially, but rather to be a sounding board.
  • Act on the needs of the team: No matter what pressure you yourself are enduring and experiencing from above, you have a choice to protect your team from some of that and what’s more, to attend to their needs.  This is ultimate characteristic of Servant Leadership.  Find ways of supplying those dry socks – even if it means taking off your own.

Whatever the next few months bring – bonus cuts, reduced budgets, job losses, recruitment freezes – adopting a servant leadership approach will go a long way to ensuring that your best and brightest stick with you and deliver, day after day.

Consider what it takes to keep people motivated in light of a changing and challenging environment and incorporate it into your leadership strategy.  Remember that people do not work for ideas, they work for people.  And when the corporate climate is squeezed, loyalties are too.

So, if you want to take your people with you this year, remember to keep the dry socks handy.  No one’s going to come with you if they can’t walk.

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