Monday 5 February 2018

Talking of Servant Leadership

It’s funny how something completely innocuous can provoke a stream of thoughts.

Just this afternoon I was scrolling through Linkedin (the social media site that does slightly terrify me with its notifications of ‘searches’ and ‘viewings’!) when I came across a post about ‘Servant Leadership’. It got me thinking about what it is that we mean when we talk of this style of leadership and of how I recognised in myself that I have become a little suspicious of the terminology - especially in an organisation setting - after witnessing it being enacted somewhat dubiously. It is a subject that I am very interested in though as I believe - wholeheartedly - in the premise but am concerned by the way in which it can be abused if it is not understood properly.  Brace yourself for a candid post...

Over the last year I have now lost count of the number of people who I have sat alongside who have shared stories – often in tears -  of grave mismanagement and mistreatment at the hand of Christian leaders, churches and organisations. Just last week I spoke to four people who shared stories that included sentences describing their being diagnosed with ‘post traumatic shock disorder’. Others said, ‘I was lied to’, ‘I think I am being bullied’, ‘they have left me completely broken’, ‘completely lost my confidence’ and ‘I will never work for a Christian organisation again.’ Two of the people worked for the same organisation. An organisation that espouses ‘Servant Leadership’ constantly.

Now this is a tricky thing to write about and as I tap these words I truly wonder if I should be doing so. Because the thing is, when we criticise an organisation or a church for their leadership style, their poor management or their misuse of power and loose relationship with the truth, we worry that we will either harm the good work that they often are doing or that we in some way bring the name of Jesus into disrepute. I think that there is also the concern that you could be challenged for sharing about your experience because it is just not the ‘Christian thing to do.’ And so pretty grim working environments continue unchallenged and people slink away from the whole experience very battered and bruised not quite knowing what to do with the confusion and the pain they carry.

I remember a meeting I once had with a director of a charity when I listened – not for the first time – to a story of how the charity had to dismiss an entire department of toxic and poisonous staff. I think the director may have wanted me to agree with the story that they were telling when in actual fact I was struggling with feelings of complete shock. And whilst I could imagine that the working environment within that organisation could have gotten very grim and people could have become very discontented and difficult to work with, I could also see very clearly, just having observed the organisation for a short time, why and how they came to that place.

Culture permeates top down and so if there was poison and toxicity to be challenged it perhaps needed to be challenged a little higher up.

Sitting in the director's office, I can recall saying with tears in my eyes, “we need to do things better, as Christians our churches and organisations should be the best places to work.” Very gently I tried to speak to him of the low staff morale and nervousness within his department. He told me that he categorically disagreed. 

We lead by story. This can be an immensely positive thing and something to engage with  intentionally, but when we lead with a negative story - often unintentionally - we create problems and instil a narrative to a work place that can be overwhelming in its effect. (An unintentional story is called an 'Untended Story'. See 'Leading By Story' by Vaughan S Roberts & David Sims for more info) .

For this organisation, their story of viewing staff as potentially ‘poisonous’ and ‘toxic’ was creating an environment of great mistrust and a culture of fear. In these sort of cultures people neither thrive or flourish, they just turn up to their job with an eye constantly on the employment websites looking for ways in which they can plan an escape route. 

When I left university my first career was in retail. I was a fashion manager for the House of Fraser. I remember during my management training being taught as to how the internal customer – the company’s staff – were the most important customer of all. The internal customer needed looking after. They needed to be valued and respected as highly as the external customer.  If your staff were not happy, your external customers would not be happy either. I think it would be good if we who lead in churches and Christian charities, businesses and organisations took this advice on board. If your staff are unhappy, the story that they carry of the work that you do, the church that you are, the business that you run, will be negatively coloured.

Whilst I am absolutely positive that it is not always an organisations fault that some staff are unhappy with their work situation and that there will be times that a member of staff was just not a good fit, WHEN it becomes an extensively repeated pattern that employees leave a place unsatisfactorily, then there is a genuine problem to be faced. And this is where true servant leadership could come in.

If we declare ourselves to be servant leader’s we set ourselves the high bar of learning with the greatest humility and vulnerability what it is to truly go lower.

 For me, the servant leader would be someone who could admit that they didn't always get it right. They would be keen to explore why so many staff leave their organisation and why so many are often off sick with stress type symptoms. They would be courageous enough to have the difficult conversations and resolution would be their aim. The servant leader would actively work to see a workplace thrive and flourish; they would have their staff’s back and their well being at heart. A servant leader would have the maturity to evaluate what it could be like to be on the other side of them and they would recognise that they have insecurities and rather than lie to cover them up, or gather people around a story that they have constructed,  they would hold their insecurities in balance as they dealt – servant heartedly - with the situation that had pressed all their wrong buttons. And anyone who claimed to be a servant leader would constantly understand that it is a truly tough gig because none of us naturally find it easy to put someone else’s well being ahead of our own. I guess the most powerful sentence a servant leader could frequently employ is, ‘I am sorry. I got that wrong.’

You see absolutely none of us are going to get it right all the time. As a wise psychologist friend of mine would say; we all have our shadow sides. The parts of  us that play 'rackets' and try to cover up our insecurities and our darker places. We sacrifice others in order to make ourselves look good and we are careless with people's lives forgetting that our treatment of them may leave very deep wounds that will take many years to heal. Robert K Greenleaf, who first coined the term 'servant leadership', wrote of how 'Good leaders must first become good servants.' 

Good leaders must first become good servants.

Good servants.

With some trepidation, I would love to open that subject up an awful lot more...



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