Servant Leadership and Standing Out

LonePawn

My son is fifteen and he’s the typical teenager that either thinks he’s being asked to do way too much or he’s not getting recognized for what he’s accomplished. That last part is hard for him because he’s a bit humble and doesn’t like to tout his own work. I once told him that he didn’t need to do that because he stands out to the people that matter. He did the typical teenager thing where he fought me and said that no one noticed anything he did. I told him that if you do things the way they’re supposed to be done and don’t spend your whole day crowing about what you’re doing that the right people will most assuredly notice.

The worry that your work is going unnoticed isn’t unfounded among teenagers or adults. How many times have we asked ourselves in our daily work roles if we matter? It takes about two weeks worth of meetings in a typical IT department for you to see how things go. There are those that coast by with the knowledge they obtained years ago that have their niche and they intend to fill it. Their entire purpose is to avoid notice. They fear someone will figure out their job is redundant or they don’t want to get found out for having less capability than they really possess.

The other side of the coin is the group we all loathe. The braggarts and proclaimers. The ones that spend all of five minutes turning a wrench or typing in a command and then take the next hour to talk about how great a job they did or how things would have fallen apart without their help and expertise. These are the people that we’re all worried about. They don’t want to avoid attracting attention. In fact, they revel in it. They want the eyes on them. They have no fear of looking inadequate or incapable. They will put any of their skills up against anyone at any time so they can be seen as the best at something.

What about those in the middle? The ones that want to be recognized for what we are without sounding overly confident or even boastful? What about those that are learning but still unsure of their skills and don’t want to do something wrong just in case it’s going to cause problems? Or the people that only want to stand out because they work hard and feel like the braggarts get all the eyeballs? What if I told you there was an easier method to figure out where your stand?

The Pillars of Productivity

You’ve probably already noticed that your leaders come to you when something needs to be done, right? Not the usual kind of busy work or tasks that have little importance in the long run. I’m talking about the big tasks. The important projects. The things that can’t fail and need attention to detail because they have to be done right. You know, the kinds of things you get asked to do all the time?

Why is that? While you may not be able to see it from your vantage point, the best leaders are the ones that have been keeping score the entire time and they know how to get things done. They see those shadowy people in IT that have outdated skill sets trying to keep a low profile. They also have a record of all the times those people have asked to learn something new or stretch their horizon. While those team members may think they’re flying under the radar they’re even more visible to those that know what to look for and how to select them out of important stuff. Those job roles they covet because they’re easy and important? They’re also one step away from being automated and keep unmotivated team members away from critical things.

What about the loud mouths? The ones that don’t miss an opportunity to talk about all the important stuff they’re doing and how management came to them to make it happen. How is it that they get all the good jobs and you get to toil away on these never-ending projects? What makes them so special?

Did you ever stop and ask yourself how important those projects were? Did you ever think that perhaps they’re not as critical as one might believe? Perhaps even that they’re so unimportant that people feel the need to brag about them to make them seem more important? I’ve seen more than a few times in my career that the ones that are spending the most time talking about what they’re doing are actually doing the least amount of work. If the task or project is so critical and important how is it that this person has the time to sit around the water cooler sharing how things are only going smoothly because they’re getting it all done?

They Who Serve Their Fellows

The idea that people should do the work without expecting credit or praise isn’t as foreign as it sounds. It’s a component of the Servant Leadership concept popularized by Robert Greenleaf. Servant leadership is based around the idea that the leader of a group exists to serve their employees and help them grow and be better. One of the important pieces of this the need to do things not for praise but for the greater good.

Leaders that subscribe to the ideas behind servant leadership don’t look for the loud team members crowing about their accomplishments. Instead, they look for those that are quietly getting things accomplished. They measure output, not volume. They seek those that serve others as they do not those that serve themselves. And those are the people that are relied upon over and over again to get things accomplished.

You may be saying to yourself, “That’s not how it works around my office.” And that’s entirely true for a lot of places. If that’s the case, do me a favor and think for moment about the bosses that are always heaping praise onto those that can’t stop talking about their accomplishments. Are they they kinds of people that also brag about themselves and their roles? Do they spend more time announcing their work than they do working? I think you’ll find a strong correlation. Those that can’t see the inherent value in someone’s output often need to be told someone is working hard. And because they feel the same need to boast about what they do they take the discussion at face value instead of understanding it all at a deeper level. I would also venture to guess that they aren’t the kinds of managers that you’d want to be working for.

Since we’re doing thought exercises, let’s do another. Think about a manager that you would want to work for. Maybe it was someone that was concerned with your skill set and encouraged you to learn more. Or that checked in on you frequently to see how you were doing on a project instead of just assuming you weren’t getting the job done because you were super busy with it. Maybe that manager even stood up for you after a mistake or spent time to help you understand where you needed to improve outside of your skills. Sure, they probably gave you lots of projects and you may have even felt overwhelmed at times. But never because you felt your manager was trying to sabotage you or overload you. These are the kinds of people you’d go back to work with in an instant, right?

Unsurprisingly, those characteristics are a hallmark of a servant leader. Those leaders rarely find themselves at the head of a major company. They get the work done instead of bragging about the work they do. They tend to find positions running departments focused on service or deliverables. They’re the rock you count on instead of the face you send out to sell the work. Ironically enough, they don’t thrive in sales positions because they tend to cut through the garbage quickly and judge people on results instead of promises. These are the leaders we should be promoting. Because these are the leaders that recognize talent and nurture it instead of listening to the ones that can only talk about things instead of getting them done.


Tom’s Take

It took me a long time to realize the guiding hand behind servant leadership principles. I knew what it was as soon as someone told me about it because I’d seen it being used my whole life. From my parents to my formative managers to the present day I’ve had the luxury of working for several people that have embodied the ideals of someone that works to better others. Sure, I’ve had to deal with my fair share of braggarts and shadowy figures. But knowing there was someone that knew what I was capable of and that I stood out to them enough to be trusted with the important work has been enough for me so far. As I find myself looking over more and more work and coordinating projects I also see the things that my former managers saw. I see the need to recognize those that are putting in the work and not just telling me what they’re doing. I seek out those that don’t do it for praise or don’t hide from my gaze. And in doing so I hope I can inspire a new generation of servant leaders as well.