THE COURAGEOUS SERVANT LEADER
Perhaps one of the more underrated attributes of servant leaders is their ability to demonstrate courage. The perception of servant leaders as “nice guys” overshadows the courageous conversations and decisions servant leaders make daily. It is impossible to practice servant leadership without also having the courage to do the right thing despite opposition. Servant leaders correct, counsel, discipline and sometimes terminate those they lead. They assume their role requires the likelihood of disappointing others and don’t sidestep this responsibility. Here are four servant leader actions that reflect their courage.
Communicate Honestly & Courteously — Servant leaders understand that tough conversations are a part of leadership. They prioritize honesty and directness and have developed the skill to provide correction and rebuke without being rude or abrasive. Consider how you feel when you receive constructive feedback. Your anxiety increases as you await an apologetic lengthy introduction — when you’d really value a thoughtful, timely and direct message. I recall this in my personal life, when my sister delivered the news of our mother’s passing. I valued her honest and direct delivery and trusted her motives. Likewise, at work, trust is developed over time through the leader’s small and authentic daily interactions. This trust transfers naturally into a difficult conversation, removing the interference often associated with communicating in environments of distrust.
Admit Mistakes/Show Humility — It seems odd to associate humility with courage, but in some organizations mistakes are met punitively and can tarnish reputations. Admitting mistakes does not absolve leaders from their responsibility to know their work. Leaders must have a level of competency required by the job. Still, it takes courage in the face of likely criticism for a leader to admit mistakes. There was a time when my department missed a deadline that impacted others outside our area. Ultimately, the responsibility fell to me, but members of my team took ownership for not moving the project forward. Days after the missed deadline came to light, I found a memo underneath papers on my desk awaiting my approval. My immediate urge was to dismiss my findings; the issue had already been addressed and others had taken responsibility for the misstep. I rejected this urge. Instead, I viewed the revelation as an opportunity to acknowledge my mistake to my staff and own the responsibility for missing the deadline. I earned credibility and modeled behaviors I hope to see from other leaders. Servant leaders understand the perfect person is nonexistent and unrelatable. By owning mistakes, they develop a contrasting view of the perfect leader in the form of an authentic leader.
Invite Honest Feedback and Openness to Change — Servant leaders want to know when they are meeting or missing the mark. They pursue self-awareness and desire honest feedback. They encourage followers to speak openly, without concern of fallout. This requires courage, because honest feedback can be uncomfortable. Many leaders avoid the discomfort, even though the practice of inviting feedback can be doubly beneficial. It affirms the value of transparent and authentic communication while providing a sounding board for servant leaders to better understand the impact they are having on others.
Relinquish Control/Show Trust — One of the most courageous actions servant leaders take is affording trust to followers. This can be revealed in several ways, such as delegating, relinquishing control and inviting team member involvement in decision-making. Because trust is essentially developed by showing trust to others, servant leaders are mindful of the desires and interests of those they lead. They actively seek opportunities to place followers in positions to succeed, even though there are risks involved in affording that trust. The performance of those trusted can be disappointing, leaving the leader looking bad. Poor outcomes can result in the leader’s judgment being questioned, and reputation harmed. Still, the effort to afford trust is worth it. Consider when you have felt most valued at work. It is likely when you know what’s expected of you, have some influence over your work, and see the connection between what you do and the greater objectives of the organization. By relinquishing control and affording trust, servant leaders set the stage for increased employee engagement and trust.
Malcolm A. Hankins is a public servant, nonprofit chair and keynote speaker. His focus is on leadership effectiveness, employee relations, community engagement and ministry.