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Are You Practicing Servant Leadership?

April 11, 2017
Are You Practicing Servant Leadership?
The concept of Servant Leadership has been around for quite some time. A quick survey of books written on the subject, available on, revealed at least 30 books. Obviously, the concept means many things to different people. Below are some of the perspectives I have learned through 35 years of manufacturing management experience.

First and foremost, Servant Leadership is about truly valuing your people. No matter how advanced a manufacturing process becomes technologically, we continue to rely on people to run our operation, albeit fewer than before automation became the mainstay in manufacturing. Making sure your people know their importance and value in the organization is a manager’s job.

How well do you know what your people are being asked to do? Do they deal with the same problems and challenges every day? Do they have someone they can come to for support in solving problems? Do supervisors and managers listen to their concerns? Are interactions between supervisors and line workers constructive, positive, rewarding?

Upside-Down Organization Chart

One concept in Servant Leadership is the Upside-Down Organization Chart. Just take a look at your organization chart, turn it upside down, and pretend the supervisors/managers report to those considered their subordinates. How do you support them? Are you working to make their work more efficient, productive, easier, less of a hassle, etc? Are you helping to solve their biggest challenges to improving production, quality, safety, etc?

In reality, few of our businesses would stop producing our products if senior executives and managers didn’t show up. If our ongoing output is more dependent on the line worker, how are we supporting them in the mission to produce our products?

Leading vs Managing

Another distinction important to Servant Leadership is the difference between Leading and Managing. Managing is more about controlling, directing, decision making, setting goals, providing restrictions or rules. Leading is about listening, coaching, supporting, giving decision space, removing barriers, seeking input. Few people want to be managed. Almost everyone wants to be led. Leading empowers people to give their best, learn more about the job, solve problems themselves and share in a vision of where the organization is going.

Listening to your people can go a long way in developing their commitment and support in accomplishing the organization’s objectives. Do you know how they feel about their jobs, the business, job security, recognition, pay, benefits, etc? If you use an employee survey, are you asking the right questions? Do you do anything with the data? Do you share what you heard and what you intend to change as a result of the survey?

Once you have committed to listening to your people, it is important to ensure that bad news gets shared as well as the good. Transparency is key, but it goes both ways. If you have decided not to do something about a particular problem (we have to make choices), ensure you share that information with your organization, along with which problems you have decided to tackle and what the timeline will be. Better yet, involve your employees in setting priorities for which problems you will spend money to fix and which ones will have to wait due to budgetary constraints. Being part of a priority setting process can be a great motivator, even when all problems are not eliminated.

Continued Training and Development

Lastly, since we are talking about people, there should be an ongoing investment in training and development to improve needed skills over time. People can and will learn, but your training program needs to focus on the skills needed in your organization. People are usually much happier when learning something new, especially if they get a chance to use it immediately after learning the new skill.

Training and development are often last priority. In our rapidly changing world, “if you stop to rest, you fall behind” is an expression that illustrates the need to continuously build improved skills in your workforce. Budget for it, plan it and execute training for all people in your organization, including yourself.

Servant Leadership is a mindset change for leaders of all types. It is the recognition that the success of your organization relies heavily on how well you harness the talent of your people. Do you truly value them as one of the most important forces of success? Do you serve them to maximize their potential? This mindset can transform an organization. Give it a try.