"Listen, guys. If we do not serve each other then we are killing each other." -Leadership Professor
"The kings of the world lord their authority over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves "benefactors." But you are not to be like that." -Jesus
"None of us is as good as all of us." -Ray Kroc
The longer that I live life and the more time that I spend working and learning in a business world with many other people from incredibly diverse backgrounds, the less that I believe that the head of a team should be a superior as much as they are a servant.
Let me tell you a little bit about my work history. Until a few months ago, I worked as a lower level manager for a company that stressed leadership as just another part of a team. This meant that the leader was just as important as the team as a whole, and it was the team as a whole, not the leader, that ultimately made most of the decisions that affected them. Obviously the management had to hand down decisions that were not popular, but this was communicated to the team with an explanation as to why the changes were being made. Our policy was completely open door with the management. One night, my boss told me that I would be mopping the floors with the evening crew after the work was done for the day. I asked him why, and he said that it was to help gain respect from the team (later he did the same thing, stayed late and mopped the floors while I went home). And what I found was that he was right - the team looked up to the management as a result of us doing that, which wasn't the only example of us doing the "grunt" work. We showed that we were willing to do everything that we were telling the team to do, and the team loved us for it and were willing to put in more work as a result.
Let's look at the leadership models from a broader perspective. For centuries, now, we have understood leadership from the perspective of the chain of command. Someone at the top makes a decision and it travels through all of the appropriate channels until the people that are at the bottom of the chain receive the message and are mobilized to carry out the order. This is flawed because only under this model is it possible for a leader to be entirely absent, making no decisions at all. It's also the best way for mis-communication to occur: I think that we've all played that game as kids where we whisper a secret into one person's ear in a circle, then it gets passed down along the line until it's a jumbled mess by the time the person at the end of the line gets it. The other danger to this model is the opposite - that management will be so overbearing on everyone else that it's no longer a functioning team. It's just an autocracy with a puppeteer or a group of puppeteers and lots of puppets to go with them. By definition, this is not a free-functioning society, and I think that it's appropriate to question whether it's a functioning leadership model, period.
I propose a new look at leadership, which has been known under a few different names. I prefer to call it "team leadership as properly understood," though most people prefer something shorter and refer to it as "round table leadership" or a "circle of relationships" where all opinions are valued. This can be implemented in a variety of ways and guarantees that leadership simply cannot be absent from the team. All major decisions (beyond the painfully obvious in a state of emergency) should be brought to the team for evaluation. The workers that are on the ground floor in a company, the followers doing the work on the streets in an organization - the management isn't going to know better than the workers how they can do their jobs better and what will make it easier for them to carry out their tasks. The workers, when asked, will often have ideas as to how they can do their jobs better, faster, and with a smile on their faces. Of course it is up to management to weigh the merits of these ideas - but the team has to be involved.
From the perspective of the leader, a leader, president, ruler, or manager of an organization containing the servant (or team) leadership model views themselves as merely servants of the team. They are there in order to make sure that the team is performing to the best of their ability and encourage them to do so in a positive manner. No-one responds well to threats or coercion. Everyone responds well to a sense of enthusiasm, deference, and being treated like an equal on a team when it comes from leadership ahead. And they are not above - they are ahead. They are leading the group as the leader is the best person to do so, but they are not doing it while they are on top of the rest of the team. You can't lead someone if you're sitting on their shoulders - that's ridiculous. You can lead someone if you are ahead of them, dealing with challenges first, while the followers can clearly see what you are doing.
Obviously, communication is a must for this type of model to work. I've been reading some material by an author named Stephen Covey, and one book titled [I]Speed of Trust[/I] interests me in particular. Essentially, Covey makes the argument that when someone extends trust, then trust will be extended to that person by the other party. If an employer extends trust to a worker to manage and handle affairs regarding customer service on their own without someone looking over their shoulder and motivate employees to do so, then employees will trust the management to take care of them well and deal with them honestly and justly. Extending trust to employees is a paradigm that simply assumes good faith in all of their employees - because the vast majority of a company's employees, when treated well and with respect, are not going to "screw over" the company and bite the hand that feeds them. Clearly, you need a good candidate assessment process in order to make sure that you have people that will do the right thing, but once you have those people, then all you have to do is motivate them to do what they do best.
There are companies that have put this very model into action - for example, Ritz Carlton (a chain of very high-class hotels) trusts their employees to handle customer complaints and discrepancies up to $2,000 in value without consulting higher management. The amount of flexibility and freedom that employees have is simply staggering - but this is a business practice put into place by one of the most successful companies in the world.
Servant leadership requires a very open-ended system where there is total communication about even the practices of management. Followers of a leader have to be allowed to see how their work contributes to the greater good of the group as a whole, or their work seems pointless and high turnover rates or low morale are inevitable outcomes. If people are not allowed to know the higher achievement of the organization as a result of their labor and how it benefits them, then at best they will be disinterested in the success of the organization and will also feel that they are not valued. Such practices tend to dehumanize the work roles of the organization and simply replace individuals as cogs in a machine.
This does not mean "run the organization like a democracy." Obviously a leader has to make tough decisions. People that are popular in the workplace might have to be let go or sent to work in a different area in order to further the organization as a whole - as long as this is done in such a manner that everyone on the team is developed, this is still servant leadership. Discipline is enforced in the workplace (different organizations need different levels of discipline) and this is a part of serving your team as you are developing people into better team players and by teaching them the lessons of the business and possibly even life. But let me make it clear that this is not really a dictatorship, either - while there is a person (or, preferably, a group of people) that ultimately calls the shots, decisions are made with the team involved - which is not a dictatorship.