Written by Kevan McBeth, Chief Purpose Officer- Affective Consulting


When we started this little boutique company, we wanted to something different. Everyone says that, I know, but we really meant it. 

Collectively, the three of us wanted to change the way organizations manage their people. We wanted to bring back the human element to business- get leaders thinking about their people as business partners, not the assets that they seem to be these days. I mean surely we can't continue to be willing to accept the status quo, where nearly half of our people are checked-out and another quarter of them are hanging on by their fingernails while they frantically search for a way out on Indeed or LinkedIn? Can we?

We've always felt we had a duty to try to make a difference for our friends and our colleagues to change the status quo. We had to at the very least try to help influence change. 

For me, it was about a bit of a different crusade. I wanted to fix things not only for the employee, but I wanted to make things different for leaders too. I had just been through a rough change of careers, and I really felt like I failed my people in my last position. I got into a role with a system that was stacked against the way that I thought we should do things, and I hate to admit it, but I let it beat me. I bought into the importance of meetings that measured progress through data, checks and balances, and I didn't dedicate as much time as I should have to my people. It left a really sour taste in my mouth and a chip on my shoulder. I never want to have that feeling again.

We came into this thinking that we could find a way to fix broken work places, but also bring a different level of support and leadership to a group of people who may be drowning more than any other- middle managers. The more time we spend with mid-level managers in business these days, the more we realize that they are the ones, more than any other group, that are hurting. They have been left alone mostly when it comes to leadership development, and they are the ones who are getting squeezed from the top more than any other part of the organization to sacrifice their time with their people for a greater focus on the metrics. They get stuck with the accountability of managing the strategic plan while also are asked to manage people who feel under valued and under-lead. Ultimately, they end up failing at both. Awesome. 

We spent the last year of our developing our consulting business building a belief in leadership with purpose, creating a greater understanding of the need for self-awareness in our leadership ranks, and the focus on leading with empathy, compassion and vulnerability. We touted a need to get back to the human element of business and went on long tirades with anyone who would listen to us about building leadership models that were people-centered. But all of our thoughts and ideas seemed to float off into oblivion without being tied together in a more tangible package that people could understand.  

Then something really interesting happened.

We heard the words "servant leadership" uttered by a friend of ours- almost so casually that if we weren't really listening, we would have completely ignored it. But it got us curious - what does servant leadership mean? Why haven't we ever heard of it before? It might be because it's an older philosophy that has been called by a number of different name, and even blended into other styles. But when we dove deeper into it, it changed everything for us. 

Servant leadership is old school. And thats a good thing. 

Robert K Greenleaf's "the Servant as a Leader" was where the phrase "servant leadership" was first uttered, and I guarantee that you will not see it on any shelf at Chapters, because for starters it was written in 1970, and secondly it's not even a book- it's an essay. It sits there, hiding in plain sight on Amazon, waiting for you to pick it up and learn from it, but it's not something that you would expect would pack as much punch as it has for us. And thats exactly why we are so taken with it. It's common sense, no BS leadership philosophy that maybe needs a bit of modernization in parts, but the foundational belief is as solid as it gets- be good to your people. Period. Full stop. End of Story.

There were a million different things that I took away from our initial investigation into servant leadership, and now that we have become certified in the philosophy we continue to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the values and principles behind the theory. We've begun to work with organizations to implement the theory into their corporate culture, and its been exciting to see how quickly it's changed engagement levels of employees.

The three servant leadership principles that turn leadership on its head.

In total, there are 11 principles that are associarted with servant leadership, but three in particular were key in my mind to shifting the way our organizations and our people think about leadership. 

1. Servant leaders are servants first 

Seems simple enough of a concept right? But the truth is that it's an entirely different way of looking at who organizations should be targeting in their leadership development, and why paying attention to creating the right environment is such an important part of organizational design these days. 

When you think of the word servant, you think of someone who puts the needs of others befor their own, values the success of the whole rather than the few. Servant leadership proposes that those charachter traits be the foundation for identifying leaders within your organization. 

Who is the enemy? Who is holding back more rapid movement to the better society that is reasonable and possible with available resources?...Evil, stupidity, apathy, the “system” are not the enemy...The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people...In short, the enemy is strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non-servant.
— Robert K. Greenleaf

I love this quote by Greenleaf, and it jumped out at me the second I read it. Too often we are quick to blame the external circumstances for our problems, when in reality its the internal struggle that is the issue within us all. We want change, but are unwilling to step up and make the difference. And too often we see those people that are amazing servants, who would be amazing leaders, choose a different path or stay in their posts as servants because they aren't comfortable putting themselves out there in leadership roles. There is something very dissapointing and sad about that, and it needs to change.  Those individuals need to understand that they have a duty to take that leap and step up for the good of the people around them, but in the same breath, we need to encourage those stellar servants to share their gifts at a higher level of accountability too. 

2. Its not a tool. its not a template. its not a model. its a philosophy.

And thats what I love about it. When you attend training sessions these days, you learn about models, formulas, tools that are supposed to help you become a better leader- a more effective leader. Problem is, it's like that cool pair of ripped jeans that you bought at the store with the hip-hop music bumpin' and the twenty-somethings who work there telling you that you look good, but then you never wear them because you don't go to the club anymore. Because you're 40. They just don't work in real-life situations when you try to fit into them. 

Servant leadership is adaptable, and therefore scaleable in almost any work environment that you can think of. And its that way because it's only dependant on one thing....

3. Servant leadership is about personal accountability.

If there's one thing that I love about servant leadership is that it's about accountability. Accountability for your actions as well as your accountability for others that are in your charge. Only you, and you alone, as leaders can determine the type of environment you want to create for your people and the culture you want your organization to thrive in. Those people in the corner who are disengaged are there because you didn't engage them. Your organizational culture is only as good as the behaviour you are willing to tolerate, and that includes your own. 

In the same breath, your accountability according to Greenleaf extends to those who you serve- your employees. Its is your accountability to ensure that your employees are given the necessary tools, training and support to allow them to be the best that they can be, and your sole purpose in your leadership journey is ensuring those who you are responsible for grow and develop to the fullest of their potential. When they aren't reaching their full capability, its your duty to hold them accountable for their actions, and push them to be better- not because you want to squeeze every last ounce of production out of them, but rather because they aren't realizing the potential that they have. 

Imagine how differently a productivity conversation would be with an employee if it came from a place of trust and caring about their individual potential rather than meeting a performance level.....

This feels right to us. 

its not rocket science by a long shot- its a simple re-focusing of what is important in leadership and some solid principles and values that you need to be diligent in practicing in order to realize the potential of the philosophy. Is it hard? Yep. Will it take time to implement? Absolutely. Will you see improvement in the engagement of your people? Uh, definately. So what's holding us back again? Nothing. 

Its time to make a change and build a better mouse trap when it comes to taking care of our people and leading our organizations the right way. We need to stop focusing on the numbers and start re-focusing on our people. There's a better path for us out there, and call it servant leadership, or ethical leadership or blue ocean leadership- what ever you call it, just make it happen. But it has to start with a committment to being a better, more people-focused leader. And the only person you'll need to authorize that request is you. 

So let's do this.