Published on in InnovationResponsible Business

Whilst watching a TV drama set in a workplace recently, a particular line struck me. Admiring the integrity of a leader, a character remarked, ‘You don’t scheme, you serve,’ and called it out as something rather unusual to behold.

The context of the drama doesn’t really matter; what mattered was the impact that observation had on me. It was an observation I would be happy to hear, because I think the concept of being openly in service of others is something the world would benefit from today.

Of course, we all serve our customers – that’s a given. But let’s also consider how we can be in service of our colleagues, our peers, our managers and our supply chains at a time when empathy and benevolence matter more than ever.

Let’s be clear; ‘serving’ in business does not mean being subservient. And serving and leading are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think you can be a better leader by serving the people you lead.  I firmly believe leaders who are comfortable considering themselves to be in service of others are far more likely to see high levels of productivity and commitment from their teams.

And in case this all sounds terribly altruistic, I’d highlight that it is well documented that people have the capacity for around 15% discretionary effort, and that’s a whole lot of additional productivity when you add it up across large volumes of employees. In contrast, just add up the opportunity cost of leadership that’s focused on one-way traffic where subordinates are expected to be in service of their leaders – but not the other way around.

In public service; in the armed forces, in the NHS and in education, the concept of service is lauded and although there are necessary hierarchies, they are acknowledged to be there predominantly for operational reasons – to get things done, to keep things running smoothly – not to create power bases.

At a time when the world needs leaders to demonstrate empathy, authenticity and transparency, there has never been a better time to dial-down hierarchies in favour of a more service-oriented style of leadership.

Inevitably the global pandemic has driven a shift in authority and influence, largely due to increased remote and flexible working. As teams become increasingly dispersed, particularly in large organisations, matrix structures are increasingly becoming the norm.

For some, the matrix can be challenging because it comes with an inherent lack of clarity; who reports to whom? Who’s in charge..? The irony is that therein lies the opportunity; if we are smart about it, we can set up the culture of matrix working to foster a sense of mutual service – where we are all challenged to consider how we can serve one another; where we can be more productive because we want to put that little bit more in for the greater good.

Which leads me on to a second line I heard in that same drama show (if I may be indulged for a little longer), ‘You look not for credit but to contribute,’ and yet again I was struck. Apart from the revelation that I am personally drawn to alliterative phrases (I just can’t help it) and good scripting, I was drawn to the idea that credit is a by-product of contribution – and therefore leaders who share the pain of their teams in an environment where everyone seeks to serve the greater good, can genuinely share in the credit that follows.

We are living in a time when wellbeing in the workplace (wherever that workplace may be) is more important than ever. People need purpose more than ever. The level of personal fulfilment we get from our jobs ultimately contributes to our mental and physical wellbeing and our sense of personal worth.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I get a kick out of serving others. If I have spent time with someone who needs my help, I recognise the positive impact on my personal wellbeing, because I may just have made that person’s day a little better – and that makes mine better too. I admire other leaders who openly serve others, and I enjoy seeing the concept of service in action in all walks of life.

So, we know the business case stacks up; with 15% discretionary effort on the table (just do the maths), why wouldn’t we want others to feel worthy of our time and service, whether they are above or below us in a hierarchy?

Of course, one size doesn’t fit all and there is room for all kinds of leadership, in all kinds of situations. I am really looking forward to exploring this subject at Fujitsu’s next Executive Discussion Evening on 22nd September. Entitled, ‘People Power: authority and influence in a changing world,’ I shaped the topic before pre-COVID, but I feel it’s just as relevant now – more so in fact, for who would have known what a ‘changing world’ would come to mean when it was originally written? And who could have realised the seismic shifts we’d be experiencing in the dynamics of power and influence?

Oh, and ‘People Power’ is alliterative – it had to be done.

Find out more about our upcoming Executive Discussion Evening here.

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