Not all Servant-Leaders Wear Capes
Many years ago I used to work for a company in which we had a CEO who was very much around us on a day-to-day basis.
Previous to this stint, my experience had been with large faceless corporations and so this is quite refreshing to see. And it was also nice to see the big boss walk around the office introducing himself asking us how your day was going and generally a happy jolly character making us all feel important and valued members of his organisation.
Alongside him I had my boss who, after hiring me, had very little interaction with me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t see him. In fact he sat behind me only a few feet away.
However he kept himself very much to himself and was only on hand to ensure that we had the tools needed to do our jobs and that any impediments were removed. (This was before the world of Agile was known to me.)
I’d often question his role within the team. I would sometimes project my frustrations at the projects I was involved onto him and how weak he was as a leader. I never shared that with anyone else but I often wondered why he didn’t “manage” us more.
On many occasions we had a particularly toxic member of the team who would not be cooperative in our meetings on various projects. My boss would seldom step in to save me and all the others from this toxic team member and instead we would be left to our own devices to try and figure out how to deal with that coworker.
Admittedly we would end up resolving his toxic nature in the end, albeit after pulling out hair and chain smoking on our breaks together!
One day we were also told that my boss would be leaving as he had found another job elsewhere. After he left, I was remarking with a senior member of the board as to how hands off my ex-boss used to be when it came to the projects that we were on.
It was only then that I found out something which really shook me up in my understanding of what it means to be a boss. What transpired in my conversation with this board member was that although in front of us he didn’t appear involved, in reality and where it counted he was a true leader.
The CEO would have regular meetings with department heads and in these meetings he was loud, aggressive and an abusive character. A truly intimidating individual that was feared by all in the room. Others who had witnessed this nodded in solemn agreement.
The senior member of staff continued in telling me that his main victim in these weekly meetings would be my ex-boss and his primary attack would be on the lack of progress that he was seeing in us, the development team, that my boss was managing.
Now this isn’t to say that we weren’t without fault. We had our challenges with the projects that we were running. Some were behind schedule others had issues outside of our control. A lot of the delays were down to the projects changing direction mid-way and thus causing delays because they were being run in a traditional waterfall manner.
To my horror, I discovered that he made it almost a weekly event where he would belittle and shout at and intimidate my ex-boss for the work that we were doing or, in his mind, not doing.
I asked why nobody stepped in. Why was the CEO allowed to continue singling out my ex-boss for this treatment. The response I got was because it was either my ex-boss or somebody else in that room. The CEO wanted to vent and they were just happy it wasn’t them.
What got to me was 2 things: firstly the CEO made none of this clear to us when he would come round to speak with us. In fact in all the time I spoke to him all he ever did was tell us how great we were doing and how happy he was with us all.
The second thing, that impacts me to this day is the fact that despite my ex boss being bullied in this way on a weekly basis, he never projected it onto me or any other member of my team.
In fact when I ran through our time together in my mind the only things I got from him were words of encouragement and motivation to continue to improve and grow.
Not once do I recall him coming out of his meetings in a bad mood and projecting what he had received on to any of us. He would occasionally ask us to explain in more depth why projects were being delayed but provided we offered a sound reason for the delay he would not probe it further.
As a servant leader I think the best leaders are like my ex-boss. They are the sort of people who encourage you to become the best you can be they are the sort of people who leave you to manage your own challenges within your role and most importantly they’re the sort of people who shield you from disruptive forces within your own organisation.
I wish I had known this about my boss before he left. I don’t know if I would have done anything differently, judged him differently or just not judged him at all. What I would have done is with the knowledge and experience I have now I would have told him that it is his leadership that has made me the person I am today.
We will all encounter these types of personalities in our lives. People who project negative energy and risk affecting our energy. The best leaders are those servant leaders who don’t even tell us they are being such. They just sit at their desk, assisting us when need be, leaving us to self-organise, self-manage all the while protecting us from the outside forces that threaten the energy within the team.
This is what it means to be a servant leader. And I thank him for helping me to become one.