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InfoQ Homepage News What is Blocking Adoption of Servant Leadership

What is Blocking Adoption of Servant Leadership

Although the world has changed we still worship ideas from ancient management heroes says Tomasz Wykowski. Our behavior changes quite slowly. To get servant leadership adopted in organizations you need to start from yourself and be an example. Give trust to people and respect them, and invite them to change.

Wykowski talked about servant leadership at the Agile Eastern Europe 2015 conference. InfoQ interviewed him on changing the way that people are being managed and adopting servant leadership.

InfoQ: You started your talk with history of a train accident from almost 200 years ago. Why do you think the history lesson is important for leaders?

Wykowski: Fairly shortly after beginning my professional career I was promoted to a managerial position. Soon, I realized that "if…then…" formulas, which worked pretty well for computers, don’t work for people. When I looked back, I’ve discovered, that during almost twenty years in schools I received almost no formal education on how to cope with people. Therefore I’ve spent the last ten years trying to understand what makes us behave the way we do. I’ve learned that it’s strongly impacted by our legacy – history of management heroes, whose ideas are still being worshiped, despite the fact that the world around us has changed and is looking for new values and principles. For example that train collision in 1841 in Massachusetts which led to the creation of the "Report on Avoiding Collisions and Governing Employees". This document recommended the definition of responsibilities, the introduction of functional managers, regular reporting with lines of reporting and detailed instructions on timetables that could be changed only with written permission. In other words our well known, hierarchical structure of today’s corporations was created.

InfoQ: Why are these ideas still used?

Wykowski: I guess that’s more a question for anthropologist. What I’ve noticed though, is that our behaviors change quite slowly over time. I’ve just learned recently from Linda Rising that despite William Harvey disproved the basis of bloodletting in 1628 it was still in use 300 years later. In IT industry we’re used to rapidly changing technologies, and somehow unconsciously we expect the same from people’s behavior. I guess no company is using vacuum tubes anymore, but most of them are still using these 19th century practices. These things won’t disappear soon. The only thing we can do is to tell our story, so that they become minority rather than majority.

InfoQ: Can you share your view on what leadership is?

Wykowski: First you need to distinguish between leadership and management. Our organizations need both. However you can only manage things and lead people, never the other way around. So my definition of leadership is "helping others to achieve our common goal".

InfoQ: You mentioned that in servant leadership it is important to understand yourself. Can you elaborate on that?

Wykowski: Over time I’ve defined three leadership principles which are Start from yourself, Work with others, and Improve the system. Understanding oneself is one of the core of personal development. The fact that we’ve spend our whole life with ourselves doesn’t mean that we understand what we’re doing and why. Therefore it’s critical to learn what motivates us, and what fears us, what are our strengths and weaknesses, what makes us happy and what mad. Without that it will be really difficult to have our own behavior aligned with what we think and say.

InfoQ: Can you mention some of the things that you think are blocking the adoption of servant leadership?

Wykowski: That varies between organizations, but one thing I see much too often is some unconscious assumption that there must be something wrong with others. For example HR policies that are written in a way that shows that the company does not trust their employees. Or managers who think they need to motivate their direct reports with bonuses to make them work efficiently. Or micromanage them to make sure everything will be done. The basic paradigm that Servant Leadership should start with is "I’m OK – You’re OK". You get what you’re giving. If you want people to trust you, you need to trust them first. If you want them to behave as adults, you need to treat them as adults first. And remember, it’s ok to be different, have different opinions, goals and values. Respect people. Do not judge them, but listen to what they’re saying and why.

InfoQ published an article about host leadership as a new metaphor for agile. What are your thoughts on this?

Wykowski: French and Raven identified six sources of power, which are Coercion, Reward, Legitimacy, Expert, Referent and Informational. In traditional organizations, manager’s power usually comes from the first three which relates to their position in structure and ability to punish or reward others for their behaviors and sometimes from the last one, with information that managers decide to pass, or not to pass to the team. Servant Leaders’ power comes from building trust, from being recognized as an expert who can and is willing to help others. If you look at different examples through history, such as Martin Luther King Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi, you’ll see that they had huge power and were able to drive tremendous changes without formal power, given by a president, queen or CEO. Saying that, I also like the Host Leadership metaphor described by Pierluigi as it gives a different perspective on the leader’s role. I think that these two ideas are both valid and complementary to each other.

InfoQ: Is there any advice that you can give to organizations that would like their managers to use ideas from servant leadership?

Wykowski: Lots of. And again, it really depends on the organization. Different companies needs to take different actions. The first, quite universal that comes to my mind is to start from yourself. Let the examples come from the top of the organization. Don’t expect that people will show different behavior from what you’re doing, that managers will treat their teams in other ways than you treat them. A second advice is to remember that it’s not management alone who’s responsible for leadership. As Peter R. Scholtes once said "It’s the job of the leader to see to it, that leadership occurs". Invite all employees to drive the change in your organization.

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