Showing up

I want to be this lovely woman! Don’t you? She’s present in the moment, taking everything in with undivided attention. She’s shown up with her full self.

So here’s the question: How do we get the people we lead to show up every day, eager to be present, to pay attention, serving each other, our partners, and our customers? How do we bring out their best in order to create true value that really matters, not only for the bottom line, but also for the common good?

Here are five servant-leader actions I’ve practiced over 30 years that have helped create the conditions in which people can show up for work with clear heads, full hearts, and willing hands.

1. Show appreciation when things go well

Our society conditions us to focus on deficits to the neglect of assets. We learn from command-and-control leaders that praising what is good is naïve and soft, whereas critiquing shortcomings is realistic and strong. The result is that we start to view others and ourselves as flawed and incapable. And that kills engagement.

If we start with and dwell on assets – strengths and successes, possibilities and resources – we will get better results when it’s time to turn to the ways we need to improve. Servant-leaders should lead with and spend the significant majority of their interactions with followers thanking them for who they are, what they bring, and their commitment to growth.

When I worked at American Bible Society, every quarter I held an informal interview with each of my staff, beginning with their sharing good news in their work and in their personal lives. When it came time for annual reviews, we had a sturdy platform of accomplishments to build on. The initial message was always: This is great! Do more of this. Here’s something to add to what’s already good that would really help; start doing this.

2. Offer encouragement when things are tough

If you’re like so many of us, it can be far easier to feel a sense of failure than a sense of success. Encouragement builds resilience, determination, and grit in the face of challenges. What is absolutely critical is to begin with reminding our followers that there’s a great purpose we are trying to achieve together, and that they at their best are proven, vital contributors. When we do move to deficits, the message should be: Here’s what’s less helpful; consider doing less of this. Perhaps stop that altogether and shift energy to what has more potential for working well.

An honest acknowledgement that there is always room for improvement reassures everyone that it’s safe to take risks in order to get better. Over the years I’ve experienced cultures of fear at work, and the result is always for folks to put on “cloaks of invisibility” in order to protect themselves. But when we show vulnerability,  admit that we ourselves have “struck out” our fair share, and acknowledge that setbacks a normal part of work and life, we give people the freedom to show themselves as they really are, regroup, and aim for their new personal best.

3. Harness feelings to re-engage thinking

Sometimes life just gets the better of us: fear grips us, sadness slows us, and uncertainty clouds us. Great thinking stops and our fight-flight-freeze instincts take over. Command-and-control leadership tells us to get it together, leave the emotions at home, and toughen up.

The servant-leader acknowledges and engages us in our full humanity. Here’s where great questions, attentive listening, and authentic presence is so powerful. There’s a fine line to walk between an appropriate recognition of emotions and getting sucked into someone else’s drama. But it is the calling of the servant-leader to coach the whole person. Whenever a colleague or follower shows signs of strong feelings, I relax and welcome them, and, with empathy, turn what may have started as venting into a thinking partnership. Once the air is cleared, collaboration toward solutions can resume with fresh energy.

4. Share information as fully as possible

Information is power, and this power needs to be shared if you want people to think well. People are basing their decisions and actions on assumptions all the time. When the information is incorrect the assumptions are incorrect, and the quality of decisions and actions suffers.

Information is crucial when we are confronted with denial, the stance that what is happening is not happening. Penetrating questions can bring a person safely face-to-face with what is true so that they can think well about it. Learning how to formulate these questions is a life-long quest for the servant-leader.

5. Demonstrate humility in all things

The common thread woven through all these practices of servant leadership is humility, the virtue of being so secure in our sense of self-worth that we can put others before us while still retaining a strong core of purpose, vision, and values. As Ken Blanchard’s mother often told him, “Being humble is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.”

Everything we do as leaders flows from the conviction that service is the reason we are in positions of leadership. It’s not because we are so great that people choose to follow us. Our greatness is defined by how great our people are becoming under our leadership.

Five tips for empowering those who follow us to show up each day excited to give their very best. How are you putting these into action? Comments welcome!


(Copyright © 2018 The Serving Way — Chris Alan Thyberg.) 


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