Rethinking leadership: are you willing to be a servant leader?

Rethinking leadership: are you willing to be a servant leader?

An earlier version of the article was published in French in

Management positions are no longer the stuff of dreams: is it because we were misled about what they really entail? Fabrice Cavarretta, an expert in leadership, explored this in a recent paper in Organizational Dynamics, suggesting that maybe we need to rework how we think about people management.

Our era has an ambivalent relationship with leaders. The classic middle manager role is no longer as desirable. Even the idea of “leadership” raises suspicion due to its negative associations: in the world of work, it conjures images of Silicon Valley’s excesses, of workers as cogs in a wheel, of hypocritical political leaders. 

Despite this, we need people to take on leadership roles in their respective “ecosystems’: parents (family ecosystem), managers (team and workplace ecosystem), teachers (school ecosystem), elected officials (government ecosystem), etc. 

What does leadership really mean?

In Western culture, we tend to conceptualize leadership using an outdated model called Taylorism, in which a leader = vision + planning. In doing so, we’ve forgotten the ultimate goal of leadership: that the leader achieves fulfillment through the success of others. This means that leaders shouldn’t forget the reality of their work, which is supporting people in order to successfully execute a common mission. Once they understand this, the difficulty then lies in developing the motivation to make this a rewarding process. 

Misunderstandings and growing pains 

Many accept or even seek out this responsibility, but they don’t always have the “right reasons”. They might be motivated by the promise of a promotion or the desire to have everyone follow their vision. They might also be a bit naive going into it, and continue to focus solely on their technical work: the engineering project manager who remains the best engineer but the best manager, the sales manager who is the top salesperson but not the top manager. They might also accept in the hopes that they’ll quickly get rid of the people-related problems and focus on what they think of as “real work”, typically their vision and strategy.

These misunderstandings mean that not all leaders really appreciate what it means to manage people, leading to problems and disappointment. They end up feeling like their work is thankless and feel discouraged. This limits both their satisfaction and their effectiveness. 

It’s true that people management is complex: people lose motivation, tell tales, quit or don’t show up, complain… Of course, it can also be rewarding, but it can be hard for leaders to keep enjoying the heart of their work. Surprisingly, it seems more difficult for leaders than bakers, engineers or doctors to develop and sustain true love for their daily task.

Becoming a servant leader means getting your hands dirty

Leadership is a process, and it involves getting your hands dirty to a degree that few recognize. For most jobs, the professional path requires heavy training, initial and on the job, commonly lasting years. By contrast, when assuming a leadership position, it’s often a switch that happens without much specialized training, or perhaps with just a few days of training from time to time. The learning curve to become a leader is therefore greatly underestimated. 

This calls for a shift in mentality: Professor Cavarretta insists that aspiring leaders “should want to consider approaching leadership as a learning subject, as something for which one keeps on learning significantly over time”. Whatever the means – programs like MBAs, or coaching, or reading literature in fields like psychology, sociology and anthropology – this should entail months of learning about humans.  Accepting the need to learn will address issues like a lack of motivation and correct assumptions about leadership. 

Another required mental shift concerns the belief system and values associated with leadership. Dr. Cavarretta previously developed the idea that sustaining effort over the long term is like planning for a long trip, and that we can look at this process like a performance loop: effort - performance - pleasure - motivation - effort. In other words, leaders need to appreciate getting into the mud with their team and do the hard work of people management … before they can see the benefit to their performance - so it helps to enjoy putting in that effort. 

He suggests encouraging leaders to view themselves as “the engineer of their social system”, evoking the learning curve involved and the fact that there needs to be a significant amount of effort before seeing one’s work come to fruition. 

This also entails embracing the true servant nature of a leadership job, therefore developing an emotional, esthetic taste for dealing with humans, activities that could otherwise be perceived as painful and even messy. This helps leaders avoid becoming frustrated or checking out of their responsibilities, and keep their eye on the prize: the pride of taking charge of the relationships with those they manage. 

By reworking how we talk about leadership, we can help aspiring leaders be better prepared for the realities of their work and stay motivated over the long term - an important goal in challenging times. 

Further reading

Cavarretta, F. (2024). Weary of the harsh realities of people management? Leadership development as cultivating a taste for muddy situations. Organizational Dynamics, 101028.

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