In the lead-up to the recent election, the term ‘servant leadership’ was used frequently by commentators to describe the leadership style South Africans were yearning for from incoming political leaders. In fact, President Cyril Ramaphosa recognised this.
“I pledge here today that I will serve you, I will work with you, side by side, to build the South Africa that we all want and deserve,” he said in the closing statement of his inauguration address.
I first came across the concept many years ago while visiting a fellow farmer; let’s call him Ian. We were in his farm workshop, and he stopped to introduce me to his workshop manager.
As we were turning to leave, Ian said: “By the way, Tulani, will it be okay with you if I take a few days off next week? My dad’s been ill and I need to get down to my folks and see how they’re doing.”
“Fine by me,” answered Tulani. “Everything’s in good shape here. Hope all is well with your dad.”
Call me if I can help,” said Ian.
I was bemused. Here was the part-owner and manager of the farm, asking his workshop manager if he could go on leave. What was going on?
“Why is it that you, the boss, are asking Tulani, your employee, if you can go off for a few days?” I asked Ian.
“I’d never go off for a few days without checking with my guys,” he said. “They depend on me as much as I depend on them.”
It was a great lesson for me. I only realised later Ian is what’s now referred to as a ‘servant leader’.
He’d never had any management training, but he intuitively understood that a leader serves his people and not the other way round. The great success of the business he manages is testimony to the effectiveness of his leadership.
The early students of leadership identified only three basic styles:
- Authoritarian or autocratic – where what the boss said went, no questions asked.
- Participative or democratic – where employees’ views were asked for and taken into account.
- Hands off – where employees were largely left to their own devices.
But, of course, to identify only these three was a gross oversimplification. As time went on it was realised there were many more nuances and combinations.
Today’s leadership literature identifies many more leadership styles, including:
- Coaching: More effective in building employees’ own capacity, these leaders tend to switch from making statements to asking questions. For example, when a mistake is made by someone, instead of saying, “That was a mess. In future do it this way,” they ask: “How can we improve on this next time?”
- Visionary: These leaders have a powerful ability to usher in periods of change by inspiring employees.
- Pacesetter: Here the focus is primarily on performance. These leaders set high standards and hold their team members accountable for hitting their goals.
- Transactional: Here we have hard-nosed commercial types focused on performance. They believe everything can be achieved by the right incentives, usually money, and disciplinary action for failure.
- Bureaucratic: These leaders expect their team members to follow the rules and procedures precisely as written. This, of course, is often necessary in highly regulated industries such as finance and healthcare.
But back to servant leadership, epitomised in the famous call by John F Kennedy to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Let’s wish Ramaphosa luck. He needs it and so do we.