Servant Leadership: a Solution to Toxic Leadership

Toxic leadership is a hot topic in the military lately. How many more stories about toxic leaders who ran their units into the ground do we need to hear? Can we get a handle on this already?

Sure we can. There is a simple solution. It’s called servant leadership.

Flip the traditional military chain of command pyramid on its head and you have a servant leadership. At the top (what was the broad base of the traditional pyramid) are the vast majority of the workforce: the mid and junior grade soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines … the ones who typical “do” the military mission. You know, where the rubber meets the road. At the pointy tip supporting these people is a leader whose job is helping them accomplish the mission by properly equipping, training, and mentoring them, and by removing obstacles.

Servant leaders serve those who technically report to them, and they serve the citizens of our country by running the most effective organizations possible given the personnel and financial resources the public provide.

Mr. Burns, king of toxic leaders.

Contrast this with the traditional (or more accurately, stereotypical) rigid autocratic top down chain. What you’ll see there is an organization where those in positions of authority have grown up through the ranks, think they know the majority of what their subordinates do, and believe direction simply flows from top down. On the rare occasion that information is needed from lower ranks they’ll ask for it; until then it’s insignificant so shut up and color. You know this type of blunt command chain, with its adversarial us vs. them climate, and it doesn’t need more illumination here.

In reality, most military command organizations lie between these extremes. But it’s time to get off the fence. Waffling between these leadership modes is wasting opportunity. Even worse, it allows leaders with a tendency toward autocratic rule to ascend to command and become toxic leaders in today’s environment, rather than correcting their mindset early in their careers and filtering out those who won’t change.

To understand the importance of choosing the appropriate leadership mode of these two opposing styles you have to grasp the fundamental change that’s taken place with our personnel. The U.S. military has undergone a revolution in military affairs with our personnel.

This may sound crude and impersonal but troops used to be employed as commodities, a collection of similarly trained people being used as laborers. I truly mean no disrespect; the generation who served in WWI and WWII made sacrifices and accomplished things for the world no one should ever forget or downplay. But, the men were treated as pawns on a battlefield, one soldier was considered as good as another, it was a numbers game. Over the years our military force has evolved into an expertly trained and highly specialized collection of individuals who each bring a separate skill to the group. The contrast between personnel of now and a century ago is striking and the evolutionary change has resulted in revolutionary differences.

WWII boot camp.

Think anyone can step in for one of these guys? Does their commander know how to do this?

For example, consider the number of enlisted personnel who have higher professional level degrees than the officers who lead them. Unheard of decades ago it’s now a common occurence. No longer do commanders have the same knowledge as those they are leading; except for prior-enlisted officers, most commanders haven’t attended the technical training schools needed to operate and maintain all of the military hardware and technology under their control. They have a general understanding, but many lack intimate knowledge of how to do the work being done by their subordinates. [That’s not to say our current leaders aren’t knowledgeable; they are intelligent and well educated, but in fundamentally different ways, with different types of knowledge valuable to the military enterprise.]

Gen Patton was a great leader, but are his autocratic methods still appropriate with today’s all volunteer force?

Yet despite the obvious difference in the knowledge level of our troops compared to the early 1900s, leadership methods today differ little from a century ago. It’s time to change. Leadership doctrine of the 20th century is a wonderful point of departure to grow from; it’s not a concrete methodology that must remain stagnant. Patton’s style is enjoyable to reminisce over, but many of his methods would be extremely inappropriate and counterproductive today.

Military personnel are no longer basic laborers. They are knowledge workers.  Each person brings unique skills sets and capabilities to the team. The implication is that autocratic top-down-only leadership is not only insulting, it misses opportunities that could be leveraged if the more knowledgeable lower ranking troops could inform and influence decision making. At worst, autocratic leadership imposed on knowledgeable troops leads to poor leadership decision making due to leaders lacking the necessary information to make good choices, and in the military poor decision making can be deadly. It also distances the people who need to feel part of the team; if they don’t feel included, they won’t risk offering their necessary insights, and battles will be lost.

Fortunately, most military leaders have adjusted to this new knowledge worker paradigm by finding middle ground between autocratic and servant leadership. But those with autocratic tendencies eventually develop into toxic leaders in today’s environment. They manage to succeed well enough as junior leaders by imposing their will on their teams, get promoted and recognized, take this as affirmation their aggressive leadership style works, until suddenly one day the world collapses on them for behaving as the absolute self-centered narcissists we’ve allowed and unwittingly encouraged them to become. Developing this kind of leader is preventable but takes conscious effort.

Assuming servant leadership is the right direction to go, how do we get there?  What traits do we try to instill in our leaders?

There is a lot of literature on servant leadership, and most authors agrees on about 9 characteristics.  So let’s do the military thing and group these into 3 main ideas w ithsupporting ideas. (Woohoo, Squadron Officer School pays off!) So, drumroll please, here are the 3 main aspects of servant leadership and their supporting characteristics:

–          Understanding.

A servant leader emphasizes listening effectively to others, and gains empathy for their associate’s feelings, intuition, and perspectives. Whoa, did I just say “feelings”?  Yes, I did. Most communication between people is still non-verbal, and the feelings that a person can relate to you about their interactions with others are valuable information that need to be considered to understand the complete picture. For example, maybe a subordinate is running an investigation, or developing a contract agreement, and the person they’re working with makes them suspect something is amiss or that the other party is possibly lying, but they can’t exactly say why. Important? Of course it is. Coupled with a leader’s awareness of their own values, feelings, strengths, and weaknesses, listening and empathy help develop a leader’s thorough understanding of the complex situations being dealt with. We must be cautious to not let our own biases cause us to misunderstand a situation.

–          Decision making.

Many paths, different anticipated outcomes… a good understanding of the situation will help to identify the best option to pursue.

Depth of understanding is the critical foundation to effective decision making. Once there is understanding a servant leader must conceptualize it by developing a simplified mental picture, framework, or model of what is going on. Again, others may assist in this conceptualization; two minds are often better than one. The leader must then employ foresight to grasp how the past, present, and future are related, and link this with the conceptual framework to integrate present realities while anticipating future possibilities that arise from various possible choices. The leader can then make an informed decision while also applying good stewardship of available resources, whether those are personnel, equipment, or funds.

–          Empowerment.

As a precursor to effective listening a servant leader must develop mutual trust and respect with those who are being led, otherwise people aren’t going to speak up as we need them to. A unit climate that is supportive of candor in discussions is critical. Servant leaders foster this climate by considering personnel as associates or team mates operating in different roles rather than as subordinates. This develops a environment where the emotional and spiritual health of each person is protected, and repairs previous injuries that impede a person’s willingness to fully participate. Fear of repeated pain for offering unsolicited advice and getting shot down for it is a disincentive that must be repaired. Along with this a servant leader maintains a commitment to helping people grow and is responsible for serving the needs of others. Developing a good unit climate also requires building a sense of community throughout the organization. People who feel appreciated and wanted by their team tend to perform much better and provide a positive feedback to others of the same appreciation.

Like a circle these characteristics of trust, health, commitment, and community feed back into the leader’s ability to develop situational understanding, but they also contribute to fostering servant leadership in the still developing junior leaders who are in early leadership roles of their own. The synergy of multiple leaders in an organization fostering servant leadership then gains momentum as it feeds back into itself, furthering servant leadership as the default leadership process.

For all the benefits of servant leadership there are still some disadvantages.

First, there are times when autocratic leadership is needed. In an emergency room dealing with a patient in cardiac arrest; when a building entry team suddenly comes under sniper fire; or when someone is about to walk into traffic without looking… these and others are times when clear, concise, directive command is needed. There are times when “talking about it” and getting input is ineffective and dangerous. But those times are normally evident based on the time sensitive nature of the event at hand.

There is also the fact that servant leadership takes time and endurance to implement. A leader can’t simply say “tomorrow we implement servant leadership.” It doesn’t work that way. This doesn’t mesh well with the 2 year command cycle typically in place; unless a series of leaders all employ servant leader methods, an organization may not effectively abandon autocratic thinking. Servant leadership also takes a lot of work up front because it’s unexpected and people are hesitant at first to trust that a leader who says servant leader things will actually follow through and not shoot the messenger or otherwise hurt them for taking a risk in complying with the leader’s stated intent.

But there are many other advantages to servant leadership not yet mentioned. The greatest of these is the demonstration of a pattern regarding decision making. When decisions are regularly made by a leader in a transparent, inclusive, and deliberative process, people see this as a leader’s default way of doing business. When decisions need to be made behind closed doors, people will apply the halo effect and assume a leader’s decision making process continues to be logical and trustworthy even if they aren’t privy to the details. It also teaches developing leaders the right way to make decisions, especially those that should not be snap decisions.

Our military may be experiencing an era of toxic leadership, but it is self-inlicted and fixable. So, servant leaders, let’s get to it.

A hero providing servant leadership to Afghani children.


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