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What Can Housekeeping Teach Us About Leadership?

When planning a recent holiday to Majorca with my partner John, we came across a hotel off the usual tourist trail that looked like the ideal place for us to chill out and relax for a few days. During our stay, we were both particularly impressed by the care and attention the hotel’s housekeeping staff took when servicing our room. Not only did they do the usual jobs you’d expect them to do really well like, change the sheets and clean the bathroom, they also surprised us every day by taking the time to create fabulous animals with our fresh towels.

Here’s my personal favourite, the ‘elephants.’ I almost felt the need to apologise when I had to dismantle them to dry my hair!

For years now I’ve been championing the importance of delivering excellent service that ‘delights’ the customer to a wide range of clients and I use a range of example to show how easy it can be to take customer service to this level. Our ‘elephants’ where another simple example of how to do this and they got me thinking; how often do we consider ‘service’ as an important part of leadership?

Over the last few years or so, I’ve been hearing a lot more about ‘Servant Leadership’, a leadership movement launched by Robert K Greenleaf in 1970 with the publication of his classic essay, The Servant as Leader. His philosophy was informed by his years of experience in management development at AT&T, and from his extensive consultancy and teaching practice. Servant Leadership has been expressed in many ways and applied in many contexts and some of the most well-known advocates of servant leadership include Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Peter Senge and Jim Collins.

The simplest definition I’ve come across to explain servant leadership put it quite simply as: –

‘Putting your team first, and yourself second.’

Greenleaf’s definition explains this in more detail:

‘The servant-leader is servant first...It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. This is sharply different from one who is leader first. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types’.

While Greenleaf is describing a philosophy, not a theory, he goes on to explain the specific practices that help servant-leaders to be effective and get positive results for their teams and their organisations. These practices are based on the desire to serve, not the same as being servile. It is about wanting to help others by identifying and meeting the needs of colleagues, customers, and communities. Servant-leaders initiate action, are goal-oriented, are good communicators, and are dependable, trusted, creative, intuitive and situational.

What strikes me about Greenleaf’s philosophy from the 70’s is how it describes exactly what we expect from our leaders today in the 21st century. This is reinforced further when we take a closer look at some of the characteristics Greenleaf uses to describe ‘how’ to go about being a servant-leader:

1. Listening

Not only do we now consider this to be one of our most important communication skills, Greenleaf himself suggests, “only a true natural servant-leader automatically responds to any problem by listening first.”

2. Self-Awareness

Each of us is the instrument through with we lead. If you want to be an effective servant-leader, you need to be aware of who you are and how you impact on others. We commonly refer to this now as one of the pillars of emotional intelligence.

3. Developing Your Colleagues

This is also a familiar approach in today’s business culture and we know that great leaders inspire their people to be the best they can be. Katzenbach and Smith referenced this characteristic in their groundbreaking research, ‘The Wisdom of Teams’ when they presented their definition of high performing teams; “the difference between a real team and a high-performing team is the relationships between team members. High performance results from members being committed to one another’s personal growth and development.”

4. Coaching, not Controlling

Coaching puts the other person’s agenda at the centre of the conversation so it’s easy to see why this is on the list. Coaching aims to help the other person discover the way forward that is ‘right’ for them within the context of their role and responsibilities. Some say this is part and parcel of creating an empowering culture within the team.

5. Unleashing the Energy and Intelligence of Others

Not unleashing the energy and intelligence of others is not only extraordinarily foolish but also short-sighted of any leader. Servant-leaders encourage everyone to maximise their contribution by feeling valued and trusted and by ensuring they understanding how their contribution helps the team and organisation to achieve its vision and purpose.   

What becomes clear to me about these characteristics is how closely servant leadership dovetails with the principles of Employee Engagement.

Research conducted by Gallup in June 2015 shows that Employee Engagement is strongly connected to an organisation’s financial success, such as productivity, profitability, and customer engagement. Engaged employees drive the innovation, growth and revenue that their companies need.

So, when Greenleaf said back in the ‘70s that, “Servant leadership works because it describes practices that help leaders to be effective and achieve positive results for their teams and their organisations,” we now know he was right!

It’s not too surprising then that Servant leadership has also been described as a timeless concept!

So, the question I’d like to leave you with is this one:-

What benefits will servant leadership bring to you, your team and your organisation?

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