When leaders reach out
Updated: Jan 11
When you hear the words “Servant Leadership,” what comes to mind?
I know. It almost sounds oxymoronic. Like Postal Service or Military Intelligence. Leaders are served, right? They don’t serve. Leaders don’t make mistakes. They correct other people’s mistakes. Make heads roll.
Not so, Robert Greenleaf said in his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, which kicked off the whole servant leader movement. There is now a Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Atlanta, which produces educational materials and hosts seminars.
Servant leadership and traditional leadership employ different techniques—in fact, entirely different animating forces—and offer vastly different outcomes.
The traditional leader directs and motivates his/her employees to improve the position of the company in the market. The traditional leader equates leadership with control.
Servant leaders, on the other hand, focus on the needs of others, not the company. He/she wants his/her people to grow in all areas—to be actualized, if you will—their profession, knowledge, autonomy even health.
Servant leadership is defined by actions of developing trusting relationships while still demonstrating traditional leadership skills of persuasion, foresight, and guiding a team to achieve a goal.
Lest you assume servant leadership doesn’t achieve corporate financial goals - on the contrary. By supporting the people under him/her, servant leaders create a workforce that boosts the company’s bottom line. A popular example is Southwest Airlines. Through servant leadership, the airline has created a highly engaged, low-turnover workforce and 35-plus consecutive years of profitability, unheard of in the turbulent airline industry.
But the point of this post is to look at servant leadership in the context of conflict management. If you undertake conflict management the way we teach in our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration, you will learn the keys to managing conflict as a servant leader. You’ll learn the keys to empathy with your people and, more importantly, how to take the initiative to resolve conflicts.
Why servant leaders go first
To the servant leader, employees are not a resource to be used for the benefit of the leader. Servant leaders believe others should be nurtured and assisted in their personal and professional growth to reach their full potential.
Servant leaders work to enable others to live a fulfilled life. They enable others to grow as well as overcome situations, issues, and problems limiting their ability to maximize their performance. They strengthen relationships within an organization.
So it follows that the servant leader will take the initiative when in a conflict. Any disharmony on the team grates at the servant leader, causes them sleepless nights—not because they’re worried about their reputation as a leader and not so much because disharmony dampens productivity. It grates on them because they know that a team member is hurting.
The characteristic of servant leadership we’re discussing here is an active constructive behavior called Reaching Out. Going first to repair the emotional damage from conflict. Make amends. Reopen the lines of communication.
Now, let’s talk about how leaders go about going first when faced with a conflict situation.
Step one, separate yourself to take stock
If you’re in conflict, it’s likely you’re in fight-or-flight mode. This is a state that is hardwired into us by evolution to prevent us from being eaten alive by saber-tooth tigers and cave bears. It’s also known as the stress response.
Your pulse quickens. Your eyes dilate. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system. The adrenal gland starts coursing adrenaline throughout your body. During the stress response, all bodily systems are working to keep us alive in what we’ve perceived as a dangerous situation.
So stimulated, you are in a state of brain hijack. You’re not thinking straight. There are a number of ways you can get out of brain hijack and they all require you to remove yourself from the conflict and get to a quiet, private space. See: How to calm your brain in the middle of conflict.
Step two, own your contribution to the conflict
Typically in conflict, both sides dig in their heels and refuse to budge. Instead, consider the situation from every angle, starting with your role.
Who would you rather follow—the person that denies anything is amiss or the person who admits their error and then follows up you get your thoughts? Leaders who show their vulnerability foster greater engagement among their associates.
If your fingerprints are on any part of the conflict, own it. Maybe you can’t identify your role. In that case, perhaps what you are “owning” is allowing the conflict to continue.
Step three, view from a different perspective
Everything we take in every day goes through a filter—or context. Your context determines how you view things that happen to you. We all do it.
If you want to move past conflict, you need to challenge your context and be willing to reframe the situation.
Ask yourself, what might they be trying to accomplish? What motivates them? Seeing the conflict from the other person’s perspective is doing The You Turn.
At NobleEdge, we call this Perspective Taking—an active, constructive behavior—and it’s not easy. When in conflict, we often assume we are right and the other person is wrong. This attitude makes it harder to consider what other people are thinking and why they see things the way they do.
Step four, ask clarifying questions
Okay, you’ve got yourself into a good mind space. When you finally approach the other party in the conflict, carry over that attitude by genuinely seeking to understand.
Servant leaders are listeners. Effective listening is being in tune with both verbal and non-verbal signals as well as having the ability to understand the message.
This means you ask the person open-ended questions. You probe. You demonstrate genuine, unbiased curiosity. You seek the underlying truth. Then you paraphrase back to them to make sure you understand their point of view correctly.
Servant leaders are empathic leaders, always putting the interests of their people first. They do everything in their power to help their people meet their potential. That being the case, they take the lead in repairing the damage of conflict between themselves and their people.
What kind of leader do you want to be?
Did you like this post? Try R.I.S.K is the Key to Resolving Conflict Productively
Want to learn more? Check out our workshop The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration.