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Manage? Or let go, serve, and lead.

January 25, 2014

My boss used the term “servant leadership” the other day to describe the style he aimed for in leading our team. It’s a phrase I last heard from a pulpit in South Georgia more than a decade ago and never expected to encounter in corporate America, much less on Wall Street where I now work.

He said servant leadership, to him, meant that his whole job is to give us what we need to be the best at what we do. I see him do this, both intentionally and automatically, all the time: always saying “Come in” when I linger at his door, never giving me a solution but instead asking questions until I find one on my own. His style is refreshing, and it motivates me because I know he has my back when I need it, but he also gives me the space I need to do my job well.

A side effect of working for him for the last 8 months is that I’m starting to be more conscious of my own leadership style, and I’m gaining the confidence — in the teams I work with, and critically in myself — to begin to let go and lead.

One of the reasons is a piece of feedback he gave me a couple of months ago that might be the most important I’ve ever gotten. “Sometimes you approach things like you’ve got it all figured out, almost like you believe it would all work much better if there were 20 little Angies running around.” He said it gently, but it is a hard truth. I do.

Instead of leading, I’ve been managing – designing a plan, assigning roles, staying on top of deadlines, ensuring deliverables. The results are good, but they’re exhausting, and more than that, they don’t benefit from the diverse perspectives or full capacity of everyone I’m working with.

What happens when you manage, if you work really hard, is that you end up getting what you expected. But what I’ve been thinking about is what could happen if instead, I started to lead. If I were to know my colleagues’ strengths, build teams and trust, pose problems and ask questions until a solution emerges, then let people own the pieces they’re best at and come up with ideas and results I could never have dreamed.

Last week our team shared an exercise in discovering our styles of influence, taking and examining a diagnostic to evaluate how we orient our thinking and approach our work. I learned a lot about myself, including that I am by nature a delegator (a huge surprise), and even more about the people on our team. The facilitator talked about the energy that is wasted when we have to use “five fingers of effort.” I felt myself unclench my fist and wonder what it would be like to unleash the one finger of effort of all of us instead.

The understanding I gained about how our strengths might be combined to great effect led me to make a conscious shift from managing to leading a project the very next day. The results were dramatic.

When a logistical challenge arose, I asked some colleagues to help. I could have figured out the details of what to do and done it on my own, but it would have put me into overdrive, compromising other projects and creating tension in relationships with others on the team. Instead, I gave capable people a problem to solve that they had the skills and connections to make happen in much less time and more effectively than I ever could have.

A few days later, a small team needed to work together to create and share information and ideas quickly. A process that normally takes days was achieved in minutes because we trusted each other and shared a goal and vision for success. Each of us understood our role clearly, including me – and like my boss I realized that my most important job was to make sure they each had everything they needed to succeed.

This view of leadership seems obvious, and in some ways it is. But only if I stop focusing on myself and look around to see how I can help others. It works, but it isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to slow down and really ask what everyone else needs. It isn’t easy to swap my own agenda and ideas for a shared goal and trust that everyone else is doing the same.

But the results are incredible when you do, and you can transform not just the what, but the how of achieving them.

Serving others before self is a lesson I heard often growing up, and one I’m well served to recall. With guidance from my boss, accountability from my peers, and feedback from my team, I am beginning to return to service. And, as I do, I hope to move from getting things done to building things together, and from trying to manage to learning to lead.

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