Why Ego Must Go

“Ako ba’y inuutusan mo?” (Are you telling me what to do?”)

A division head actually said that. A staff asked him to sign off some reports that needed to be submitted to an external agency. It is of small wonder that when he retired early, nobody bothered to throw him a despedida party.

We keep hearing of companies say, “Our people are our greatest assets.” I beg to differ. An organization’s greatest asset is its leaders, especially the right kind of leaders. The staff I mentioned may be the best man for his job; but his morale and output are affected by the kind of boss he reports to.

Many who hold positions of power have the mistaken notion that they are to bark orders and lord it over their direct reports. Don’t get me wrong. There will be situations when a leader must assert his authority and issue no-nonsense orders. He may even have to make the hard choice of firing a poor performer. After all, the leader has to meet corporate targets. Otherwise, he won’t be a leader for long.

This brings us to servant leadership. At its basic level, it means not being a prima donna, as if the staff are there to serve you hand and foot. When appropriate, you spare them of inconvenience and provide them what they need to do their jobs. Notice I said “when appropriate,” because being a servant leader does not mean being a doormat, granting every request, and letting the staff run all over you. The balance is to lead the team while asking “How can I help you succeed?” or “What support do you need from me to meet your goals?”

So how can we as leaders nurture a servant’s mindset?

The first step is to reinvent yourself. Who are you? I don’t mean your name and job title. I mean the way you view yourself in relation to others. To live a life of great purpose, you must first have a great identity. Choose the identity of a servant leader. 

This takes courage. You must be secure with yourself that you don’t find it demeaning to be humble, sensitive, and supportive. Let go of your fears that you will be taken advantage of. Remember: when appropriate. 

If you see yourself as one to be served, don’t be surprised if your direct reports obey you out of indifference, fear, or even resentment. But if you adopt the identity of one who serves, people generally respond with goodwill, respect, and gladness.

The second step is to remember that people hear with their eyes. People don’t really pay attention to what you say; they observe what you do. If you stand for servant leadership, you must walk the talk. While it is important for the leader to meet corporate goals (for example, market share or production output), I believe his real role is to model virtues such as empathy, humility, compassion, and discipline. I have seen that when a leader is respected, he is well-loved. And when he is well-loved, people go the extra mile, which works wonders for attaining those corporate goals.

Consider this company that keeps this heart-warming practice for its office Christmas parties. The organizer had ordered a sumptuous buffet. The workers all eagerly lined up, plates in their hands. But the executives were the servers! Yes, the CEO, CFO, and VPs rolled up their sleeves, donned large aprons, and cheerfully piled food on the staff’s plate. It gives a message more powerful than a rah-rah speech about core values.

The third step is to reward similar behavior. I run two factories for a well-known beverage conglomerate. I have seen workers who won’t lift a finger and those who went out of their way to assist. One time, I went to our warehouse to find a particular cargo and asked a checker where it was. He not only pointed it out to me, he actually led me there. And he had a wide smile on his face the whole time. When performance appraisal season comes, guess how I will rate him.

If you are a business owner, consider having KPIs for your employees that measure observable behavior that speaks of servanthood such as initiative, collaboration, and customer delight. Don’t stop with KPIs that measure production, sales or financial performance. Then, reward the extra-milers appropriately.

Let me close with a story of another division head, the one who took over from the one who became notorious for asking “Ako ba’y inuutusan mo?” 

It was his birthday and he wanted to treat his key staff to lunch at a buffet restaurant. For this, they all rode in an L300 van. Half-way, the right rear tire blew. Fortunately, no one was harmed as the driver brought the limping van safely to the shoulder of the road, But the driver neglected to bring a jack to change the tire.

One staff used his mobile to call up the office and arranged for a second vehicle to come to their aid. It arrived with the jack and, being a passenger car, can bring all but three of them to the restaurant while the first driver would attend to the flat tire. 

The staff members urged their boss to hop in and go ahead of them to the restaurant. But the head insisted that he should ride last. Result: the second vehicle brought most of the team to the restaurant, while the head and two others waited until the first driver changed the tire. Finally, everyone got to enjoy the buffet lunch, including the drivers of the two vehicles.

The division head could have pulled rank, left some people behind, and enjoyed the convenience of the restaurant. But he did not. Did his people respect him all the more? You bet.

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