An audience member recently asked me, “What is the biggest change you’ve seen in leadership in the past 30 years?”
I didn’t have to think about it long. “The biggest change I’ve seen isn’t in leadership,” I replied. “The biggest change is in followers. They don’t think of themselves as followers anymore.”
When was the last time you heard someone say, “I’m a follower” or “I follow my leader”? We “follow” differently on social media, but that’s where it ends for most.
Nobody wants to think of him- or herself as a follower at work.
Employees today think of themselves much differently, despite how managers and leaders think and talk about those on their team.
The people you lead want to be recognized as team members, contributors, and collaborators. They recognize their relationship to a manager on the org chart, but think of that as only a line of authority.
Robert Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” in the 1960s. But it wasn’t about being “servile” (overly eager to pleasure), but about finding ways to serve and support employees—in the best sense of the word—so they can become successful. Being considered or treated as a follower is likely considered similarly to a customer service rep feeling treated as if they were “servile.”
How did this change in perspective come about?
In the history of management and leadership terminology, there was nothing inherently negative about the word “follower.” Leaders lead and followers followed (ideally they followed the leader).
Those were different times, however. It wasn’t that many years ago that managers would admit they wanted their team to just “do what they were told.” Managers believed they could and should do the thinking. This autocratic style in which leaders thought for their followers and the followers simply executed their ideas is ridiculous today.
The world is too complex for the leader to know it all. Much of the work of those formerly known as followers is now very specialized, complex and often creative. The leader doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to tell people what to do.
Now the primary job of the servant leader is to be responsible for the well being of those they lead: clarifying desired outcomes, providing encouragement and resources, and assisting when appropriate.
Another related nuance is how we think of and treat those who buy from us. The word “customer” came about as a term to indicate those who become accustomed to a level of service or experience. But I once asked Fred Shea, the amazing postal carrier in my book The Fred Factor, how he was able to provide such a great service to all of the customers on his route. He replied, “I don’t think of them as just customers. I think of them as friends, and it is easy to take care of your friends.” This is another example of the power of perspective in shaping behavior.
Servant leaders know that how they think about those whom they lead, how they speak of them, and how they treat them makes all the difference. People on your team will contribute more creatively when you treat them not like traditional followers but more like the collaborators and contributors they really are.
Mark Sanborn is an award winning speaker and Leadership Expert in Residence at High Point University, the Premier Life Skills University. For more information about his work, visit www.marksanborn.com. He also teaches professional speakers and leaders how to increase their messaging and public speaking effectiveness. Learn more here.