I have worked with imageOne for the last eighteen years, overseeing our operations and service delivery teams. Throughout my tenure, my behavior as a leader has transformed. Within imageOne, I have grown both personally and professionally, and I have learned how to become a true servant leader. But it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve learned — sometimes the hard way — how to handle tough employee decisions, and how servant leadership can help employees and leaders grow.
How Not to Lead a Team
Fifteen years ago, I terminated a team member due to his performance.
He was a very nice guy, but he was not highly skilled in his role and he wasn’t producing the volume of service tickets that we needed from him. Several times leading up to the termination, I communicated to him that he was not getting the job done, and I let him know that if improvements were not made, I would have a difficult decision to make.
Time went on, things did not get corrected, and my frustrations mounted. When the day came for me to terminate him, I called him into my office and simply let him go. It was very formal, and I was relieved that he did not ask a lot of questions. Once he left the office, I went right back to work and moved on to the next challenge.
A few years after that termination, I received a phone call from the same gentleman. He was applying to join the Military and asked if I would be willing to provide a reference for him. I thought I would have nothing positive to say about him, so I decided to not offer him a reference. I didn’t want to be responsible for any negative outcome if I were to provide positive feedback and things didn’t work out for him.
The result of that decision: I received a voicemail from him in which he read me the riot act, peppered with multiple expletives. But you know what? He was justified in his reaction, and I feel that I was every bit of the names he called me. I was certainly not behaving as a servant leader.
Early in my career, I had too many team members come and go from our organization, and I wasn’t taking responsibility for my role in that. It was always something they were not doing or some specific skillset they did not have — and yet, I was the one who had hired them for the role. I was the one failing to provide clear expectations, direction, and coaching. I was the one to blame!
How Servant Leaders Lift Up Employees
In Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, Collins identifies the key characteristics of Level 5 Leadership, those who are exceptionally effective leaders. Two of the characteristics are humility and the tendency to give credit to others while assigning blame to yourself. While I do not yet consider myself a Level 5 Leader, I certainly aspire to those characteristics. I believe that humility is a central virtue and is foundational in learning to practice others; like compassion, empathy, and support.
If I could go back and change how I handled that employee termination, I would want to humble myself, examine where I was coming up short as a leader, and focus on being compassionate and empathetic. I would challenge myself to provide extraordinary support to help him reach his potential, and I would work very hard to help him develop and succeed in his role. If we still reached a point where we decided that his future was not within our organization, I would assist him in transitioning out of the organization and provide him with enough time and resources to land on his feet and never look back.
Over the last eighteen years, I’ve learned that true servant leadership doesn’t come from policies, formalities, power plays, and assigning blame. True servant leadership comes from putting others first, recognizing when someone is struggling or hurting, and knowing when to lend a hand to help lift each other up. True servant leadership comes from a place of humility, compassion, empathy, and support of others.