How Servant Leaders Handle Tough Employee Decisions

For over 20 years, I’ve been overseeing the operations and service delivery teams at imageOne. Throughout my tenure, my behavior as a leader has transformed into embrace servant leadership.

As an emerging servant leader, I have grown both personally and professionally. But, it hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes the hard way, I’ve discovered how to handle tough employee decisions, and how the principles behind servant leadership can help everyone succeed. 

How Not to Lead a Team

Fifteen years ago, I terminated a team member due to his performance. It was a difficult experience, yet offered an opportunity for tremendous growth.

He was a very nice guy, but just not highly skilled in his role. He wasn’t producing the volume that we needed from him. Several times leading up to the termination, I clearly communicated to him that he was not getting the job done. He knew that if improvements were not made, I would have a difficult decision to make.

Time went on, things did not get corrected. 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.

This was NOT the trait of a great servant leader.

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. I chose not to 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.

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! I was every bit of the names he called me. I was certainly not an example of a servant leader.

Early in my career, many team members came and went. Never did I take responsibility for my role in the turnover. It was always something they were not doing or some specific skillset they did not have. Yet, I was the one who had hired them for the role. What benefits did I offer? As the leader, I failed to provide clear expectations, direction, and coaching. I was 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 and core values. I believe that humility is a central virtue of exceptional leadership. Other traits of strong leaders compassion, empathy, and support,. All take ongoing practice to achieve.

If I could go back and change how I handled that employee termination, I would want to humble myself. Where I was coming up short as a leader? How could I become more compassionate and empathetic?

I’d challenge myself to provide extraordinary support to help him reach his potential. My time would be spent working closely with him to develop and succeed.

If we still reached a point where we decided that his future was not within our organization, I would assist him in transitioning out. It wouldn’t be a short conversation. Instead, we’d be there to provide him with enough time and resources to land on his feet and never look back.

Over time, I’ve learned that true servant leadership doesn’t come from policies, formalities, power plays, and assigning blame. It 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.

NEXT: Core Values: If You Have Them, Are You Really Living Them?