Recalibrating for Servant Leadership

graphic: Libby VanderPloeg

We’ve had almost a week to soak in the words of the true winner of the 2021 inauguration ceremony, poet laureate Amanda Gorman. But to President Biden’s credit, there was at least one line that struck me and stuck with me: “We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”

When I was young I remember the presidential election being about Power with a capital P. About who got to be The Boss of the whole country! Now, with my more nuanced understanding of the role, in addition to Biden’s words, what rang through instead was a sense of public servitude.

The administration of 45th president gave us all the evidence we need to see that oppressive leadership doesn’t get things done.

Donald Trump’s army of formally and not-so-formally appointed sycophants put the repercussions of oppressive leadership style on a national stage. Regardless of your politics or your personal philosophy, it is undeniable that teams made up of folks competing for the ‘most agreeable with the boss’ award are not the ones that succeed.

Since this time last year, most Americans developed a deeper familiarity with oppression and its many manifestations. We’re exploring racial dynamics with a new lens, and better understanding social determinants of health. We’re looking at abusive landlording and even what it means to decolonize parenting, acknowledging that perhaps obedient isn’t the most important thing we should teach our children to be (h/t Dr. Stacey Patton).

We know that servant leadership isn’t reserved for public office. When managers practice servant leadership we honor our team members, allowing each person to bring all of their expertise, all of their talents, and all of their integrity to the table. My direct reports who have challenged me to be a better marketer and a better leader were most consistent in adding value to our work. Being agreeable is an asset, but it can’t be the only one that matters–lest we reinforce cultures that suppress critical thinking and the integral gift of respectful and constructive feedback.

Most of us were brought up in cultures of oppressive leadership styles, but now more than ever we know that we have the capacity for unlearning. We know, now, that unlearning is a practice, not something that happens overnight. Every day is a new opportunity for us to recalibrate toward servant leadership. A practice to take on for the sake of our organizations, our teams and ourselves.

Since culture is slow to change, everyone has a role to play and no one has time to waste. So we have to remember that we can lead from anywhere. With Biden’s occupation of the Presidency, our nation moved one step in the right direction, but we are still far from freedom. Putting pressure on people in power is a gift. It gives them more opportunity to be the best servant leader they can be. It’s on each of us to offer this gift, in this moment and in the years to come.