Bernie Callaghan: The concept of servant leadership in turbulent times

What sort of leaders does the region, its businesses and its public sector organisations need?

Bernie Callaghan
Bernie Callaghan

What sort of leaders does the region, its businesses and its public sector organisations need?

The demand for ‘strong’ leadership is often repeated but what kind of leader is most effective in tougher times such as these?

Tom Peters admits that in ‘crazy and chaotic times’ many companies fall back on an old-style hierarchical command and control approach. He believes they should look instead at what’s been coined servant leadership.

It’s a fascinating concept, which requires managers who are open to new ways of thinking to be less autocratic, to listen and engage more with employees.

In essence the servant leader exists to serve those in the organisation and bring out the best in them all.

Being collaborative and empowering, supporting and engaging with employees are obvious attributes of good leadership.

During a slow recovery from a recession, however, when tough decisions still have to be made about cutbacks, it would be easy to retreat to a more dictatorial distance from colleagues.

The urge to be slightly detached must be even more attractive for younger managers who will never have experienced a prolonged economic downturn like this one before. This makes the recent rise in servant leadership practice all the more interesting.

In the North East, with its many owner-managed businesses, the responsibility of leadership is keenly felt during turbulent times.

The concept of servant leadership in which the directors serve the employees, and the employees serve the organisation often works well in such establishments.

Mutual dependency can boost motivation and lead to growth.

Critics call servant leadership paternalistic, based on a falsehood because while managers fire employees, no servant can fire his master.

They prefer an adult partnership rather than the ‘more extreme’ servant role.

It’s all part of a lively discussion, which focuses many managers on what role they currently play with employees and how it could be improved.

Radical, tough decisions have had to be made in many businesses to drive change and survival.

Managing these while keeping employees engaged and positive is extremely difficult.

Today’s challenges are not about the leader, however, but about what he or she enables and creates.

That applies to the smallest of businesses as well as multinational corporations or public sector bodies. Renewal can come from rethinking roles to build much stronger teams.

And in business, regional and political arenas the need for leaders to work together effectively drives much-needed change and progress.

:: Professor Bernie Callaghan is dean of the faculty of business and law at the University of Sunderland

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