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What image comes to your mind when you think of a “servant”?
Many think of two images: (1) A hard-working, action-oriented person who is always busy, and (2) A quiet person who is always doing things behind the scenes, so that others hardly ever notice them.
However, both of these images can be lacking in what I believe “serving” truly means. It’s not just about working hard, when you can easily lose sight of what it means to serve others and the greater good, while forging ahead in plans and execution. Serving actually requires healthy space to consistently reflect and evaluate, asking ourselves the hard and important questions.
But the second image of a “servant” mentioned above can be equally incomplete.
In many settings, especially in cultures that have a history of non-confrontational behavior, leadership can become idealized as not harming or hurting others.
This can take “indirectness” or “harmony” to an extreme form of never telling people what you really think, not giving honest feedback or criticism, and being afraid to disagree or “be the bad guy.” It can take subtle forms as well, such as leaders who keep their distance under the guise of “not wanting to get in the way” of those they lead, so they can avoid conflict or having to hold people accountable. This is not loving, nor is it leadership.
One of the television shows I watch regularly is Restaurant: Impossible, hosted by Food Network chef Robert Irvine. In each episode, Irvine goes to a failing restaurant to try to help fix their woes, which is often a combination of bad food, décor, business decisions, broken relationships – and ultimately poor leadership. He’s a big, muscular British man with a “no-nonsense,” tough-love approach, and he is the complete opposite of the “non-confrontational” leader I described above. He is direct, to the point where feelings of people are frequently hurt; he is honest and vocal about his criticisms, and relentlessly holds leaders accountable – expecting them in turn to hold their own people accountable. He certainly doesn’t “get out of the way” – he gets into people’s faces!
What’s most fascinating to me is that, not only do the restaurants ultimately appreciate his approach and eventually admit that “it’s exactly what they needed,” but Irvine’s directness and honesty are what make the show so popular among American viewers.
This is not just a theme of Restaurant: Impossible. Shows like Kitchen Nightmares (Gordon Ramsey), American Idol/The X-Factor (Simon Cowell) and Dancing With the Stars (Len Goodman) all have truth-tellers who aren’t afraid to confront contestants, with the intention of helping them to genuinely improve. And in a strange way that must trigger our deepest colonial memories, most of these people are British. Remember the game show The Weakest Link? Why do we enjoy having British people yelling at us, anyway?
In a culture of permissiveness, I believe the popularity of shows like this reveals that we see the truth behind honest feedback, and the love behind true accountability, and we genuinely long for it.
That’s right – as leaders, doing what’s “most needed or important,” and serving others and the greater good, often requires doing the hard things in life, whether it’s confronting somebody or holding them accountable for their actions. It often requires being the “bad guy,” so that others can feel the severity of what they’ve done. I would imagine that all parents of children can understand the importance of this.
But our need for feedback and accountability doesn’t stop when we’re adults!
My wife recently wrote in an assignment for an online leadership course: “Sometimes it’s only in the process of being confronted that we realize the weight and impact of our behavior on others.”
She explained to me how hard it is for leaders to confront others because it requires them to sit in the discomfort of appearing unkind, and potentially jeopardizes the relationship with the person whom they’re confronting. So, often, we end up minimizing our feedback to make it seem less severe, or add flattery or compliments to ease our own tension.
But do we have the courage and integrity to sit in the discomfort and ambiguity of confrontation for the sake of giving honest feedback that could help a person to grow? Personally, I find that very challenging and hard to do.
Of course, we want to do everything with both truth (giving honest feedback) and grace (giving honest feedback in a gracious way). However, I’ve found that if there’s one side that’s usually compromised, it’s telling the truth. It’s so much easier to say positive things to people. Who wouldn’t want to be seen as an encourager and “cheerleader” who is only giving others compliments?
But being just a cheerleader is not leadership, and more than that – it can be a gentle killer.
If we’re not willing to do the hard things, like confronting, giving honest critical feedback, and holding others accountable, we are enabling sin and dysfunction in other people, and in our organization. It means that we are not willing to point out, or stand against, injustice. It means we are not protecting others.
That is spineless, unjust and unloving leadership. I’ve been guilty of it far too often, shying away from difficult conversations I know need to happen. There are many times when I’m feeling down or weak in spirit, and the last thing I want to be is the “bad guy” – I just want to be accepted and supported! That’s why every day, I pray for the courage to not compromise, but to do what’s truly just and loving.
Why are we so afraid to do the “hard things” in life?
Maybe it’s because many of us have had bad experiences with authority that abused power. As a result, we associate all authority as parental and condescending. But unhealthy paternalism isn’t just of the domineering type … there is also the permissive, enabling type that seeks to save others from any kind of consequences or discomfort. And we must see that this is just as harmful to those we lead!
I believe we’ve gone to the extreme of viewing power as evil, instead of accepting a balanced view that authority and power can not only be good things but they are essential to leadership! We need to be able to embrace our own authority to fight for people, and for what is right, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable. That is a vital part of what it means to serve.
If you ever have a chance to watch an episode of Restaurant: Impossible, you will notice how many owners have problems keeping anybody accountable. And it kills the employees. It doesn’t show belief in them, nor a desire to help them grow as people and leaders. It doesn’t push them to excel to a higher standard, and help them succeed and thrive, as they see how much more they’re capable of.
Leadership is hard. It should be. Being a leader puts us to the test of being willing to do what’s hard and uncomfortable, for the sake of serving others. I’ve failed that test many times, and every day I fall short of God’s standard … but that doesn’t make me stop learning and growing in my desire to be a leader of integrity and courage.
- In your culture, how high is the value of harmony and being non-confrontational? What pros and cons have you personally experienced as a result of that?
- What do you think has contributed to our general culture of permissiveness and lack of feedback, honesty and accountability? When was the last time somebody gave you honest feedback or criticism? How did they do it? What was your reaction and why?
- Do you believe that authority and power are good or bad? What in your background and past experiences might have shaped your beliefs about this? Name some personal experiences when you saw that using authority and power was necessary and fundamental to leadership.
– Adrian Pei