Servant Leadership ~ The Key to Success

“No matter what the situation, the great manager’s first response is always to think about the individual concerned and how things can be arranged to help that individual experience success.” Marcus Buckingham, The One Thing You Need to Know

 Yesterday, I put out a Tweet:

“I wonder how many Managing Partners practice servant leadership? Job #1: to ensure everyone achieves their full potential.”

 As of preparing this post, I have had precisely … zero response.

 What to make of it (the lack of response that is)?

  • There are no Managing Partners on Twitter.
  • If there are Managing Partners on Twitter, they weren’t on line at the time the Tweet was sent.
  • No Managing Partner is going to fess up to what style of leadership they practice, servant or otherwise.
  • The profession is awash with servant leaders so it goes without saying that everyone, including all Managing Partners, practice it.
  • It is stating the bleeding obvious and who cares to respond anyway.

Leadership rarely gets discussed in professional practice. When it does it’s normally in an air of ‘secrecy’ where everyone talks about the shortcomings of their boss. There is very little, if any, open dialogue where people feel ennobled to challenge the status quo. This cuts right to the heart of the matter: staff do not enjoy a trusting, open, transparent relationship with those that they apparently serve.

Even if you think this talk is professional suicide (that’s it folks keep your heads down…), it fosters an air of “we can do no wrong”. I don’t mean complacency per se but, rather, at a much more mundane level, they don’t get a straight answer to a straight question. People end up telling their bosses what they want to hear, which reinforces the disconnect and doesn’t provide the feedback necessary for informed decisions to be made. I recognise that this ‘chatter’ will filter back to those in charge but it is easy to dismiss when someone is not saying it to your face. Partners don’t appreciate straight talk – god knows what they might discover!

My hypothesis is that the partnership model is not a proving ground for leaders. One of the main drawbacks is that the pool of candidates is almost exclusively drawn from the legal profession. Their world view is coloured by a one-dimensional exposure. Not only that but most lawyers never get any exposure to the ‘gears and levers’ of the firm and are disconnected from their colleagues. There is a definite ‘them’ and ’us’ culture (credit control and marketing came in for a particularly hard time).

Before I descend into a rant, I strongly believe that, even allowing for the shortcomings of most leaders (I should say partners), the one thing that could make a major, earth-shattering difference is for every person who occupies a leadership role to ensure those in their charge achieve their potential. I am loathed to say “full, stratospheric potential” because that would be a leap too far (and perhaps hopelessly romantic), but certainly everyone should be challenged to show, year on year, how they have measurably made a difference to the careers of the people who report to them.

Prima facie this sounds simple but very few people seem capable of looking beyond the current demands of the practice: “I just want them to bill”.

My advice, in the early stages, is to get into the daily habit of Managing by Wandering About (MBWA) (see In Search of Excellence by Messrs Peters and Waterman Jnr). Stay close to the action, communicate regularly and show interest in others. Simply saying “hello” or “good morning” will inculcate a feeling that you care. You can’t do this enough. Call it over communication or whatever you feel comfortable with but being thoughtful in this way will make a measurable difference.

Beyond the Art of communication, you need to have a programme that is intensely focused on the employee. There needs to be a rigorous review of their progress to date and measured not just by the hard numbers – did they meet their target – but going to the root of the issue: Are they the most of anything? It will be a rare occurrence where someone will say “I don’t need any more help”. By all means develop a form for the development process with questions like:

  1. Describe your greatest achievement outside of work this year.
  2. What one thing would you change about your role that would make the biggest difference?
  3. What was your biggest failure in the last 12 months?
  4. What more could be done this coming year to help you achieve your career and personal goals?

As well as the employee review, there should also be review of the leader’s role. Too much attention is placed on ‘squeezing the lemon’, meaning to get more out of everybody. This is a moribund practice. All it instils is the mentality that you haven’t been hard enough on your team rather than focusing on making sure that everyone has reached their full potential.

The whole of idea of servant leadership is simply to serve. You should provide the highest level of service to your employees. Even if you feel that is taking things too far, you should still be asking yourself why you should treat your staff any different to the way you treat your clients.


True leaders focus on their employees beyond anything else. If you want an exceptional firm then you need exceptional people i.e. motivated individuals who love their work and it is a passion. Of course, this sounds like something in Alice in Wonderland but only because you have conditioned yourself to accept the status quo. You have to have a vision. One where everyone in the firm, or as many people as possible, are being challenged to be the most that they can be and not machines you keep on a short chain and control. Potential is everything. If you are not spending every moment thinking and acting on this then you are missing out on the one thing that can make the biggest difference to your firm.

~ Julian Summerhayes ~

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