I spend a fair amount of time teaching the principles of servant leadership to new managers and working with all levels of managers on implementing my leadership policies of servant leadership, reverse evaluation, and shared governance. I try very hard to practice what I preach, and I ask God for help every day. However, it is not easy to practice what you preach when it is in the area of servant leadership.
Like anyone else, I am vulnerable to stress upon occasion, and currently there is an inordinate amount of stress as we are poised for explosive growth. Right before Christmas, we reached the zenith of need for new personnel to be identified and the hiring process started and a nadir of activity. Learning the latter, I went in search of the manager of a particularly needy division and found his door locked. The associate manager told me that he was on vacation. I sort of remember approving the time off, but that was much earlier and before we knew that we would need globs of new people in January and February. I was furious that he would take vacation without having completed the hiring that needed to be done and without even bringing me up to date about it.
"Please call him in," I instructed the associate manager, "and, unfortunately, you will not be able to take vacation next week as you planned; no one can be away until we have an adequate number of personnel for the taskings that will appear right after Christmas." After that and until the manager showed up, I proceeded to take over the hiring process for one of the understaffed programs among several growing ones in this particular division, looking over the resumes and recommendations of applicants, and setting the program director about arranging interviews.
I understood from interactions after his arrival that the manager was upset, but I did not know how much until he sent me a note on Christmas Eve, telling me that he had been too distressed to attend Christmas Eve Mass with his family. I wrote back, urging him to go to Christmas Day Mass, that we could discuss issues of work at work on Monday, and that God can often put right what man has messed up. The short story is that he did go to Mass, and he said it brought him some inner peace
After everything had quieted down and we had all returned from the New Year holiday, I had a chance to talk to the associate manager about training some of the new supervisory staff brought in for some of the projects and emphasized the need to help them understand the concepts of servant leadership.
"Let me ask you a question," he said. "Do you consider your behavior last week appropriate to the servant leader model?"
When I queried what he meant, he referred to my calling in his boss from vacation and those rather difficult days between Christmas and New Year when we all had to work.
"Was there some kind of resentment about being called in from vacation?" I asked.
"No," he replied. "It was your reaction."
"Was I rude?" I am not without the capacity to be rude, never intentionally, but, you know, in a work world, things you don't want to happen do happen.
"No, you were polite," he said. "It was your body language. We could tell that you were angry with us and that made it difficult to work as effectively, well, certainly as efficiently."
I had not even realized how I had let that stress level take me over and then splash onto them. The associate manager was right; it was not a good example of servant leadership. Every day I begin my morning prayer by asking God to prevent me from harming anyone. Hm...I guess I was not listening to God that day. I wonder how many times He tried to reach me!
The conversation with the association manager reminded me of the time that 12-year-old Lizzie, having started a course in psychology at Northern Virginia Community College under a gifted student option, sat me down at the kitchen table and said, "Mom, we must talk."
"And what must we talk about?" I asked her.
"Your disciplinary techniques," she replied.
"And what is wrong with them?"
"Well, Mom, they are pretty haphazard, chaotic, and really nearly nonexistent."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, for example, when you punish us you should not expect us to remember that we are being grounded or doing some other punishment. You should remember, too!"
Guilty as charged, I supposed she was right, and she left, happy that I seemed to understand the error of my ways but not at all convinced that I would be able to change. She was right on both counts.
I hope, though, with my managers that, with God's help, I can change.
Back to the associate manager, he was clearly aware of my willingness to discuss the situation with him, both from the point of view of appropriateness on my part and as an example of how managers should not handle stress. He was, though, very unlikely aware of my real emotional reaction. I was tickled pink that he was not afraid to address the issue with me, to tell me how what I had done made him feel, and to suggest how I might better have handled the situation. So, in spite of the somewhat embarrassing and uncomfortable feeling I had from not having practiced what I preached, I had something important: proof that I have indeed established an ambiance of servant leadership; otherwise he would not have presumed to correct my behavior.
Should I have had any doubt about that, the morning after came the clincher. I apologized to the manager while it just happened that the associate manager was in the room. The manager accepted my apology with grace: "We have to work together as a team, or we will never survive this avalanche of new tasks." Just exactly what I have been teaching (but apparently not quite so well modeling)!
I am very proud of my managers although I am less proud of myself. Perhaps what happened was a gift from God in spite of my not listening to Him very well that day. I was given the opportunity to develop greater humility. And that is always a useful and needed opportunity.