While crisis thrived during 2020, CEOs, VPs and entrepreneurs should be brainstorming ways to lead with love in the year ahead — to recharge teams, rebuild trust and inspire employees by clearly defining a higher business purpose.
Based on servant leadership success principles created in the 1970s by Robert Greenleaf, 2021 is the perfect time to apply some success principles to restore your employee engagement and hope.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s happened and how leaders can switch the narrative to improve morale and results in 2021, as the world strives to get back to a “sense of normality.”
From environmental disasters to social unrest to a global pandemic to political chaos, we bounced around from problem to problem like human pinballs in 2020. With little reprieve from the constant stress caused by these challenges, our evolutionary fight or flight mechanisms and associated chemical reactions have exhausted our collective will and spirit, shortened fuses, and brought out the worst in many of us. Unfortunately, some leaders have also been the worst offenders and stressors of this past year.
Before 2020, Gallup had reported a positive shift in global employee engagement for the first time in many years, but in their latest tracker, things have gone back to pre-COVID levels.
Naturally, there are many potential root causes for lower employee engagement in 2020, but leadership preparation and response to unprecedented challenges cannot be underestimated. When leaders panic, abdicate responsibility, or worse, double-down on toxic behavior, employees and businesses suffer. The result is the opposite of health and well-being and productive work — two essential Sustainable Development Goals.
These leaders can reverse the damage done during the pandemic by eliminating toxic leadership behaviors and unneeded stressors, embracing the principles of positive psychology detailed by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s, and by practicing servant leadership.
Positive psychology, especially in the form of the strengths-based leadership movement, has been proven to deliver dramatic results for teams and organizations that have embraced them. Servant leadership is an idea whose time has come. It deals with individualizing leadership for employees, which is key to engaging people in the most diverse workforce in U.S. history. With flattening hierarchies, matrix structures, and agile methods transforming how work is done, leaders capable of connecting with employees and bringing out the brilliance of individuals and teams are more in demand than ever before.
When combined, positive psychology and servant leadership have the power to improve the lives of employees and increase engagement. Here are five servant leadership success keys for leading with love in 2021.
1. Re-focus Your Team on a Higher Purpose
Many organizations and leaders lost sight of their broader purpose when the pandemic began. They contracted their workforces, furloughed employees, and preserved the salaries of senior executives. These actions do not inspire employee engagement. However, suppose your company took the opposite approach — by protecting employees, serving customers with excellence, and furthering progress. In that case, it will be much easier to lean into your organization’s purpose and use it to energize your teams in the new year. Leading in 2021 will be just like the movie Avengers: Endgame. In this Marvel blockbuster, when the dust settled five years after Thanos’ snap-killed half of all life in the universe, the heroes had to regroup, remind each other of their shared purpose, and get back to work to bring everyone back.
2. Invert the Hierarchy to Serve and Connect with Employees
Part of leaning into purpose is demonstrating to your people that you and other senior leaders genuinely exist to serve and support employees to enhance a value transfer to customers. This inverted hierarchy approach is the key to connecting with your millennial and Gen Z employees who desire purpose-driven work and expect to be coached, empowered, and supported in their career journey. When people feel supported, they bring their best selves to the task at hand, and the organization can ride this productivity boost toward achievement.
3. Build Trust with Empathy and Transparency
In these trying times, trust is a currency that no leader can succeed without. The leader’s shadow is real, and consistency between words and actions has never been more on display than now. Trust-building leaders who lead with authenticity, transparency, and empathy build concrete bridges between themselves and employees that can be counted on during good times and bad. Trust is especially essential when working virtually as you no longer have the benefit of standing over someone’s shoulder and watching them work. Avoid incessant, unnecessary meetings, exercise decisiveness, and let people positively surprise you. And when the next crisis arrives, cash-in on the reservoir of confidence you’ve already secured to move your teams forward.
4. Prioritize Health and Wellness to Improve Lives
Due to the polarization of public health messages, and misinformation, many people are unsure whether to take certain steps – such as vaccinations. This is the sort of leadership vacuum that leaders must step into — to demonstrate the value, safety, and necessity of caring for the health of every colleague. Mental health and other stress-related health issues multiplied during the lockdown and It’s necessary to invest in resources to assist employees in managing these very challenging circumstances. Employees who feel that their employers are genuinely focused on improving conditions for them from a wellness perspective will reward this support with hard work, loyalty, and enhanced problem-solving.
5. Leverage Love
Empathy is something humans cannot get enough of — at work or at home. When leaders demonstrate empathy for the cause of stress, anxiety, and demotivation and try and minimize these issues, they can create a virtuous circle within their organizations. Empathy, importantly, is not passive. When taken in the form of the acronym L.U.V. which stands for Listening, Understanding, and Validating, it becomes a powerful connection tool to be leveraged with employees. During and after a crisis, it’s essential to listen to the stories of those most impacted; seek to understand and identify with their struggles; and then make them feel heard and validated by working to improve conditions. The more you apply this approach, the more insight you will gain into how to best serve and support your employees and colleagues.
In 2021, the more leaders practice L.U.V., the more validated employees will feel, and the faster problems will be solved. Lead with love by using these five servant leadership success principles. It will result in overall improvements in health, wellness, engagement, and quality of work.