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Servant Leadership Creates High-Performing Teams and a Brighter Future

Apr 01, 2019

Tyler Nottberg

By Tyler Nottberg, CEO of U.S. Engineering Company Holdings
*Adapted from U.S. Engineering’s internal newsletter, Eagle’s Eye

CEO Tyler Nottberg shares his thoughts on the secret to high-performance teams, and how the adoption of servant leadership can lead to a brighter future.

My friend and teacher Frances Frei often says, “Leaders make others better as a result of their presence in a way that lasts into their absence.”  Making others better is the essence of servant leadership, whether it is at work or in our personal relationships.  More precisely, it is about prioritizing how you can make others better before seeking to improve your own position.  Here at U.S. Engineering, I see servant leadership constantly.  Whether it is field leaders helping apprentices, office veterans helping new hires, or even new hires working with interns, servant leaders provide exceptional examples of what it means to implement our Vision, Mission and Core Values.  Servant leadership is at the heart of our strategic initiative to develop and maintain a high-performance culture, and we all have a role to play in achieving that goal. 

Sometimes, decisive, top-down action leads to impressive results.  Those in charge issue orders to others who carry them out and produce a desired result.  More often than not, however, plans must change in the face of uncertainty, so individuals and teams must adapt, recalibrate, and come up with a different approach.  There is no time to issue new orders or micromanage teams in the midst of fluid and evolving circumstances.  Success will come from operating based on principle, not prescription.  A servant leader instills confidence in his or her team members, articulates clear goals and expectations, and empowers those team members to act.  The team is then responsible for aligning itself, performing individual jobs, and trusting others to do the same.  While a coach is only as good as his or her players, that coach is responsible for establishing the conditions that will help each individual to become the best version of himself or herself. 

There is a difference between building a team and a regime.  A regime tends to promote a leader-centric culture in which the leader becomes essential in order to perform and persist.  The leader makes most of the decisions, thereby taking on a portion of everybody’s burdens.  The currency of a leader-centric regime is loyalty, and while it may look like the leader is exhibiting servant leadership by helping with every crisis, his or her depth of engagement actually indicates institutional weakness, not strength.  When the leader is gone, so is the regime. 

On a high-performance team, the servant leader uses his or her experience to teach and mentor others in order to prepare them for confronting uncertainty.  The leader helps his or her team members acquire tools to make better decisions and become more independent so that they can become leaders themselves.  The currency of high-performance teams is trust.  Unlike in a regime, high-performance teams have the capacity for multiple leaders—regardless of title—because everybody has the standing to make suggestions and take action.  One of the reasons why U.S. Engineering has such an outstanding safety record is because we stress the fact that safety knows no titles, no rank, and no tenure.  It is the ultimate expression of our desire to promote servant leadership.  We must find more ways to promote this sort of leadership approach across every element of our organization. 

A few weeks ago, my wife Leigh and I watched the film, Roma, which portrays a year in the life of Cleo, a domestic worker in a middle-class household in Mexico City in the early 1970s.  Writer and Director Alfonso Cuarón based the story on his own childhood experiences, describing the film as a love letter to the women who raised him.  As I reflected on the movie and discussed it with Leigh, I initially felt like something was missing—namely, Cleo’s voice.  She remains stoic and silent through most of the film, when I wished she had said more.  Leigh, however, kept pointing out the power of how her voice manifests itself in her relationships with the family’s children—the respect, love, and magnetism she generates.  In a very literal sense, Cleo is a servant leader.  You do not need to hear what she says because, as Maya Angelou says, you remember how she makes you feel, both in her presence and in her absence.

Engaging in more management and leadership initiatives increases the capacity to think creatively, work better within teams, and deliver more value for customers by striving to promote servant leadership. An even brighter future is possible when servant leadership is adopted as a cultural norm.

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