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This article was published on April 23, 2021

We need more ‘servant leaders’ — it’s time to reject fearmonger managers

PSA: Managing with fear or complacency will destroy your company

We need more ‘servant leaders’ — it’s time to reject fearmonger managers
Stéphane Panier
Story by

Stéphane Panier

Founder & CEO, BetterManager

A native of France, Stephane founded BetterManager, a global leadership development platform that provides scalable, executive-quality coach A native of France, Stephane founded BetterManager, a global leadership development platform that provides scalable, executive-quality coaching and personalized training for people managers and leaders at all levels. Prior to BetterManager, Stephane served as an executive at several tech startups and early-stage companies, most notably including a successful seven-year tenure as an early employee at Google. Stephane joined the search giant in 2002, two years before its IPO, and played an instrumental role in building its financial planning teams during a period where the company grew from a few hundred to more than 25,000 employees. Stephane holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, and an MME from Arts et Métiers Paris-Tech.

Do you manage people at work? If so, how would you describe your role? If not, how would you describe the person who manages you? Think about it. I’ll give you a minute…

Do the words “public servant” come to mind? Unless you’re working for an elected official, the answer is almost certainly “no,” and that’s the reason why I founded BetterManager. Because our society views managing people as either an obligation or bragging right; it’s either something that pays the bills or a way to exercise power over others and inflate one’s ego. 

Not unsurprisingly, 75% of employees said their manager was the most stressful part of their job.

This needs to change, and it can, by shifting the cultural paradigm from “manager as functionary” or “manager as fearmonger” to manager as a public servant.

[Read: 3 new technologies ecommerce brands can use to connect better with customers]

Yes, I’m serious, just hear me out

Many CEOs and founders are philanthropists who serve the public good by donating personally to important causes or championing corporate social responsibility programs. These efforts are no doubt well-intentioned and, in many cases, long overdue. But, that’s not what I’m talking about here. 

A recent report by McKinsey said it best: “Businesses looking to make an external social contribution should, paradoxically, look inside: improving workers’ job satisfaction could be the single most important thing they do.” 

While many companies are legitimately reforming their business models to be more sustainable, just, and generally more responsible, these public-facing initiatives often obscure the reality that their own employees are unhappy. They might be poorly managed by people who view their roles as simply a mechanism for maintaining corporate operations and/or a license to belittle and make people feel small.

At best, these managers suck all the oxygen out of the room, so to speak. At worst, they create emotionally scarring, toxic environments that can destroy lives and entire organizations. 

Instead, imagine if our culture viewed managing people the way teachers view their classrooms — as learning environments where people’s talents and curiosities are cultivated for the public good.

Say hello to servant leaders

Managers with a passion for serving others are called ‘servant leaders,’ and their philosophy is simple and effective.  

Servant leadership is probably a term you’ve seen before while scrolling through your LinkedIn feed. It was coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970 to describe a timeless philosophy:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

It may sound idealistic, but I’ve seen the benefits first-hand–at Google, where I was privileged to serve as Finance Director, and even earlier in my youth while growing up in a small working-class town outside of Paris. 

I understood the servant leadership philosophy at a young age, by watching my mom at work. As a doctor, she worked tirelessly to improve the wellbeing of our community, sometimes to the financial detriment of our family.

When I asked her why she didn’t “just accept more patients to make more money,” she was clear about her priorities. If she accepted more patients, it would decrease the quality of care, something she wasn’t willing to accept. 

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated by her answer, but I knew it was her truth. She became a doctor because she cared deeply about her community and wanted to see it thrive. Her work was motivated by human connection and growth, not profit, and people treasured her for it. 

This is the most foundational element of servant leadership: meaningful connection for the benefit of others, not one’s own ego or advancement.

Try to recall the kindest, most empathetic healthcare provider you’ve ever known — the doctor who stitched up the backside of your head when you tried (and failed) to do a wheelie, or the nurse who supplied you with ice cream when you had your tonsils removed. You knew this person wanted to help you, and you didn’t fear them (unless they came towards you with a needle). 

Now imagine that your manager at work embodied that same spirit of care and concern for you and other employees. How would it affect your overall job and life satisfaction? If you’ve got a pulse, it would likely improve your individual and team performance.

It would motivate you to become more engaged in your job and miss fewer days of work. You would likely find more meaning in your work and feel more fulfilled as a result. You’d probably never want to leave. 

On the whole, you would feel psychologically safe to share your feedback and take intellectual risks

No assholes

Google’s famously culture-obsessed leaders understood this from the get-go. They summed up their most critical hiring requirement in a very clear and simple way: “no a**holes allowed.” 

A potential hire could check the boxes in every category: fancy degrees, relevant experience, confidence, motivation, organization, etc., but the last box was the pivotal one. It determined whether or not they’d get the green light, and it was called lunch.

Would you want to eat lunch with this person every day? It was a question that seemed silly at first, but soon I understood how critical it was to our organization’s success. 

Case in point, after months of interviewing candidates, I was pleasantly surprised when a candidate finally answered my brainteaser. Excited, I ran to tell my boss, whose response was, “Great, he’s smart, but can you picture him having lunch in the cafe?” He was right. We found someone else who was both stellar at problem-solving and an enjoyable lunchmate. 

We thrived at Google because we were committed to sustaining a safe and supportive environment. More than this, we emphasized collaboration, emotional intelligence, and human connection. Companies that allow or even encourage fear between managers and employees will never reap the benefits of high employee satisfaction and will soon find themselves falling behind the competition. 

Make the change and commit to it

Turning things around requires true investment in leadership development for managers at all levels and a commitment to ensuring a safe and supportive working environment for all employees.

Individual managers can choose to adopt a servant leadership mindset, but leaders at the top have the most power and responsibility to ensure that everyone thrives at work.

It’s time we imbued management with the moral and professional weight it deserves and requires. Industry experience and subject matter expertise do not equate with having people management skills, self-awareness, or a servant leadership mindset.

Though some are naturals at it, most people don’t know how to effectively manage others; it’s a learned set of skills that must be taught and practiced, just like anything else worth doing. 

Ineffective managers can unintentionally create fear, anger, dysfunction, depression, absenteeism, and high turnover. Asshole managers have the same effect, intentionally. In contrast, studies show an empirical link between servant leadership, high levels of employee satisfaction, customer loyalty, and company profitability. 

What do you think? Can we make the cultural shift to “managers as public servants?” Does the way a company treats its employees affect your willingness to buy their goods or services?