Mar 19 2020| Leadership

Servant Leadership in a Time of Crisis

The importance of a serve-to-lead ethos

by Phil Eyre Founder

Crisis conditions can bring out the very best - and the worst - in us. Over the last 20 years, the idea of the servant-as-leader has gathered momentum, highlighting that the qualities associated with servant leadership create healthy, sustainable organisations, even during a crisis.


Here are six attributes of a serve-to-lead approach that will help us all in times of crisis.


  1. Put Your People First.


Servant leaders put their people first, even when tough decisions are needed. Rather than view their people as a resource to be exploited, good leaders understand that their people bring much more than “just” a function to their businesses.  During a crisis, good leaders will:


  • Consider the needs of their people before their own, bringing as much certainty and security as is possible.
  • Servant leaders will cut their own salary before others, forgo some of their own personal comfort in order to support their people.
  • Rather than quickly cut jobs to protect financial results, servant leaders will protect their people.
  • If the crisis becomes one of survival, where staff cuts become essential, servant leaders will implement with compassion, acting with integrity, impartiality and fairness, communicating clearly and with empathy.


One leader expressed it like this; “I might lose my second home, but some of my people might lose their only home if I don’t do the right thing [in this situation]”.


In all decisions and discussions, ensure that your people are considered humanely. Resist any temptation to remove the human element in difficult discussion e.g by reducing the people to a number, or using euphemisms (e.g. “dead wood”). 


When considering contracts, don’t look first for what you can get away with, instead look for what integrity asks of you regardless of the technical position. Ensure that you set yourself up to reflect on having done the right thing, rather than having got away with it. 



  1. Laser-Focus on Purpose.


Keep your purpose front and centre. Ensure that “why” you do what you do -  the fundamental reason why your company exists and how it makes the world a better place - is in focus in every decision. This is crucial in a fast-changing environment, where every resource at your disposal must be allocated only to the essential.


It is easy to get drawn in to protecting the specifics of what you do - the particular products, services, practices and habits that you have established.


‘We must keep doing this’ needs to come second to the “why” you are doing it in the first place, otherwise precious resources will be spent on activities that are not essential. Keeping your “why” in focus will ensure that you orientate your effort to creatively seeking solutions to get through the crisis, solutions that might even become part of your new-normal future in more stable times.


By way of example, I’m thinking about our local church. Around 150 of us usually meet every Sunday, with a broad cross section of the community, including some that would be particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak. The Covid-19 situation challenges this convention and forces us to ask, ‘what is the core purpose of the church and is a weekly gathering essential in order to achieve this?’ Perhaps there are better ways, not only to meet the prevailing crisis conditions, but over the long term? We could meet in smaller groups, enable a broader team of pastoral carers, phone people, write letters, utilise digital approaches to teaching and discussion, use social media for building the community. If our mission is to serve the community practically, especially the vulnerable and those on the margins, gathering all together at this point in time is counterproductive; we need to find new ways of being that better serve our purpose.


With many people now working from home, I’ve heard people say that ‘it’s great to not have to go to xx meeting’. If the meeting wasn’t useful to start with, the crisis conditions should force a review not only of what’s essential but what’s important. Once conditions stabilise, it would be wrong to return to previous habits that no longer serve your purpose.  


  1. Narrow the gap


I acknowledge that this isn’t always the case, but it is most often the case that leaders receive significantly greater financial and other compensation than the median team member. In the UK, recent studies showed that there is a 77 to 1 ratio between executives and median income in FTSE companies. The gap between executive and median earnings is even greater in the US.


At the point of a crisis, it may be tempting to believe that such a differential is deserved. Servant leaders, however, seek to narrow the gap and not only in a crisis.  For example, John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow airport will forgo his salary for 3 months, not only recognising the pressure that his own business is under, but showing that he understands and shares some of the pain that his employees, customers, suppliers and passengers are experiencing. 

Narrowing the gap might be just enough to keep a few more people in work for longer, with positive contagious impact on their health, families and their local communities.


  1. Lead by example


Servant leaders lead by example; if you are asking people not to travel apart from the essential, then you can’t travel unless it’s essential.


Good leaders communicate clearly, providing reasons for choices made and being transparent about the issues. They communicate consistently, giving frequent updates and listening to other people’s perspectives. They make courageous decisions, borne not of bravado - which leads only to recklessness - but instead with values-based conviction.


Remember that you are leading by example, whether you think you are or not; people are looking at your actions and not just your words. It’s great if you can speak well and act well, but if you can only manage one of the two, make sure it’s how you act.


  1. Be empathetic.


Servant leaders know that their world isn’t the only world. It’s true that you’re under immense pressure; securing immediate financing, working with suppliers who themselves are under pressure, meeting customer demands, communicating with your shareholders. Great leaders still take time to care for others in their organisations, even if only in small ways, taking a few moments to thank their people and recognise the pressure that they are under. Servant leaders know that there is no objective scale to pressure, i.e. that the pressure they are under is just different to that of their people. 

Take time in the midst of the intensity to pause, ask others how they are faring, show that you care, even if the action is a small one.


  1. Calm and decisive. 

In a crisis, leaders need to bring calm, stability and then make a decision. This raises team confidence, enabling them to draw on their experience and training, handling the situation. 

Fear is contagious, but so is courage. Leaders must act in a manner that instils courage and confidence, otherwise fear will paralyse decision making. Once the decision is made, good leaders keep the team focused, persistent and determined. 

Leaders instill confidence by gliding like an eagle, rather than flapping like a pigeon.

Leaders was formed to champion good leadership and support people in leadership positions, including helping to raise calm and clarity in decision making. In these unprecedented times, for many creating crisis conditions, we are here to help. Call today to find out how can support you.


During this time, we can witness good, and bad, leadership behaviours. What signs of servant leadership would you add to these?

About The Author | Phil Eyre

Phil is Leaders’ founder. He has an enthusiastic and inspiring style, drawing on his experience in business, academia and social sectors to help any leadership team to achieve phenomenal performance. Phil has sophisticated expertise in psychometrics and in the application of human data for individual, team and organisational success. He has trained with, and been mentored by, global leaders in this field, notably Dr Chuck Coker in the US. Phil began his career in the UK offshore finance industry in 1994, working for a wealth management company in Guernsey, Collins Stewart (CI) Limited, now Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil was head of the company's Guernsey division, with a staff of 120 and assets under management of £4.5billion before resigning from executive responsibilities in 2008. Phil has served on the boards of three charities, including BMS World Mission, a UK charity with over 80 employees and a global reach. Phil also ran the Guernsey hub of a national theology college, received accreditation as a pastor in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and served as a non-executive director for Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil is a member of the Institute of Directors.

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