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Today’s pandemic calls for leaders to lead by serving others | Opinion

COVID-19 Member News

By Monica Adya

“I don’t know any dean who’s started their role under the circumstances you’ve started in,” a colleague reminded me shortly after I began serving as dean of Rutgers School of Business–Camden this spring.

At this time of crisis, social media is flooded with advice on how to lead during uncertain times. Most guidance is geared toward those already in leadership roles who must pivot when faced with these unique circumstances. For those starting in new leadership roles in these times, I’d like to share some reflections from my own early experience.

New leaders today are faced with restrained resources, uncertainty, employees’ concerns about their future, scattered teams and the shift of collective energy for managing and delivering during a crisis. Despite this, expectations of new leaders are no different from those who take over their roles under normal circumstances. Amidst dealing with the fluidity of the crisis, a new leader must still comprehend the inner workings of the organization, build trust with internal teams and external stakeholders and refine and communicate the vision and strategy for transforming the organization. It is the execution of these that require reconsideration.

What has helped me and, more importantly, helped me help my teams during these times is servant leadership. It is a leadership style that has unconscious roots in my formative years and formal development through the conscious practice of leadership. Rooted in politics and religion, servant leadership has gained significant traction in business literature, especially as an increasing number of studies point to its positive organizational bottom line. Servant leaders invert the traditional leadership model to put employees at the forefront. Respect, civility, and trust of individuals is foundational to their engagement.

The role of the leader is to empower employees in ways that unlock their creativity and develop a deep sense of commitment to the organization’s mission. Servant leaders are humble, empathetic, rely on the collective wisdom of others by asking questions, listening, and sending the message that employees’ perspectives matter. Under conditions of crisis, servant leadership can help inspire employees, instill confidence, and develop a sense of security. The collective sense of security can enable employees and leadership teams to focus on forward-looking practices and mitigate distraction from the ongoing challenges.

In a compelling essay called “The Servant Leader,” Robert Greenleaf distinguishes the “I lead” from the “I serve” mindset of leaders and notes that true servant leadership stems from a natural desire to serve first: (“I am the leader because I serve”) as opposed to an altruistic mindset (“I serve because I am a leader”). This distinction is important. This leadership style begins with a conscious practice based on reflection and self-awareness that includes not just awareness of oneself but of one’s actions and attitudes toward others.

Second, servant leaders strive to develop an institutional culture of service, starting with mentoring others who are similarly inspired to serve. Finally, leaders gradually disassociate leadership from control and determine ways to empower their teams, perhaps starting with smaller projects. This often is most difficult without a strong foundation of trust, respect, and confidence in others.

Leaders can be the catalysts of change that uplift, not just the organizations we serve, but also the communities we live in.

The ongoing pandemic has caused us all to pivot in unanticipated ways. But it has also brought forth the positive character of individuals and institutions – from businesses that stepped up innovation and adapted their operations to meet the needs of our nation to individuals who have put their own lives at the forefront to improve those of others. Positive, transparent and empathetic leadership is more crucial now than ever before for creating and sustaining an empowered work culture that can adapt under any circumstance.

Monica Adya, Ph.D., became dean of the Rutgers School of Business–Camden on March 30, 2020 – after Rutgers already had transitioned to remote operations for learning, teaching, and working due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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