Organisation As Servant-Leader

Written for Len Brand, Chief Executive Officer at TATA Africa Holdings and Head of Distribution Vertical at TATA International, and first published by TATA International Africa on 1 October 2019


“I had the pleasure and privilege of serving with Len Brand on the board of TATA Africa Holdings, for three years. During this period the company went through tough times and difficult decisions had to be made. Len, in his capacity as CEO, impressed me with his clear vision and his ability to develop and implement a new strategy which gave rise to a much more focused, profitable entity. In his leadership role he gave direction, demonstrated his courage and earned the trust, respect and confidence of his people. Len leads by example in terms of his principles and values, and he delivers results. He is a humble leader who doesn’t use positional power, but one who earns the commitment of his people by caring about them. Len is hard headed when it comes to results, but he has a gentle heart when it comes to people. He leads with a firm hand but a gentle touch. He has created a workplace where humanity flourishes and where people live their passion and realise their potential. In summary, Len is an inspirational, caring and effective leader.”

Brand Pretorius, retired CEO of McCarthy Limited and executive director of Bidvest Group, currently member of the Advisory Board of the Motor Industry Ombudsman of South Africa, and serving as a non-executive director on several boards, including TATA Africa Holdings

When I stepped into my current role in August 2016, the people were very unhappy, just coming to work to earn a salary. At the outset of my turnaround strategy, the first thing I did was try and set a new tone. I drew a great deal of inspiration from my mentor, Brand Pretorius, who is a well-known proponent of servant leadership.

Servant leadership

Servant leadership has nothing to do with being subservient or submissive. The core premise of the ‘service to others first’ philosophy is prioritising other people’s needs over your own. Humility is an absolute prerequisite for this management style, as your overarching goal is to achieve authority, rather than power.

To establish and execute strategies which drive growth in revenue and profitability, to lead cultural and process change, and to build consensus and develop high-performing teams, you need the buy-in of your people. To do this, you first have to earn their respect and trust.

You have to create an environment where your people want to come to work every day. Human beings have an innate need to belong, so you have to build a sense of unity and wholeness in the organisation. In order to help people foster bonds and build relationships, you have to provide opportunities and spaces for them to interact with one another, informally, across the company.

To inspire and motivate, you have to convince rather than rely on coerced compliance. To optimise your influence, you have to persuade rather than rely on hierarchical dominance. You have to be a solid role model and an advocate for your people – everyone in your team should know that you’re there for them. As a servant-leader, you have to make yourself visible, accessible, and available. You have to check in often with your people to see how they are. You have to look them in the eyes, and engage them in meaningful discussions. You have to listen, empathise, and make an effort to acknowledge things from their perspectives.

No-one likes to be micro-managed. People get de-motivated when they are managed and controlled into the ground. Remember, your people have been hired for their skills set. You have to create space for them to use those skills, and encourage them to take calculated risks. As long as they’re trying to improve the business, you should allow them to try new things, or new ways of doing things.

Encouraging a participative approach to decision-making leads to a higher level of engagement and innovation, and helps build a sense of community within the team. It is important however to remember that, as a servant-leader, you can’t avoid making unpopular decisions, or giving team members negative feedback when it is required. Servant leadership is about focussing on satisfying the highest-priority needs of others – not their feelings.

You have to prioritise the personal and professional development of your people, and empowerment should follow an orderly and structured approach. Coaching and mentoring your people has to take precedence over personal elevation. You have to lead by example to reinforce the spirit of service to others, and encourage mentees to prioritise serving others over self-gain.

Organisation as servant-leader

It should be noted that organisations – not just individuals – can also be servant-leaders. The ‘institution as servant’ is something which I think TATA does extremely well.

Founded in 1868 by Jamsetji Tata, the legendary “Father of Indian Industry”, and one of the most important founders of the modern Indian economy, the TATA Group of companies is India’s only value-based corporation, and the country’s biggest conglomerate.

Tata was the epitome of a servant-leader. He believed that in order to advance a nation, you need to uplift the best and the most gifted, so that they can go on to be of the greatest service to humanity. Most significantly, he believed that the community is not just another stakeholder in a business, but the very reason for its existence. In other words – institution as servant, or organisation as servant-leader.

Virtuous cycle of servant leadership

The ‘servant-leader is servant first’ philosophy – whether that be in an individual or organisational capacity – is, ultimately, a virtuous cycle. Because when your people become happier, healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous, they are more likely to themselves become servant-leaders. All of which bodes well not only for businesses, but also communities and society at large.