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Tales of Poor Leadership and Great Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert A. Hunter
December 8, 2023

Over my decades in various elected, appointed and volunteer positions, I’ve had the opportunity to observe many leaders in action. However, I’ve never witnessed a more stark contrast in leadership styles than in my direct workplace experiences of the last few months.

Local community leaders had just fired a public department head in late August and asked me to serve as interim director. My assignment was to calm the chaos and recommend further disposition for this critical organization.

It took no longer than my first hour in the department to recognize that the employees had been emotionally abused. I learned that the previous director had used obscene gestures and totally unacceptably profane language to call out employees in the presence of their peers. Presumably, her intent was to keep them in line through intimidation and fear and to pit them against one another in an attempt to maintain strapping control. Needless to say, morale was as low as in any workplace I had seen.

Unfortunately, toxic situations like this develop. Certain subordinates had absorbed the poison, creating negativity throughout the organization.

In his book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins explains that the character and personality of the leader sets the tone for the entire organization.

Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man. His character determines the character of the organization.”

The seepage was so severe in the previously mentioned department that it impacted relationships with partner organizations who had begun to shun collaborative work.

During the process of calming the waters, I was reminded of how beneficial just a little kindness, the practice of listening, of empowering and of praising good work could repair damaged egos and restore confidence. It was a pleasure to call my interim employees my new colleagues and friends.

Recommendations were adopted to dissolve the organization and place the work and workers under professional and supportive management of a sister department. The issues were resolved with a very positive outcome.

After nine weeks of concentrated effort with this department, I returned to the warm, family-like nonprofit where I have been serving as public policy advisor.

But that return was not without noticing the huge contrast between the struggling department I had encountered earlier and the positive environment of the nonprofit I am proud to call my home. 

As I contemplate the difference in my experience at these two organizations, it is crystal clear to me that the difference can be traced to two contrasting leadership styles. The former is autocratic leadership and the latter is servant leadership.

According to Robert K. Greenleaf, “Servant leadership prioritizes the growth, well-being and empowerment of employees. It aims to foster an inclusive environment, enabling everyone in the organization to thrive.”

Greenleaf lists (1) encouraging diversity of thought, (2) creating a culture of trust, (3) maintaining an unselfish mindset, and (4) fostering leadership in others, as traits of a servant leader.

It is truly a joy to work side by side with an authentic servant leader at our nonprofit, whose demeanor and actions adhere thoroughly to the four principles established by Greenleaf. She disciplines with warmth and reassurance, realizing that everyone is fighting deficiencies. She encourages hard work by inspirational example. They know she is their advocate. As a result of her infectious influence, she has recently been recognized with the highest leadership award our community has to offer.

As CEO of our nonprofit, she considers all of her employees to be, not just her colleagues, but also her friends.

There are so-called experts in the field who claim that you cannot be a boss and a friend at the same time. This is a bogus theory.

Of course workplace responsibilities and boundaries must be clearly defined, but this does not preclude warm, respectful relationships. Everyone needs friendship.

After the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln had the challenging task of determining which of his Union soldiers, accused of desertion, should be pardoned. Many requests were accompanied by letters of support for individual soldiers from influential friends. One request appeared on Lincoln’s desk with no such supporting documents. The president inquired of his aide and the aide replied, “It appears that he has no friends.” In a typical moment of empathy, the president said, “Then I shall be his friend.”

A few years ago I encouraged one of our community leaders to run for mayor. But he had just been called to a major ecclesiastical position and declined. I told him he could delegate duties to others in the congregations he would be leading, thus giving him the capacity to serve as mayor. His response: “I don’t want to delegate any more than necessary. I want to be close to the people I’ve been called to lead. I want to be their friend.”

Of such are servant leaders made.

Autocratic leadership can destroy an organization. Servant leadership can produce magical results and even build other servant leaders in the process.

What a difference the difference can make!

Author: Robert A. Hunter is a longtime state, regional, and local leader in public service. He currently serves as Public Policy Advisor for United Way of Northern Utah and teaches Leadership and Political Life at Weber State University. He may be reached at [email protected].

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