When Crisis Calls: Five Traits of Effective Servant Leadership

May 5, 2020
Photo Courtesy: HEB
Untitled Document

By Kristin Kaden Dreyer

While few companies anticipated the run on toilet paper, hand-sanitizer and flour, leaders at the San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B had been managing for disaster since 2005, according to a recent article in Texas Monthly.

With recent roles helping the Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Harvey, built upon initial preparedness spurred from the 2005 H5N1 virus in China and subsequent H1N1 swine flu epidemic in 2009, H-E-B leaders have been preparing for crisis a long time. “We’re not in a super glamorous job, but we describe ourselves as a purpose-driven company—at our best amid times of crisis,” said Craig Boyan, president of H-E-B. “But I don’t think anybody saw the toilet paper rush coming.”

Winston Churchill argued that while there is no shortage of leadership examples from past history, navigating during challenging times into an unknown future is hard. “The past should give us hope,” he said. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham echoes this sentiment in his recent New York Times book review of Great Leadership in the Time of Crisis. “We are hungry for whatever the past can teach us about how to survive moments of great stress and strain,” Meacham writes.

What makes effective leaders during times of crisis when no playbook exists?

“When I think of effective leaders, I think of servant leadership,” said Mitch Neubert, Chavanne Chair of Christian Ethics in Business at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. “Serving is difficult at any time, and it can be counter to our nature,” Dr. Neubert said. “In fact, challenging times can sometimes cause us to pull back and look out for ourselves. However, a genuine servant leader is prepared for these times because they have a heart to serve. These leaders know their people, and they have been looking forward, even if the future is unknowable.”

Dr. Neubert identifies five traits of effective servant leadership that he finds are especially relevant during times of crisis.

  1. Other-centered: A servant leader is other-centered, exercising genuine concern for others by showing empathy and interest in others’ development. “During times of crisis, it’s easy to lose sight of the impact that emotion can have on other people,” said Dr. Neubert. “Some emotions—like sadness or anger—can be debilitating during these situations, so showing genuine concern and empathy for other people becomes extremely important. Great leaders look out for others, not themselves.”
  2. A Gallup poll from the last two weeks of March 2020 reported that 81% of full-time employees said COVID-19 disrupted their life "a great deal" or "a fair amount". This was up from 58% earlier in the month. A recent Harvard Business Review article described a common response to this upheaval is grief due to a sense of loss and uncertainty. “Servant leaders in business, government, churches and communities must recognize how people feel during a crisis and serve others by pointing out what can be controlled and that there will be an end, eventually," said Dr. Neubert.

  3. Humble: Servant leaders demonstrate humility in admitting what they don’t know, and they also readily rely on the strengths in others. A recent Wall Street Journal article evaluated effective communication strategies of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, suggesting that he demonstrates these traits by being both personal and believable. According to the article, Cuomo admits when he doesn’t know the answer, deferring to experts who do or what Meacham refers to as, “the importance of leveling with the public as directly as possible.” Dr. Neubert goes on to explain that emotion can connect us to others and make our communication authentic. “Leaders who are honest, even in sharing difficult news, are seen as humble and genuine.”
  4. Ethical: Doing what is right rather than what is popular, easy, or self-serving is another hallmark of servant leadership. For example, in early March 2020, H-E-B leaders took somewhat unpopular steps to limit the amount of products customers could purchase in order to be fair across its constituents. At the same time, to support employees, H-E-B extended its sick leave policy, limited hours to keep up with the needs of its stockers, added a coronavirus hotline for employees in need of assistance or information, and gave employees a $2 an hour raise.
  5. During the Covid-19 crisis, medical professionals have been faced with making challenging ethical decisions based on rationed care and limited equipment and supplies in countries like Italy and China, according to a recent article in the New York Times. But if forced to do so, how does a servant leader make the least terrible decision? “Fairness and respect should be guiding principles,” says Dr. Neubert. “The leader should ask, 'Is the decision process clear and transparent? Does the distribution of resources fit the stated process without bias, and are people treated with respect and provided a reasonable explanation and information?’ It boils down to, '...do to others what you would have them do to you. (Matthew 7:12 NIV).'”

  6. Prudent: Although prudence isn’t a word used very often, it represents wise decision-making in light of the future. It is evident in servant leaders who look ahead to prepare for the future. ”This means they have considered numerous scenarios from best to worse in preparation for the future,” says Dr. Neubert. "Layoffs and reductions in salaries ultimately may be necessary for the viability of the firm as a last resort, but the servant leader has a long-term view that should avoid the trappings of many shortsighted actions,” said Dr. Neubert.
  7. Faith-minded: “I believe faith is a key to feeling called to serve others as a leader,” said Dr. Neubert. “In my own research, a sense of calling helps us stay committed, even when the job at hand is difficult or unsatisfying. Faith also is a resource for coping with difficult people and difficult situations,” said Dr. Neubert, who finds comfort in the struggles of normal people voiced in the book of Psalms. “While we may feel that our experiences are out of control, the Bible reminds us that there is a larger purpose to life, we are not alone, and that God is sovereign over all. Faith-minded servant leaders find strength in reminding themselves of this every day."

About Dr. Mitchell Neubert
Dr. Mitchell J. Neubert is the Chavanne Chair of Christian Ethics in Business and professor of Management at Baylor. Dr. Neubert’s research interests are focused on understanding how leadership, particularly servant leadership, and ethics affect the performance and well-being of people and organizations. He also is interested in how faith intersects with these research interests. He hosts the Hankamer School of Business’s annual Dale P. Jones Ethics Forum activities. He is the author of two textbooks and teaches in Baylor’s undergraduate, MBA, and Executive MBA programs.

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