Research: Leader as Linchpin

Leading in a new working context of hybrid team Configurations. (A side track from my regular blog)

Roberta Sawatzky MA, CPHR February 2022

Linchpin: the pin that goes through the axel of a wheel to keep it in place

This is the first paper based on my current research…thought I’d add it in to let you know what I’ve been working on during my travels.

Leaders are the linchpins in teams. This is not to say they are the most important or vital member of the team, but as the researcher examines what it takes to successfully lead in a hybrid work context marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, one sees leadership struggling to discern what a new organizational structure may look like, and thus becomes the pin that holds all the parts together. This discussion proposes the importance of a leader clarifying a philosophy that includes their leadership approach and intentions regarding self-care, regardless of the work context.

Recent research by the author included interviews and conversations with ninety plus individuals, conducted across multiple industries, countries, and age demographics, confirmed existing research revealing particular challenges faced by those leading hybrid teams, or members of hybrid teams. From the author’s initial research, respondents reported struggles such as cultural differences, loneliness, time zones, feelings of isolation, poor communication, and inadequate technology. However, current research by the author revealed leadership as playing a significant role in potentially eliminating many of the challenges faced by hybrid team members. Experts speaking to the future of work all seem to agree that some configuration of hybrid working will be the norm. Needless to say, the challenge faced globally by both experienced and novice leaders is evident.

The kind of leadership described by research participants was not the authoritarian style of the industrial age, that of command and control, but reflective of influential and relational leadership. When you work with international teams and varied cultures, soft skills like empathy, compassion and listening matter.

The kind of leader desired was that of a servant leader (Neale, 2020) a perspective where the leader serves the team members. When discussing servant leadership, theorist Robert Greenleaf (Greenleaf, 2007, pp. 79-85) encouraged the questions: “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” The virtues of servant leadership have been well documented since its introduction in 1970, and taught in business classes around the globe. 

Research supports the hypothesis that servant leadership reduces burnout in team members (Wang, Hu, Chen, & Yang, 2021), as well as caregivers in high stress environments (Ma, Faraz, Ahmed, Iqbal, Saeed, Mughal, & Raza, 2021); however, the potential for burnout on the part of the servant leader is also very real. Recent research recognized the negative effect of servant leadership on the leader and offered recommendations to help such leaders find a healthy work-life balance. (Zhou, Liu & Xin, 2020; Lanaj, Jennings, Ashford, Krishnan, 2021). 

The findings of this research has confirmed that those in positions of leadership are experiencing extreme levels of exhaustion and burnout. These same leaders stated their commitment to serving their members and supporting their success. The importance of self-leadership and self-care cannot be over emphasized in this context. A recent Forbes article stated, “…leadership begins with how you lead your life. Improve how you lead yourself to improve your ability to lead others. Self-care is integral to how you lead because it helps you function at your best.” The author goes on to say… “Self-care builds resilience and facilitates healthy ways of coping with the effects of stress.”  (Ashley, 2021, para. 5.).

In her findings from research into burnout and self-care practices of small-business owners, Sundra Ryce states, “It is important for small-business owners, who experience excessive stress and burnout during difficult times at work, to experience restoration. For great leaders to continue at the helm throughout the life of the corporation, they must be whole.” (Ryce, 2018, p.4.)

This quote from Greenleaf provides a summary of the foundation of servant-leadership.

A servant-leader is a person who begins with the natural feeling of wanting to serve first – to help, support, encourage, and lift up others. And because of their noble role model, others begin to lead by serving. (Center for Servant Leadership. n.d.)

These words led the researcher to consider from where this ‘natural’ feeling is derived? Further investigation and conversations brought the exploration to Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History, where the author investigates the inherent nature of humankind with a focus on philosophical ideas presented by Hobbes and Rousseau. One proposes that humanity is inherently evil (Hobbes), the other that it’s basically good (Rousseau). From this researcher’s previous work, it is evidenced that possessing certain personality traits and competencies  make a difference in remote or hybrid leadership effectiveness. However, what impact or influence does a leader’s view of humanity, or their worldview (Funk, 2001) have on their philosophy of leadership? 

A worldview is a collection of attitudes, values, stories and expectations about the world around us, which inform our every thought and action. Worldview is expressed in ethics, religion, philosophy, scientific beliefs and so on. (Gray, 2004, para. 5)

Developing a worldview causes an individual to find personal answers to the following questions (Anderson, 2013, para. 5):

  • What value or worth do we have?
  • What are we by nature?
  • Where did we come from?
  • How should we be treated?

The way an individual, in this context – a leader, answers these questions presents a clear link to how they view the individuals they are called on to lead. The higher the value one places on individuals, the greater respect and care taken in how they treat others.

It is important to state that the same respect for, and care shown for others, must also be directed towards self. Practical self-care refers to decisions that are made pro-actively to not only prevent burnout, but also manage the inevitable stress inherent to leadership when one chooses to promote others above oneself. (Boland, 2021)

With this self-reflection in mind, a leader may be wise to consider their worldview as a foundation in identifying their leadership philosophy. Such a philosophy articulates core principles, values, how decisions are made, as well as how they view and think about leadership. It’s a belief system that guides how one behaves, how one self-leads, and how one leads others.

By creating your own leadership mindset philosophy, and then identifying the behaviors that will help you implement these guiding principles, you will avoid the trap of deciding everything on a case-by-case basis. This results in consistency of leadership behavior; a benefit for both you and your team members.” (Howard, 2022, para. 15)

This research originally began with a focus on hybrid leadership, the configuration that so many organizations are struggling with today, and many  experts believe to be the future of work (Williams, 2022). What has become evident in the process of this research, is the need for knowing ‘why?’. Why do we need to do such and such? Or, why do we need to create clear policies? Or, why is communication, equity, inclusion, diversity, collaboration, and empathy important to the humans in every team configuration? The why questions can only be answered when we have an understanding of leadership philosophy, worldview, and the value with which humans deserve to be treated…no matter where or how they work.  As the previous quote states, when a leader develops a clear philosophical mindset, they ‘…will avoid the trap of deciding everything on a case-by-case basis’. To be sure, different team configurations may call for different tools and application of those tools, but what stays the same is the foundation on which leaders lead and the value placed on their team members.

This author’s current research has shown that team members today are looking for leaders who demonstrate such characteristics as listening, showing empathy, awareness of self and others, commitment to growth of team members, acceptance of diversity, building team community, fostering co-creation, demonstrating trust, and are committed to giving and receiving feedback.

Considering the previous definition of ‘worldview’, and the subsequent questions, certain considerations begin to emerge. How then, do the answers to such questions impact and inform a leader’s ability, or even desire, to trust their team members? Or their ability to fully empathize? How likely are they to want to serve their team members? How much value would they place in building into them and facilitating their growth? To what extent are they willing to serve them, to help, support, encourage, and lift them up? The answer to each of these questions will be revealed in their leadership philosophy, and subsequent application of that philosophy.

Consider the following motivation theories that help us understand what contributes to an employee wanting to be part of a team or organization. 

Author Daniel Pink states that people need autonomy (the ability to self-direct and experience freedom or control regarding how their time is managed), mastery (getting better at what I do), and purpose (what I do matters) in order to be engaged and motivated. (Pink, 2009). Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that certain levels of needs are to be achieved before someone reaches past the level of Self-Actualization to Self-Transcendence (McLeod, 2020). Similar to these offerings, the Self-Determination Theory proposes that people seek autonomy (as defined above), competence (ability to perform their job), and relatedness (being connected with others, having a purpose that matters) (Howard, Morin, & Gagne, 2021). 

In each of these theories, the underlying condition is that leadership has a practiced philosophy that people are to be valued, to be trusted, to be nurtured, to be celebrated. Such a practiced philosophy would reflect a servant leadership approach that also embraces the leader’s self-care.


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