Business Journey (How Tos)

The value of effective servant leadership in 2021

A significant crisis in an economy that affects the business can either drive a team to greatness or widen any cracks in the company’s foundations. The difference between the two often rests on the effectiveness of a company’s leadership.

According to Alwyn Rossouw, CEO of The Marathon Group, a management consultancy and financial services company, navigating a global pandemic has put this principle to the test. “Over the last year, we have seen many companies have to deal with loss in revenue streams, pivots to business models, and a digital revolution that has changed the way business is being done.”

Rossouw explains that one of the critical components that will help business owners navigate the rocky path ahead is effective leadership. “With the emergence of remote work and highly dispersed workplaces, being able to drive teams to success is hugely dependent on this.”

The pandemic and servant leaders

“During times of uncertainty, employees want to feel connected to their leadership. They must be able to get emotional reassurance that their leaders will take care of them and the business when things are tough. Leaders with a servant leadership mindset were able to demonstrate this during the pandemic, as it came naturally to them to serve, to care, to be humble, and be authentic,” he adds.

With a delayed rollout of vaccines in SA, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted that SA’s local economy is likely only to expand by a mere 3.1%  in 2021 and 2% in 2022.

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“The slow recovery in SA will continue to put a severe strain on businesses. This will require leaders to look inward at what better they can do to effectively manage both their business and the people who help drive its success,” says Rossouw.

This also puts a massive spotlight on many of the fundamental components that help to build successful organisations. “This goes beyond just robust systems and structures. Often companies forget about one of the most important parts – the human element,” he clarifies.

“People make up organisations,” Rossouw explains. “As simple as this may be, this plays a significant role in shaping a positive employee experience, building a better workplace culture, and driving employee success – which in turn equals business success.”

“The ability of leadership to develop, maintain, and retain their unique culture over the life of a company is what leads to enduring success,” he says.

Rossouw says that an interesting reality is that money is not the prime motivator for many employees. “Instead, most would prefer working in an environment that fosters a healthy, high-performing culture that isn’t only obsessed with generating profit. Many of these employees love the family-like spirit in their organization and a shared purpose that keeps them motivated and inspired to perform at their best.”

Effective leaders understand the value of building a committed and engaged workforce. “The knock-on effect of this is that their employees eventually feel empowered enough to take on greater accountability,” he explains.

“By delegating authority to their employees, asking them for their input, and encouraging them to make their own decisions, it all leads to a more proactive workforce in which everyone is working towards building company success,” Rossouw adds.


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An important marker, he explains, is that when leaders take time to both understand and appreciate the effort of their team members it not only shows care about their employees but also the outcomes they are producing.

“Being an effective leader ultimately helps to build clarity, alignment and trust in businesses in SA. Similar to the famous Stockdale Paradox, leaders on the one hand have to accept the current reality, but remain steadfast in the faith that they have that if they follow through things will eventually prevail.” 

What leaders can do right now

Rossouw explains that there are three fundamental steps that business leaders can take today to improve connection, clarity and creativity:

  1. In times of uncertainty, instill a caring culture and connect deeply with your team. Human beings are built for connection and more so when we are anxious. People face significant worries at the moment and have additional caring duties. This is not the time to feel isolated. Go out of your way to care deeply and be exceedingly human. You might not have definitive answers to every concern your team has, but don’t let that deter you from listening and connecting with your team.
  2. Be clear about what your new short-term thematic goal and strategic priorities are. When you lead from afar, managing and inspiring your team can be difficult. Be persistent. Communicate with confidence and over-communicate with consistency to ensure everyone feels close to the heartbeat of the organization. Your future direction may be unclear, but be clear about the processes you are going to be following and keep your team informed along the way.
  3. Be creative. Find new routines and rhythms to ensure your processes, workflows, structures, meeting formats, roles, and decision-making processes are still relevant and effective. In short, recognize what isn’t working and change fast. And be open to test, fail and learn quickly as we need to be agile to survive in these times.

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