A Literal Theory Into Action

At the VSH July all-staff meeting I attended, our executive director announced a new style of leadership and staff development proposed by the Stewardship Team that VSH was officially adopting: servant leadership. The justification? Since the organization’s staff is dedicated to serving our clients, that practice should translate to the staff itself, fostering the company mission into company culture. Essentially, servant leadership proscribes a mentality shift from “managing” subordinates to “coaching” them, focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses and encouraging consistent open lines of communication. The hierarchy is inverted, with leaders checking in on subordinates rather than subordinates reporting to their superiors. Managers, directors, and executive directors should be constantly asking how best they can serve those below them, in order to better facilitate more productive workers and workplaces.

This immediately reminded me of prosocial leadership. Prosocial leaders are group-oriented rather than self-oriented, and tend to contribute to and invest in the group at high rates, which correlates with greater productivity rates for the group overall. Servant leadership requires prosocial leaders to be successful. The leaders must be willing to shift their mindset significantly and commit to first prioritizing their subordinates’ satisfaction and success. Right now, our client services teams exemplify this mindset. Their main responsibility is helping clients achieve a stable and happy life. This, in greater detail, involves working with clients in a network of ways: finding and maintaining housing, accessing and consistently engaging with healthcare systems, potentially finding and optimally maintaining a regular job, navigating benefit systems. The clients and their wishes are the top priority; the client services teams embody service to them.

Unofficially, company culture incorporates prosocial behaviors into everyday life. For example, Allison says hello to everyone as she makes her way through the office, checking in on ongoing projects. It was evident in the board meeting I attended this week that she is intimately knowledgeable about the minute details of every committee, answering the questions asked of the committees as easily as the committee members themselves. She clearly considers knowing about and supporting the work of the directors (both Board of and employed!) as her top priority. Even for me, the only intern in the office, Chris has consistently checked in over the summer to make sure I’m learning relevant things and undertaking projects that are useful and fulfilling. I really appreciate him viewing this as needing to be just as worthwhile for me as it is for them. 

While clearly this rollout is in its very early stages so no conclusions can be drawn about its success, I really appreciate seeing an organization from its very highest level create the expectation that leaders must be group-oriented above all else. Because the organization is structured around service to others, it naturally follows that the organization’s structure itself embodies that. And because of the mountain of evidence that suggests that prosociality is beneficial for groups and their success, I have no doubt that this will help VSH improve both organizationally and productively.