CEOs must reject servant leadership - and learn to delegate instead

Servant leadership has left CEOs dealing with too many operational decisions. They need to focus on the bigger strategic matters, argues Kirsty Braines, CEO, Oliver Wight EAME.

by Kirsty Braines
Last Updated: 29 Aug 2023

There are now a lot of fashionable management articles based on the idea of the "servant leader". But many CEOs have seemingly taken the wrong end of the stick and have ended up becoming the servants of their employees, taking on all sorts of jobs that other people should do. This is inevitably at the expense of spending time on the big strategic matters they’re paid to focus on.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether eating last in the canteen or using up your limited time to muck in on the production line will inspire your team, but what it won’t do is tackle the number one problem of too many CEOs I encounter…they are making too many operational decisions and it has exhausted them, especially after the perma-crisis many have experienced over the past few years.  

No matter how well you manage your time and your inbox, if you are dealing with fire-fighting and operational matters, you’re not focussing on the big strategic matters that define whether your business has a long-term future.

Part of the problem is the CEO’s impulse to take control, and part of it is because in many organisations it is totally unclear who, other than the CEO, should be making what decisions.  

When I ask businesses about their authority levels, there is usually a set of financial sign-off levels, but that's about it. For instance, there will be clarity that new job positions with salaries worth, say, £60K+ need the chief financial officer’s sign off…but for operational decisions, whether big or small, it is totally unclear.

Let’s see how your business fares: two big orders arrive but there is capacity to do only one properly. The first will help you meet that quarter’s target, the second won’t but is strategically far more important. Who decides which to do? Do senior managers have the authority or should it be escalated? Should they make the decision in conjunction with, say, the CFO? Or will it end up with you?

Or perhaps there will be a non-decision that means both are accepted, and you later get dragged into the inevitable firefighting caused by the capacity and service level problems generated?

In many organisations, it is the latter outcome. In many others, it is unclear who can make the decision so it ends up with the CEO. Both of these are examples of CEOs ending up doing the jobs their executives and middle managers are perfectly capable of doing if correctly supported.

So how can CEOs escape this “I need to make the decisions” doom-loop of short-term urgent operational issues at the expense of important long-term direction? After all, we have all been burned with “it won’t happen again” assurances from teams... and then it does.

Well the answer is simultaneously mundane and liberating. Good processes. But the first problem is few CEOs are willing to define on paper what powers they are willing to give away, which is essential for clarity over what decisions other people can make. 

Part of this is because it’s a difficult exercise. Most decisions don't fall into clear-cut strategy and financial decisions, which are the easiest ones for businesses to define. But the more you try it, the better you get. And without clarity, everything will continue to be escalated.

Secondly, you will only let go if you are confident that your people are aligned and their decisions will be taking the business in the right direction. And this requires them to also have the necessary information and structure to be able to take good decisions. 

This comes from having a formality to the analysis and decision-making process. What does such a good decision-making process look like? It’s not a secret. Many large and mid-sized businesses use their Integrated Business Planning cycle, and there are other approaches.

At their heart is ensuring a structure for decisions - suitable data, templates, impact assessments, with input from all relevant departments. And of course managers need a business plan to give them direction, not just a financial plan and sales targets masquerading as one. 

I have heard many, too many, CEOs say they are too busy fire-fighting to do this. But that is the difference between a well-run business and one that lurches from crisis to crisis.

There will be mistakes by your managers and, from these, refinements to the process must be made to stop it the next time… not the knee-jerk reaction of CEOs and executives that they must do their managers’ jobs and make the decision next time.

It is good processes around decision-making that set CEOs free, not technology nor learning touchy-feely soft skills - as important as these may be. And definitely not the exhortation of one prominent guru for CEOs to “give up…their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate”.

Instead you should be generously handing out your decision-making authority: not your limited time and energy, and definitely not your well-earnt lunch.

Kirsty Braines is a partner and CEO at transformation consultants Oliver Wight EAME. 

Picture by Getty Images / Erik Synder