What does servant leadership look like in a world that sees service as weak?
That’s the question Tonye and I are discussing over a meal of fish and chips in a central London café.
Tonye, aged 24, is a store manager for a high street clothing brand, and never really wanted to work in retail. Having worked part-time for a different store during her degree, she dreamt of going into event management. But the doors kept closing, and nothing she tried seemed to be working out. So, at the encouragement of friends and family, she applied for a management position in retail. Two years later, she’s still there.
‘I didn’t want to be in this position, but I feel like God did place me here’, she explains, ‘and this role is something I grew into. I didn’t want to manage a shop floor; I wanted to get out of retail, but God said no’.
But it was in that seemingly frustrating ‘no’ from God that Tonye discovered some skills she hadn’t expected, and ended up wrestling with some big questions about workplace relationships.
‘I didn’t want to manage a shop floor; I wanted to get out of retail, but God said no’
As a manager, Tonye tells me how she was faced with a battle: ‘the Bible’s model of leadership is completely different from the world’s model of leadership; there’s a real difference between the common perceptions of what managing others looks like and being a servant leader.’
In her job, the two worlds collided. ‘I’ve seen so many managers who just take the mick’, she continues, ‘they abuse their authority, go home early, don’t muck in, and then take all the glory’. She pauses to have a drink – ‘I don’t ever want to be on a power trip. The Bible tells us to humble ourselves, and to serve others… that’s my role as a leader.’
But what does that look like day to day?
‘The best way to lead is to get to know the people you lead… don’t just see a role, see a person.’
‘The best way to lead is to get to know the people you lead… don’t just see a role, see a person.’ Whether that’s remembering weekend plans and asking about them on Monday, or spending time getting to know details of their home life, Tonye makes sure to invest in those she manages. ‘Don’t just show interest as a one off,’ she advises, ‘it’s an ongoing thing’.
From that, staff members end up feeling comfortable coming to her about personal issues. ‘Suicide, bereavement, mental health… it’s such a privilege that people will come and talk to me about these things.’ It is in these moments that she can bring her faith into the conversation: ‘I can tell them I’m praying for them and share Bible verses with them when appropriate, as well as explaining some of my story’.
Leadership, she says, is about doing things with people, not delegating and leaving people floundering. Loving your colleagues means humbling yourself, helping them, and never seeing others as lesser.
The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. So: does it make a difference?
‘I think so!’ Tonye laughs, ‘at least, when my area manager comes to visit he regularly comments on how relaxed and happy the staff are’. One time, she says, he even wondered aloud ‘I don’t know what you’ve done, but everyone is so much happier here… there’s a very positive energy, and the staff really like you!’
Off the back of her experiences, then, what would be her one piece of advice for starting work?
‘Be open to change, but be patient’ – she stops to finish off her food, and explains that she’s preaching to herself just as much as she is to anyone else – ‘sometimes God says that it’s just not time yet… learn to wait on him.’ And as we’ve seen, you never know what you might discover in the process.