Grace-Based Leadership : What Every True Servant Leader Practices

Photo by Tim Easley on Unsplash

Photo by Tim Easley on Unsplash

When I first started my professional career as an entry level engineer at a manufacturing plant, my operations manager—my boss’s boss that is—was well-known as someone who made things happen. He had been plateaued at his level in the organization for quite some time, but rumors circulated that he had more clout than many of his superiors. I later learned that he had made a name for himself in start-ups, which he had led by spurring people into action and making things happen in the short-term, but he was not necessarily known for leading ongoing operations where he had to put sustainable systems in place and demonstrate consistent leadership behaviors. I’m sure we all know a leader or two like that!

In any case, everything about this guy was intimidating. From his physical stature to some of his quirky and unpredictable ways of managing people. One thing I remember about him is that he had a miniature dog house on his desk and he had the names of the managers in his operation on little pieces of paper, and if you were in trouble with him, he would put your name in the dog house. As silly as that sounds, trust me that it was pretty serious for all of us; the dog house was not where you wanted to be. Even on a good day when you apparently hadn’t earned the boss’ ire, you could never be sure if you were really in trouble or not until you were hit between the eyes. But certainly if you were in the dog house, you were on notice; it meant you had done something the boss didn’t like and you would suffer the consequences in due time.

As you can imagine, working for a boss like that can be pretty stressful as you are constantly walking on eggshells or navigating a minefield, always wondering when he or she is going to fly off the handle or administer “punishment” to those on his or her blacklist. In the era before Twitter and emails, rumblings about the displeasure of these kind of bosses would either circulate through the grapevine until they got to you, or appear on pieces of paper in physical mailboxes, summoning you to the boss’ office the next morning, just so you could stew in your own anxiety and agonize over the situation until the next business day.

This “leader in name only," as well as a few others that I have had the misfortune of working for over my 31 year career, were more focused on what others could do for them, rather than what they could do for their team members and organization. Their mindset and behavior were the furthest thing from that of a servant or a leader, much less any combination thereof. Their support for team members was dispensed to those who were meeting their expectations, and was withheld from those who were failing to do so, regardless of previous track records. What you received in the way of information, growth and development, recognition, opportunity to give input on decisions, and so on, was entirely dependent on how much effort you put into ingratiating yourself with the boss.

By contrast, I have also had the pleasure of working with several servant leaders whose support for me and others was never conditional based on our performance. There was always a baseline level of support that they extended to everyone as common courtesy and as a matter of human decency. Of course, when things weren’t going well, they also administered consequences and provided corrective feedback that a person needed to hear even if they didn’t really want to hear it. Even in those situations, however, it was clear that what they were doing was out of respect for the person and their potential, and based on a desire to lead and to serve, rather than out of anger and frustration that the person had not satisfied their every whim. Their actions were proactive and corrective in service of a desired outcome, rather than reactive and vindictive based on their mood swings and temper tantrums.

With the former kind of boss, you were always in a state of fear that he was out to get you, whereas with the latter you got grace-based leadership, meaning that courtesy and respect and servanthood and leadership were extended to you regardless of how well you performed and independent of your ability to “earn” such treatment. In case you’re wondering if I’m suggesting that leaders should not distinguish between high performers and low performers, please know that I am not at all advocating that. On the contrary, I know that nothing destroys morale faster than a boss who just lets low performers consistently get away with not performing, while others are working hard to make things happen with little to no recognition. What I am saying is simply, that while action must be taken to address low performance and in some cases these actions may result in negative consequences to the individual who is not performing, there is a certain level of courtesy and respect and support that must be extended to everyone unconditionally, regardless of their performance or any other factor for that matter. And this must hold true even as we promote some people and give them big pay raises, while we document performance outages and even terminate others in cases of those who refuse to correct their harmful behaviors.

I’d like to use a familiar (and hopefully not too controversial) example to illustrate partly what I mean by grace-based leadership, and that’s some concepts from religious traditions. To be clear, I only use this example because it’s something that the majority of my audience can relate to, even if they don’t subscribe to the validity of the concepts described. I’m not intending to personally endorse or disparage anyone’s religious beliefs or practices in any way, and the following explanation is for illustrative purposes only. Now that we have those caveats out of the way, let me clarify a little of what I mean by grace-based leadership.

A central idea in the Christian faith—as well as Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism, among others—is that God’s grace does not have to be earned, and in fact, cannot be earned. It is simply renewed and available every day to anyone and everyone who would choose to partake in it. In case of Christian faith, the idea is that, for those who embrace the idea that Jesus Christ has died on the cross and has paid the price for the past, present, and future sins of humanity, this means that they no longer have to be sin-conscious and worry about whether their sins will separate them from God and cause them to go to hell. To put it another way, they don’t have to be constantly worried that their actions are going to put them on the boss’ “bad side” and get them sent to the “dog house” or punished out of anger or vindictiveness, because they feel assured that their leader only wants what’s best for them and doesn’t take their failings as a personal affront. On the other hand, there are other frameworks of religious belief that propose the opposite, namely that your bad behavior can earn you the ire of the person or deity in charge, and that you ought to be constantly thinking and acting in ways that ingratiate yourself with them, and that you can “save yourself” from the “dog house” and start being rewarded for things that you “earn” by showing your faith and/or loyalty. In this “fear-based” or “performance-based” framework, even if you’re doing what you think you should be doing, you still have to walk on eggshells because you never know what tiny thing might set off the boss or trigger a mood swing, so your past sins—and your potential present and future ones—are an ever-present concern no matter what.

Now, keep in mind that I am not arguing theology here, or saying one is right and the other is wrong. Rather, we’re just exploring the implications that these different types of religious frameworks have with respect to leadership styles and their outcomes. And by doing so, we can already see some clear distinctions. While the former framework has people motivated by being trusted and appreciated and encouraged to live up to their innate potential, the latter has people motivated by fear of punishment. A grace-based framework for leadership is a relationship between people who extend unconditional courtesy and respect to each other, while a fear-based framework is a “transactionship” between people who see each other as means-to-an-end of avoiding punishment and accumulating rewards. Now, religion aside, if you had to pick between these two frameworks for how you would like to be treated, wouldn’t you prefer the latter?

There are, of course, objections to a grace-based style of leadership. Some argue that the idea that your “sins” have been paid for already, i.e. that you don’t need to be punished if you recognize and correct your ways, would cause people to just go out and do whatever they want without thought for the consequences. But, I think this indicates an incredibly cynical and small-minded understanding of just what actually motivates people to be the best they can be, and this becomes a self-fulfilling and self-confirming prophecy. Additionally, in a framework where even the smallest faux pas can land you in the “dog house,“ people are more motivated to hide or deny their mistakes, rather than address the problems that actually need to be solved, to the ultimate detriment of the organization or community. Likewise, rather than incentivizing people to bring their best to work, a fear-based style of leadership ends up severely fragmenting the organization into highly reinforced silos that compete against each other for their own interests. Because in a situation where no one knows who could be going to the dog house next and for what reason, everyone spends most of their time looking out for themselves and throwing others under the bus, rather than working together to boost the bottom line. Fear-based leadership, for whatever its advantages, only serves to create an organization divided against itself, and to paraphrase both a religious leader and an American president, “an organization divided against itself cannot stand.”  

I’d like to propose that a grace-based leadership style says that even if you make mistakes and even if your mistakes result in some consequences to you, you will never be in the “dog house,” because your leader and your community will always be working to support you in being the best you can be. You are given the right to make mistakes on your way to becoming better, because your mistakes aren’t used to define you. This is something that personally appeals much more to me, and I hope to many of you, and causes me to work extra hard to meet my leader’s expectations and strive to move the organization forward. This is in contrast with the fear-based style, which has me paralyzed with constant worry about where I stand and always questioning if I’m still on the boss’s good side or if I’m in trouble.

The fear-based style has me focus on myself and staying out of trouble and avoiding risky or innovative decisions, but the grace-based style has me relax and know that I’m OK no matter what, so I can focus on making great things happen and trying new approaches. The grace-based style also develops me into more of a self-directed performer who wants to do the right things whether somebody is watching or not. In fact, this is what I experienced firsthand when I first came to the US when I was 16. I had a limited amount of money and, for the first time in my life, no adult supervision, but because of the grace-based parenting that my mom and dad had practiced, I felt a sense of responsibility to do the right thing. The fact that they loved me unconditionally didn’t give me license to go out and blow my money and do drugs and skip school. It made me even more eager to do everything I could do to please them, even though and especially because I know I didn’t have to earn their love, and thus didn’t have to live in fear of losing it.

Bosses who have a fear-based style encourage people to find out where the line that they should not cross is located and make clear the only thing that matters is staying on the right side of that line. These bosses demand compliance and that’s what they will get; In fact, that’s all they get. On the other hand, grace-based leaders not only entice people to comply and do their jobs, but they inspire them to offer up their full commitment and discretionary effort, without which it is impossible to create a virtuous cycle of ever-improving morale and extraordinary results.

In fear-based organizations, people are divided into haves and have nots. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, so to speak. The few chosen people who are on the boss’s good side, who have accumulated all the social capital, either because of their legitimate abilities or their willingness to compromise their values and principles just stay out of trouble with the boss, continue to be the “made men” who get all the opportunities and the recognition (until they get on the boss’ bad side), while others are kept out of the loop on critical information and not given the opportunity to show what they’re made of. Grace-based leaders constantly level the playing field to ensure everyone has equal opportunity to perform and grow and develop.

Since I’m sure somebody is getting ready to send me a comment about how socialism is evil and so on, that’s not what I’m advocating. Again, I am not suggesting that everyone get the same amount of money or promotions, regardless of performance. Of course, the rewards must be commensurate with each person’s skills, and contributions and promotions must be given to those who have the potential to succeed at the next level of responsibility. But having said that, I have come across way too many organizations where the in-crowd gets all the opportunities, while everybody else, regardless of their potential, is relegated to being button-pushers and that is not good for the people involved or the organization at large. Grace-based leadership does not mean that great performance is not rewarded and that poor performance is not addressed, rather it means that everyone is given an equal opportunity and chance to live up to their potential and that no one is written off as a “lost cause” and abandoned.

Net, there is no time like the present to examine whether your style of leadership is a grace-based style or a fear-based one. Are people on eggshells around you and primarily interested in staying out of trouble, or do they feel secure in knowing you got their back and they actively offer up their discretionary effort and their perspective to make the most contribution to the team? Is the level of basic courtesy and respect you extend to others dependent on how well they perform or how much they do for you, or can everyone honestly say that you unconditionally lead them and serve them as individuals?


As my regular readers may know, registration for our November 9-10th Transformative Leader Workshop Retreat is now open! I know you're probably tired of hearing me say my usual blurb about it, so this week I wanted to share something exciting with you, something my team and I recently found out... it is this: graduates of our workshop have experienced a 50% promotion rate and award winning results from one cohort within six months of attending the retreat! We are really proud of that here at The Ghannad Group because it means our work is making a difference in people's lives. 

With that said, we'd love to have you there with us! In the past we've had participants from companies like MasterCard, Conagra, Sunny Delight Beverages Company, Edwards Lifesciences, Pratt & Whitney, Newell Brands, Georgia Institute of Technology, Equifax, and more. We limit the attendance at our public workshops to 14 participants, so if you know you'd like to attend, register soon. Registration will close on November 1st. If you're on the fence and would like to know more about the workshop, don't hesitate to reach out. Shoot me an email or schedule a call with me by visiting theghannadgroup.com/scheduling. I'd be happy to tell you more!


As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at amir@theghannadgroup.com.

Copyright © 2017 The Ghannad Group, LLC, All Rights Reserved.