In a recent podcast with Phil Durst of the Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) Dairy Team and leadership expert Ben Lichtenwalner of Radiant Forest LLC, Lichtenwalner explained the simplicity and effectiveness of servant leadership on dairy farms for retaining employees and boosting farm culture.
Leadership can come in two basic forms. A top-down culture has the manager or CEO at the top. Servant leadership flips that pyramid upside down and puts the boss at the bottom and the people they serve above them. Lichtenwalner mentioned, “At the end of the day if you’re not serving others, you’re self-serving.” Servant leaders build better bosses and break bad boss behavior.
What does servant leadership look like in practice on a dairy farm? Lichtenwalner breaks it down into seven core principles based on the SERVANT acronym.
Say you have a problem employee who has been repeatedly late to work. Rather than immediately reprimanding them, which can make the employee defensive, a servant leader will take the time to be selfless and empathetic. They change their framework of thinking and start by wondering what could be going on at home with this employee. They show empathy and “walk a mile in their muddy boots,” as Lichtenwalner puts it. Consider what challenges could this employee be facing and understand why the behavior you are looking to change has become an issue. Many times, that employee may not realize that their behavior is an issue and affecting the farm.
Investing in employees is practicing servant leadership, according to Lichtenwalner. As the moderator, Durst asked how a farm could use long-term practices when there is a high turnover.
Lichtenwalner explained that part of the reason a farm may have high turnover is from focusing on short-term results. When you focus on employees and developing them, word will spread about your farm. This counts even for an employee who you think may only last a month or week. The next employee that applies should be better quality over time, and retention rates turn higher.
Durst mentioned that a language barrier with employees may make it difficult to talk in-depth with them and to practice servant leadership. Lichtenwalner agreed but pointed out that showing effort to learn Spanish or speaking in ways that make it easier for someone to translate English is an easy way to show empathy to employees.
Lichtenwalner finished the episode with four actions dairy farmers can do to impact them, their farms, and their employees.
- Don’t always trust your instincts. You have spent years studying the science of what you do on the farm, but how many hours have you spent studying leadership?
- Remember to empathize. Stop to think why an employee is acting a certain way, don’t go straight to the problem.
- Investing in your people invests in the long term on your farm.
- Invest in yourself and learn more about leadership to be a better boss.
Lichtenwalner has free resources available on his website at modernservantleader.com.