Saturday, March 12, 2011

Servant Leadership

Of all the positions in IT organizations, which is the most difficult? Is it the director of networking, who is responsible for making sure fast, reliable Internet service is always available? Is it the administrative systems director, who is often caught in the cross hairs between end users struggling to use the systems, managers who want to customize the systems, and campus leaders who want to reduce costs? Could it be the technology and learning director, who is responsible for advancing the use of technology in pedagogy amidst an often-reluctant faculty? Perhaps it is the CIO, who is responsible for coordinating all services and making sure they are delivered as one whole. There is one job that is tougher, one that is unheralded, that faces demands and that endures uncertainty like no other. It is the job of the helpdesk manager. 

There are three reasons why this is so, in my opinion.

First, the nature of supporting end users with technology is inherently stressful. Many times, the ones requesting support tend to request help only after they have endured significant frustration. Supporting these individuals is often done through some technology medium – such as over the telephone or by email communication – which removes face-to-face contact and body language from the conversation. These are stressful collaborations. Multiply that times 500 requests a week (in the case of Pepperdine) and you get a very demanding job; day-in, day-out.

Second, help desk managers have little control over the actual systems that end users have trouble with. That is to say, help desk managers find themselves at the mercy of others over whom they have no control. I have heard, on many occasions, stories from help desk staff who are able to identify trends and see problems that need to be corrected permanently, but who receive no support from others in the IT organization when trying to get this done. The combination of being squeezed between end users who need help and being powerless to control the circumstances causing the problems adds to the complexity of this work.

Third, the position requires strategic thinking. Although it is often easier to just sit back, respond to requests reactively, and leave at the end of the day, help desk managers also have to face strategic responsibilities. These include analysis of user support patterns, identification of underlying problems not always apparent at the surface level, and advocating for solutions to others for whom the help desk isn’t always a priority. Diligence, and even perseverance, is a required part of the job every single day.

The best help desk managers I know are those who handle these responsibilities in a way that can only be described as servant leadership. The concept of servant leadership was suggested by Robert Greenleaf, who described it as the concept of leadership through serving the needs of others. By making the needs of others a priority, being mindful of them, and always giving them attention, one becomes a humble steward of people – the most important resource in any organization.

The help desk manager as servant leader has been on my mind this past week because the person who played this role for me at Texas A&M University at Qatar recently passed away. Teresa Chipman can only be described as a servant leader. Always a great listener, empathetic, and acting constantly with foresight, she was a vital part of the community of Texas A&M University faculty, students, and staff working and living in Qatar. She was a member of the church that Gail and I supported in our home, she hosted us for many meals in her home, and she is the one who introduced me to LOST.

Teresa, I will always remember the grace that you brought each day to a very difficult job. Your example of servant leadership is one that I aspire to everyday. May you rest in peace, and know that I have faith that we will see each other again.

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