Nigel O’Neil: Servant leadership and why you need to ditch the ego

The term ‘leader’ is steeped in centuries of myth-building. 

The most enduring image of a leader is often military in context – someone striding out onto the battlefield well ahead of their soldiers, sword raised, leading by example and generating loyalty with their bravery (or creating fear with their brutality). 

That sort of leader was certainly larger than life, but they often didn’t last long, and a lot of their followers were killed or deserted. 

Thankfully the concept of leadership has evolved from the command and control model to a style that is inclusive, inspirational and often humble.

I strongly believe in what is known as “servant leadership”, a style where, as a leader, you are there to develop and support the team. 

This involves acknowledging the different perspectives your team members may have, providing them with the support to meet their work and personal goals and involving them in decision-making where appropriate. 

By doing this, you build higher engagement, trust, and promote innovation by extending their thinking beyond the next task.

It’s a subtle and nuanced form of leadership that can deliver powerful results.

The biggest challenge with the servant style of leadership is managing your ego.

As we all know, a resilient ego is a necessary commodity in the world of real estate, and your instinct is to feed it – prop it up. 

But if you can’t let go of this need, then you are unlikely to be effective in putting the interests of your team and the business ahead of yourself. 

Working on becoming comfortable in your own skin first is key – and this is not an overnight process. 

The greatest test I have faced as a leader is thinking that I needed to know the answer to every question – and be seen to know all the answers. 

Showing vulnerability is difficult (that ego again), and in my early years in leadership roles, I believed that showing any form of vulnerability was a weakness. 

It was only through my personal development program working for years with a CEO group (TEC, under a fantastic chairman, Bob Nordlinger) that I realised just how wrong that belief was and how it was holding me and the team back.

If I couldn’t admit I didn’t know the answers or show vulnerability – then how could they? 

I realised that this resulted in them holding back on speaking up or sharing their perspective for fear of being judged or sounding ill-informed, which can cause major issues in moving a business forward. 

I like routines and structures in business, so I generally follow the Rockefeller Habits in how I structure the rhythm of the business.

The challenge is to manage the constant grey noise that can distract your team from focusing on what is important.

Massaging that structure to include the necessary room for excitement, acknowledgement and celebration is a constant balancing act all leaders face, but that is easier when the structure and style of leadership take that into account when building business rhythm.

On July 1 this year, I took over the role of chief executive officer of the Barry Plant Group

I had the luxury of working as the head of strategic development for a couple of years in the corporate office and learnt all about the company and its franchisees.

I had time to mull over what was needed to take the group to a higher level and how I would do that in a manner that remained true to my leadership style.

I am fortunate that the person I am replacing, Mike McCarthy, is still going to be actively involved in the business as a director, so I have that wealth of knowledge I can still draw on as needed. 

I am also fortunate that Mike’s leadership style was an inclusive and collaborative style that aligns closely with how I lead.

My final piece of advice to anyone who is stepping into a leadership role or is evaluating their current leadership style is to lead in a way that is authentic to you. 

A way that feels right, reflects your values and you are comfortable with so that it is easy to get out of bed in the morning and feel congruent whether you are at work or home.

Show More

Nigel O'Neil

Nigel O’Neil is the Chief Executive Officer of The Barry Plant Group. For more information go to