On a recent visit to Helsinki to lead a two-day workshop on Host, I was lucky enough to meet a fellow called Markus (right). He splits his time between advisory services and teaching at the university, and is very interested indeed in looking closely at his work as service to others. Indeed, he takes this so seriously that he actually trained to be a butler!
It’s easy to think of butlers as a historical phenomenon from years gone by. Characters such as Carson from the popular TV series Downton Abbey feel like something from another time and place. However, Markus told me that the butlering profession (as they really do call it) is well alive and appreciated thriving. There are schools around the world, and increasing a number of families and institutions are benefiting from professional butlering services.
The training at the International Butler Academy is very practical indeed. There is little in the way of theory:; it starts with the very basics – how to stand, how to walk, how to be alert, how to dress, how to address others – before moving onto issues such as different aspects of household management, etiquette and ethics. Markus noted that these practical aspects of service are seldom a part of conventional school curriculums (and perhaps it should be, with the recent UK discussions about a ‘glass floor’ holding back youngsters with less developed social skills). The butler’s position is usually to head up the family’s service team – which may include nannies, cleaners, cooks, gardeners and so on. They co-ordinate these different roles, and often act as a key contact point.
Markus told me that the master/servant relationship is healthy when it is balanced – even though the butler is employed by the family and is there to support them in their lifestyle. Butlers need to show excellent ‘situational sensitivity’ – noticing what is going on and what is needed next in a particular context. This echoes very strongly our work on host leadership, with the focus on knowing when to step forward (to act) and then back (to observe, notice and prepare for the possibility of having to step forward again in a different role). We agreed on the risk of the butler or host being ‘too centric’ – seen as an indispensable hub rather than as a figure who appears when needed and then steps back and seems to blend into the surroundings.
In the end, I am very impressed with Markus’s service ethic. “Doing a good service is part of leading a meaningful life”, he says. The art of the butler is not merely how to serve, but how to serve elegantly, effectively and almost invisibly. Things just happen – at the right moment and with the right style. Does your team need a butler? And how can you help to serve them both effectively and elegantly?