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So, let’s imagine that you are trying to persuade a leader to give servant perspectives a try. What benefits would you point to as incentives?
Well, as a matter of fact, I’ve had this very conversation many times with clients. I’ve also been in countless discussions with CEOs and COOs who were themselves convinced of the merits of servant leadership, but who were unsure how to gain broad acceptance of it in their organization.
The most powerful argument, I believe, comes from the thesis of my book Leadership and the Power of Trust. There I outlined extensive research which underscores the superior performance of high-trust organizations. This performance is superior whether you measure it by profitability, return to investors, employee satisfaction, retention rates, customer loyalty, efficiency, or speed to market.
Such stellar performance results from the productive and motivating atmosphere which high-trust settings engender.
All of these advantages, along with dozens of others, allow high-trust organizations to be quick, nimble, and innovative.
Now, what does this have to do with servant leadership? My book points to other research which shows that an employee’s trust of the organization is largely a function of the employee’s relationship with immediate management. And when employees describe the management traits that make it easiest for them to trust, their answers form a perfect overlay on the principles of servant leadership.
And what are these traits?
First, in order to trust, we need to be in an atmosphere conducive to trust. In high-trust settings, there is a certain "feel" in the air. To be specific, people feel safe, informed, respected, valued, and understood. And the safety I’m speaking of is more about emotional and psychological safety than about physical safety. People do not tend to trust when the setting leaves them feeling emotionally and psychologically vulnerable.
It’s immediately apparent that someone with the perspective of a servant will also work to help everyone feel safe, informed, respected, valued, and understood.
Moreover, in our earlier discussion of Maslow’s hierarchy, we noted that workers today seek both a sense of belonging and a sense of self-esteem from the workplace. Helping people feel safe and valued strokes their sense of belonging. And when they are treated with respect and kept informed, and where management is interested enough in their viewpoint to want to understand them, their self-esteem is stroked.
Second, employees want to be trusted themselves. They want management to believe in them. And this includes believing in their promise and potential as well as their current abilities.
That’s why workers pay such close attention to the developmental opportunities offered them. When they seem excluded from developmental opportunities which are extended to others, they conclude that leadership does not truly believe in them.
A primary servant perspective is that every person is valuable and has untapped potential which it is the duty of the servant leader to help develop. Servant leaders tend to see more capability within people than these people may see in themselves. And because servant leaders believe so strongly in people, it’s easy for their people to reciprocate with trust.
You mentioned earlier talking with CEOs who want to move their organization toward a servant leadership model. What advice do you give people like that?
My primary advice, whether to CEOs or any other leader, is to start small and move incrementally. By starting small, I mean first start with yourself. Unless you are embodying servant perspectives in your attitudes, actions, and decisions, you can’t persuade others to be servant-minded.
Once your own example is congruent with servant perspectives, move down one tier in your organization. Begin coaching your direct reports on the benefits of servant leadership. And make it unequivocally clear that your eventual goal is for servant outlook a to permeate the entire organization.
Admit that it may be years before your vision is fully realized, because entrenched habits must be transformed. But affirm your determination to see this effort through to completion. And enlist your direct reports to become role models of servant leadership for the rest of the company.
Again, acknowledge that it will take time, and no small amount of energy, for the leadership team to feel ready to take servant leadership principles to their own direct reports. But also affirm that you are resolved to keep this process on track.
At this point you have a powerful opportunity to model a servant perspective for them. If your organization is typical, at least some of the people in this leadership circle will be less than comfortable with what you are asking them to do.
So, put out the question, "What are the things which I can do to help each of you individually become better at servant leadership?" Then wait for a response. Don’t let this question come across as merely academic or a rhetorical device. Let them know that you are genuinely taking the posture of a servant in helping them develop the perspective of servants.
Next, create a circle of accountability between yourself and your leadership team, as well as within the team itself. Together negotiate ground rules by which everyone has the freedom to hold everyone else &mdash including you — accountable for acting in accordance with servant perspectives.
Long-range, your implementation plan is to continue this process, level by level, down through the entire organization, with each leader modeling the way for his or her team and coaching them until they are ready to begin developing servant perspectives in their own people.
Resist the temptation to announce servant leadership as a company-wide initiative and try to implement it in all quarters at once. You’re doomed to fail. There are simply too many points of resistance or misunderstanding for your initiative to overcome.
Start small. Move incrementally. Think long-term.
Can you offer a practical example of how a senior executive has implemented this approach.
Yes, I could actually offer several examples. One of the most striking occurred in a global company, one of the largest privately-held companies in the world. A major division in the company happened to be my client at the time that a new CEO came aboard. Even though he was a Naval Academy graduate with an impressive record as a naval officer, he was convinced that servant leadership needed to replace the company’s long-standing top-down style.
Knowing that the management culture did not align well with servant perspectives, he was fully aware that changing the leadership climate was a long-term task. So, he undertook his initiative following the incremental approach which I outlined earlier. And he began by doing something very striking.
A cornerstone principle of servant leadership is to be open and transparent. He therefore opted to model openness and transparency for his leadership team, and to do so in a way that exemplified humility in an unforgettable fashion. He asked the HR department to arrange for a 360-review of his performance. Then he sat down with his leadership council, laid out the findings, unedited and unvarnished, for the group to peruse.
Without making excuses, he talked about the areas in which his performance had been evaluated as subpar. And he enlisted their assistance in meeting new performance criteria that he was establishing for himself. He was empowering them, he said, to call him to account whenever he fell back into his old ways of doing business.
Once he had shared his 360 results with his team, and once he had asked them to help him improve his performance, he announced that eventually each of them was to do the same thing with his or her own direct reports.
No doubt some around the table swallowed hard when they heard these words. But I got to see the process as it was working down into the third and fourth tiers of management. And by then both the CEO’s resolve regarding servant leadership and the wisdom of his approach was universally respected in the organization.
As an aside, let me say that the most vulnerable spot in this process was when he asked his team to hold him accountable. If an executive makes such a request of direct reports, they will studiously monitor the response the first time someone takes a stab at holding the boss accountable.
If the executive responds defensively, with excuses, or worst of all with anger, the gig is up. The commitment to servant leadership has been invalidated before it was seriously underway. If the leader is unwilling to walk the talk, why should direct reports take the initiative seriously?
One final question. Is interest in servant leadership on the increase in the business community? Or is the interest stagnant and in decline?
From what I observe, interest is on the increase. Servant leadership figures prominently in the writings of management gurus like Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, and Peter Senge. They have been joined by ardent advocates of servant leadership across the consulting community. The success of Southwest Airlines, the Container Store, and Starbucks — all advocates of servant leadership — proves that servant leadership is fully compatible with profitability, even in the world’s most competitive industries.
Interestingly, I find a particular receptivity to servant leadership among today’s younger executives. Coming from a generation with an anti-hierarchical bias, they have a disdain for authoritarianism to begin with. And the people-centric values of servant leadership appeal to their instincts. As these young men and women rise through the corporate ranks, they have the promise of being a transforming force, infusing corporate life from top to bottom with servant perspectives.