“Servant Leadership” is one of those terms that should be both aspirational and inspirational. Ken Blanchard has written much on the philosophy of servant leadership, describing it this way:
The servant leader feels that once the direction is clear, his or her role is to help people achieve their goals. The servant leader seeks to help people win through teaching and coaching individuals so that they can do their best. You need to listen to your people, praise them, support them and redirect them when they deviate from their goals.
The servant leader is constantly trying to find out what his or her people need to be successful. Rather than wanting them to please him or her, they are interested in making a difference in the lives of their people and, in the process, impacting the organization. The role of the servant leader is to do anything that is necessary to help his or her people win and accomplish their goals.
Reading this, it is hard to imagine anyone NOT aspiring to be this type of leader- a humble servant, enabler, and coach, whose sole purpose is to enable greatness for and through his organization. Yet, if that is the case then why is this leadership philosophy so rare in practice? Often, I believe that the terms “servant” and “leader” are seen as wildly contradictory forces rather than complementary assets. Leaders are strong. Servants are weak. Leaders are bold. Servants are meek. Leaders tell others what to do. Servants do as they are told. As much as I am being dramatic to make a point and intentionally writing statements with which I principally disagree, they do, on some level, ring true. If you were to do a word association exercise for the term “Leader”, what would you see? I see a bold, confident, directive individual, standing in front of the room and directing the crowd. If I were to do the same exercise for “Servant”, I see a shy, introverted, passive follower, sitting in the crowd awaiting instructions from the leader. And looking around at the individuals who tend to quickly and most often climb the corporate ladder, I would surmise that in virtually every organization that “Leaders” as associated above are far more prevalent than “Servants” on the rise to the top.
So, if “servant leadership” as a concept is both sought after by organizations and successful in delivering results, then why is it so uncommon in practice? And, yes, it is successful… in Jim Collins’s brilliant book, Good to Great, he researched companies who were able to drastically out-perform their peers for a sustained duration of time. Of the several factors he found in driving this success, one key was a type of servant leadership that he referred to as “Level 5 Leadership”:
The best CEOs in our research display tremendous ambition for their company combined with the stoic will to do whatever it takes, no matter how brutal (within the bounds of the company’s core values), to make the company great. Yet at the same time they display a remarkable humility about themselves, ascribing much of their own success to luck, discipline and preparation rather than personal genius…
…Level 5 leaders are differentiated from other levels of leaders in that they have a wonderful blend of personal humility combined with extraordinary professional will. Understand that they are very ambitious; but their ambition, first and foremost, is for the company’s success. They realize that the most important step they must make to become a Level 5 leader is to subjugate their ego to the company’s performance. When asked for interviews, these leaders will agree only if it’s about the company and not about them.
Basically, “Servant Leadership” works… but it is hard. It takes self-assurance, dismissing one’s ego, and courage from an individual to put his/her personal ambitions aside and to do what is best for the greater good. It also takes visionary, connected, and humble management to recognize the effective “servant leaders” in an organization, and to support and promote them… especially given that these individuals will likely not promote themselves. Said another way, committing to a culture of “servant leadership” is not a passive commitment to boost morale and to make everyone happier. It is an active act of rebellion to serve and to protect the organization at all costs and to promote a culture of empowerment, trust, and service.
Beyond Servant Leadership… REBELS WITH A CAUSE
So, I am now making an active choice to transform my word association for “servant” into a more bold, rebellious, and inspiring image. From now on, when I say “servant leadership”, I am going to imagine Han Solo from the original Star Wars trilogy. Bear with me here. First of all, yes, I was raised on Star Wars and can probably quote every line from the movies. I grew up playing with my brothers, pretending to be heroes like Han Solo or Luke Skywalker… and now, decades later, I play similarly with my own kids (although they typically make me be Darth Vader). We cheered as these heroes served the Rebel Alliance and fought for freedom against the Evil Empire. These “Rebels” were willing to sacrifice everything for a cause greater than themselves, and went on to an improbable victory restroing freedom to the galaxy. Nerdy, but awesome.
Han Solo entered the story as a smuggler, out for only himself, and was more of a rebel without a cause than with one. He carried himself with a silent swagger and a sort of poished indifference that made him bold, daring, and adventurous. As he ultimately became part of something bigger than himself, he maintained his swagger and boldness, but directed it now at the service of others. Han always did whatever was necessary to protect his friends, accepted the most daring and risky missions for the good of the team, and reluctantly accepted leadership positions granted because of his accomplishments rather than his ambition. Solo was bold, spirited, and comfortable taking charge… and he was a servant leader.
With that new standard in mind, here are some traits of the evolved Servant Leader… a “Rebel with a Cause”:
- Puts the mission above all else, always making decisions and taking action based upon the greater good of the organization and not on personal ambition or gain.
- Lives knowing that sacrifice is braver than survival, and is able and willing to what needs to be done…. even if personal risks are at stake.
- Uses personal humility to build individuals in the organization. The servant leader does not want his organization to ride on his coat tails- he wants to help and to enable them to fly on their own.
- Possesses the courage to accept that she may not be recognized externally for victories that he experiences internally.
- Re-defines success as the change he can make in his organization and in the world around him… rather than by the change and advancement that others can enable in his rank and status.
- Holds faith and trust that, in the long run, doing what is right and just will work out best for everyone in the end.
- Lives under the philosophy that investing is her own personal gain is far less impactful than investing in others.
- Recognizes that every day is a choice. The servant leader does not feel a victim to his circumstances or believe that he deserves to be treated differently than those around him. He is defined by his own actions and choices and not by results that are out of his control.
The terms “Servant” and “Leadership” clearly do seem to oppose each other and to create a tension that is uncomfortable and unnatural. The resolution of this tension, however, is the root of greatness and requires boldness, risk, and humility. Servant Leaders are not weak, meek, and passive… they are “Rebels with a Cause”, sacrificing whatever it takes to drive the greater good of their people, their organization, and the world around them. So for you Rebels out there in your organization, go forth with a silent swagger and “May the Force be With You”.