General John Galvin, head of two high commands in Europe, was once asked what his multifaceted job was like. “I often feel like the director of a cemetery,” he quipped. “I have a lot of people under me, but nobody listens.” That refrain, stated seriously, comes from leaders in many business organizations today. Why?
Some blame age groups (e.g. “Millennials don’t listen and have a poor work ethic.”) Others declare, “Who has time to listen?” Leaders at all levels develop gimmicks to counter claims like these. In terms of lasting impact, though, both claims and counters are mostly exercises in futility.
To spark motivated listening, consider a leadership idea as old as the Book of Proverbs, the Christian Gospels and the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu. This concept is servant leadership.
Servant Leadership Described
First articulated by Robert K. Greenleaf, who worked with leaders at AT&T, servant leadership begins with values that emphasize “servant first” over “leader first”—the basic belief that “people are … [of] … higher importance than ‘things’ we… manage.” Value is also placed on intuition; people working together creatively to bridge knowledge gaps in decisions; and on stewardship, a leader’s sense of being entrusted to develop an organization such that something lasting is passed on.
In practice, servant leadership emphasizes efforts to develop community within the organization, and between the organization and the community at large. Wherever possible, decisions are made using input from everyone whose work is impacted by action. According to Greenleaf, the first order of leadership is to create people who, influenced by the institution, grow stronger and more autonomous. The resulting work environment becomes “people-building versus people-using.”
Some may see this as “pie-in-the-sky,” but servant leadership is unflinchingly reality-based. The real issues behind leader-led relationships are power, control and choice. People who are coerced lay down their power—for a time—but ultimately, power not shared becomes power to be resisted. Servant leaders gain compliance by convincing, rather than coercing. Greenleaf believed that “motivation is what people generate for themselves.”
In practice there are, of course, circumstances in which decisions are made, then communicated. I maintain, however, that the pace of business moves in a wave-form of surges when decision-making must be rapid, followed by flows where plain hard work is required. Servant leadership involves discerning which decisions are better with group input, and which have to be determined, then persuasively made known. The point is that people-building and inclusivity have to be consistently given priority by leadership.
Servant Leadership in Action
Recently, a colleague in our practice proposed an idea for a new therapy group. This group would generate new revenue, but initially could be a challenge to fill. One option for the leadership team was to okay the group and “drive” the process until our colleague got the group filled and the revenue flowing. Instead, we reminded him of how he had established a similar group. He donated time to a peer-led support group, and had watched an energetic therapeutic group arise from that. He agreed to repeat this process with the newly proposed group. For now there is no income stream, but the Peoria area has a new, needed peer support group. We believe a vibrant therapeutic group will follow.
Why Servant Leadership Now?
Servant leadership emerged in response to the “machine” analogy that powered leadership in the 20th century. A “well-oiled machine” of autocrats telling workers what to do produced a B-24 bomber every hour during World War II. Tough, active leadership would keep well-oiled machines running for peacetime commodities.
Whereas the machine analogy was the pattern for 20th-century leadership, the computer and information technology are patterns for today’s leaders. Machine intelligence helps simplify complex business environments; rational problem-solving is achieved through sheer force of data. An unforeseen consequence of this is that leadership is now demonstrated by “making the people fit the data” in terms of performance and “optimized workforce size.” In this ultra-rational environment, no job is secure.
The current times are ideal for what business leader Jeff McCullom calls a “patriarchal contact.” This occurs as “[people], seeking emotional security, turn… personal power over to [leaders] in whom power is institutionalized.” Power is garnered by those who desire it, whether from benevolent or nefarious interest. The problem is that such centralized power constricts freedom of thought and action, leaving organizations with dangerously compromised adaptability in an environment where surprises are constant.
Rationally-generated data alone are insufficient for true adaptability. People, empowered by a stake in solutions, who think supra-rationally using intuition are vital. Such creativity is engendered when leaders take a holistic view of their organizations and communities, where amongst leaders who are servants first, humility trumps hubris. As Lao-Tzu put it succinctly some 2,800 years ago:
“…of a good leader,
When his work is done…,
They will say ‘We did this ourselves.’” iBi