Where Have all the Servants Gone?

When I write or speak about Servant Leadership I often receive a fair amount of feedback that true “Servant Leadership” is some utopian dream that “can’t work” in today’s world. It has been suggested to me that I should “park” this new age Servant Leadership thing.

It sometimes seems as if all the servants have gone away.

The concept of Servant Leadership is hardly new. In fact, it’s been around longer than anyone reading this post.

Lao-Tzu wrote about Servant Leadership in the fifth-century BC: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware…. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!'”

The concept of serving from a leadership position seemed to go into a type of hibernation for many, many years. It began to surface again with a paper “The Servant as Leader,” written by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. In it, he said: “The servant leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead … (vs. one who is leader first…) … The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons … (and become) more likely themselves to become servants?”

Today, Servant Leadership is a much talked about and sadly, little practiced concept. It seems many people like to talk about serving as a leader but aren’t really all that interested in investing the time required to lead while serving. They also struggle with the “people are barely aware of their existence” thing. Leaders, well actually most people, tend to like getting noticed these days.

There are many reasons why people have a hard time buying into the whole “Servant Leader” thing, a big one is the fact that the terms “Servant” and “Leader” don’t actually go together well. Even many of those who would be served see “servant” as a weakness and would prefer a “stronger” leader than a mere servant could ever be.

The average person has a much greater need to be led than to be served. If they have to sacrifice one for the other then the “servant” will be quickly jettisoned in favor of the “leader.”

If “servant” is seen as a weakness in a leader, as it is for many people, then perhaps a better term would be “Serving Leader.” I know I’m kind of splitting hairs here but words do matter. People value people who serve. We thank members of our military, strong, young, and brave men and women, for their “service.” They “serve” the citizens of their country. I wonder if we would feel the same about the members of our military if it was filled with people we thought of as servants.

If the term “Servant Leader” is preventing you from embracing the concept of helping others grow; if it is causing you to delay acceptance of the responsibility that goes with committing yourself to your people; if you or others in your organization believe being a “servant” makes you weaker then adopt the philosophy of a Serving Leader.

In all things Serving Leaders put their people first.

That may sound naive in a competitive business environment but it’s actually a great business strategy.

Serving Leaders understand that their success and the success of their organization is completely dependent upon the success of their people. They know that the fastest, most efficient way to build a stronger business is to grow the people who make up the business.

If you’re a leader who believes your people are an “expense” then you should flat out change your thinking to see your people as an investment. It is not a weakness to “serve” their interests, it is in fact in the best interest of the leader to do so.

Serving Leaders are tireless in their efforts for their people. They are also, almost without exception, the most fulfilled of all leaders. Serving Leaders are held in high regard by their followers, they feel better about themselves at the end of the day and are often more productive than mere effective leaders.

Leadership is a people business. Leaders who skip the people part are limited leaders. Leaders who serve their people are limitless leaders. I understand that serving isn’t the only way to lead but it just might be the best way.

Where are all the Servant Leaders? Feel free to share your examples of serving leaders in a comment. The more “serving” as a leader is recognized the more likely leaders are to serve.

That would be a good thing for everyone!

Encouraging Mistakes

I’m not a big fan of mistakes. That might surprise the people who know me best since they also know I make a lot of them.

I make a lot of mistakes because I make a lot of decisions. Mine are mistakes of action and they can be fixed, usually with just a small adjustment. Often, people don’t even realize I made the mistake at all.

Some people believe they can avoid mistakes by not making decisions. They fact is, not making a decision is a decision, it’s a decision to do nothing and it’s almost always the wrong decision. Deciding to do nothing is a huge mistake, it’s a mistake of inaction and it’s often much harder to fix than a mistake of action.

The most successful leaders make a decision the moment that they have the facts required to make it. They make good decisions because they have made a lot of them and they learned as much from the bad ones as they did the good ones.

I get asked from time to time about the best way to help young leaders learn to make decisions. My answer is nearly always the same – let them make decisions!

No one can learn how to make good decisions just by watching someone else do it. If you’re a leader hoping to build future leaders then you need to let your people make decisions. Even some bad ones!

Get out of the way and let them decide. Let them be wrong and let them fix their mistakes. Let them learn from THEIR experience and allow them to build self-confidence by doing… and redoing if that’s what it takes. 

I’m not suggesting any leader stand by and let their people make decisions with potentially devastating consequences, but let them make small decisions and grow their way to bigger ones.

Lead by ensuring they find the lesson in every mistake they make and lead further by helping them develop a plan to make a better decision next time. 

The ability to recover from a mistake or a poor decision can be a great encouragement to your younger leaders. Authentic Servant Leaders don’t use mistakes to criticize their people, they use them to coach and encourage their people. 

It all comes down to this: as a leader, do you have a spirit of criticism or a spirt of encouragement? One forces compliance and one builds commitment. 

One works and one doesn’t. Which one are you? 

The Leadership Diet

Is your “leadership” so big that when you enter a room there is no space left for the other leaders in your organization? It’s a question that successful leaders should ask themselves frequently. 

If your leadership is “filling” the room then there is no room for other egos, thoughts, suggestions, ideas, or leadership. Your leadership could actually be stifling the growth of your organization by leaving little room for other leaders to grow. 

I’ve seen meeting rooms change when “THE leader” walks in. The atmosphere changes from one of healthy debate and discussion to one of quiet hesitation. Either everyone respects THE leader so much that they don’t want to offer a differing opinion or perhaps they just become filled with fear and doubt. If you’re a leader and no one in your meetings disagrees with you then you should know it’s one or the other. You should also know that neither one is good for your organization.

If your leadership objective is to grow an organization AND the next generation of leaders who will lead it, then you need to put your leadership on a diet to make room for those future leaders to grow.

Stop leading from the front so there’s room for someone else up there. I’d never suggest that a leader stop leading but try leading from the middle or even the rear. The rear is a great place to lead from because oftentimes it’s much easier to push people past their limits than it is to pull them.

If you’re talking your not listening and if you’re not listening you’re not learning.  

Authentic servant leadership listens far more than it talks. Let your people try out their voice – make it a point to ask for dissenting ideas and DON’T be defensive when you get them. 

Authentic Servant Leaders encourage constructive discontent. 

Lead your people to encourage the airing of differing opinions and then manage the process to keep it positive. As a leader you should know that if all your people are thinking just like you then a good many of your people just aren’t thinking. 

Authentic Servant Leaders have egos. 

They also know that everyone else has an ego too and that forgetting that fact leads to all sorts of trouble. If it’s your ego that is getting in the way of listening to other opinions then you may need to put your leadership ego on a diet and leave some ego food for the future leaders in your organization. 

You need more than just your own ideas to help your organization reach it’s full potential. Make room for lot’s of ideas and differing viewpoints and reward people for sharing them. 

If you’re a leader with the confidence to “shrink” your leadership when circumstances require it then you’re a leader who truly leads. 

Are you ready to diet?