It's clear that the world is in desperate need of a new leadership paradigm—a model that takes an inside-out approach, giving leaders tools to simultaneously understand themselves and to develop skills for increasing employee passion, customer devotion, and organizational vitality. Rooted in the commitment of serving first and leading second, the servant leadership model is a perfect example.
A while back, I had the privilege to learn about servant leadership from the masters at the Servant Leadership Immersion Course in Santa Cruz, California. It was an incredible experience. Our instructors Ken Blanchard and Jon Gordon shared tons of ideas about how to apply the principles of servant leadership to build relationships and drive results. But there was one idea that really hit home for me.
At its core, servant leadership is really about love.
It makes sense, but it's probably the toughest part for most of us to wrap our heads around. This is part because of the way traditional models of leadership have done their best to stamp out all traces of the idea of love at work—favoring coercion and control over collaboration and care.
What does love have to do with servant leadership?
Here’s an excerpt from my notes on Ken and Jon’s talk.
At the end of the day, servant leadership is about love. Not the idea of love, but the practice of love.
If you don’t love yourself, you can't love those around you, and if you can’t do that, servant leadership will elude you.
The most egotistical managers you meet in your career are ones who don’t truly love themselves. They are not comfortable in their own skins and are often threatened by people who are. They can make your life miserable.
Your direct reports must genuinely believe you love them, and that you are not just giving them lip service to advance yourself. They must believe that you place their growth over yours. Otherwise, they won’t follow you.
The essence of servant leadership is the power of love over the love of power.
Striking idea, don't you think? But what is it that the best servant leaders do—or more importantly, what it is about their being—that exudes LOVE for direct reports?
That was hard for me to pinpoint exactly.
So I consulted Ken Blanchard's latest book Servant Leadership in Action to see if I could unearth any wisdom. I found an essay by Larry C. Spears, president and CEO of the Larry C. Spears Center for Servant-Leadership, that describes the key characteristics of servant leaders. And as I read more about how servant leaders carry themselves, the idea started to gel. Though this is by no means exhaustive, I've abridged the list of key characteristics of servant leaders below.
What makes servant leaders tick?
The servant leader has a deep commitment to listening intently to others: to identify the will of a group and help to clarify that will, to listen receptively to what is being said and not said, and to listen to one’s own inner voice.
The servant leader strives to understand and empathize with others, assuming the good intentions of coworkers and colleagues, even if they must refuse to accept certain behaviors or performance.
One of the great strengths of servant leadership is its potential for healing one’s self and one’s relationship to others. Many people have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts. Although this is a part of being human, servant leaders recognize that they have an opportunity to help make whole those with whom they come in contact.
General awareness—and especially self-awareness—strengthens the servant leader. Awareness helps one in understanding issues involving ethics, power, and values. It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position.
Servant leaders rely on persuasion—rather than on authority—in making decisions within an organization. The servant leader seeks to convince others and build consensus—rather than coerce compliance—and seeks to build consensus within groups.
Servant leaders seek to nurture their abilities to dream great dreams. They are called to seek a delicate balance between conceptual thinking and a day-to-day operational approach.
Closely related to conceptualization, the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation is hard to define but easier to identify. One knows foresight when one experiences it. Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future.
Peter Block defines stewardship as “holding something in trust for another.” Robert K. Greenleaf ’s view of all institutions was one in which CEOs, staffs, and trustees all played significant roles in holding their institutions in trust for the greater good of society. Servant leadership, like stewardship, assumes a commitment to serving the needs of others. Stewardship also emphasizes the use of openness and persuasion rather than control.
Commitment to the growth of people
Servant leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As such, the servant leader is deeply committed to the growth of each individual within his or her organization. They recognize the tremendous responsibility to do everything in his or her power to nurture the personal and professional growth of employees and colleagues.
The servant leader senses that much has been lost in recent human history as a result of the shift from local communities to large institutions as the primary shaper of human lives. This awareness causes the servant leader to seek to identify some means for building community among those who work within a given institution.
My "aha!" moment: my boss loves me!
Taken all together, this was starting to remind me an awful lot of my boss, Steve Piersanti. He hits all of these characteristics of servant leadership. In fact, he built Berrett-Koehler Publishers on many of the principles they reflect.
You may recall that I've written before about how servant leadership has kept me at Berrett-Koehler after ten years of employment. I talked about Steve in that post, but I didn’t use the word love. I didn't really think of my experience in those terms.
But suddenly it was clear to me. Love! The reason Steve is such a great servant leader is his love for us, the Berrett-Koehler staff. It's not just what's in his character that makes him a good servant leader, it's what's in his heart. That's what really motivates me and the rest of the BK staff to do our best work.
Here's a real-life example to illustrate:
At Berrett-Koehler, we recently launched a major new initiative to reimagine our company as a media enterprise. Our goal is to offer our readers new ways to learn and apply the ideas in our books such as through mediums like online summits and courses. It is a huge step for any book publisher, with plenty of complexity and risk we could not fully assess before diving in.
From the moment I raised my hand in the management team and said I wanted to steward this project, I had Steve's complete support. As the project developed, he gave me valuable feedback and ideas, and even connected me with key players who could help push the project forward. He encouraged me to keep innovating, helping me to build on my ideas rather than shutting them down. He listened intently and asked questions. But he never told me what to do. If Steve had a suggestion, he made it in a way that showed he trusted me to know what direction the project needed to take—and that I was the ultimate project steward. He told me more than once that he did not think he could do the project any better than I was doing, and encouraged me to keep innovating. I truly appreciated this. I could feel the love.
If I were to take on a strategic project of similar magnitude at one of my previous jobs, I could imagine how it would play out. Former managers would have been hovering over my shoulder, asking for updates, second-guessing my judgment, and micromanaging me instead of giving me the breathing room to hold myself accountable. And gosh, what a nightmare that would've been—for all parties involved!
With Steve, it’s really about his sense of calm at the center that let me know it’s not about him. It’s about me, and how he can help me on my journey. When I feel this deep down inside, I’m ready to move mountains with him. His enthusiasm and confidence in me inspired me to give the project my all—and to express my passion to other team members to do the same.
The result? The first ever Servant Leadership Online Training Summit, which attracted 20,000 people from 150 countries around the world—and which you may have attended—last fall. Without my Steve's love, this summit would have never seen the light of day.
So now I’ve come around to Ken and Jon’s way of thinking. Servant Leadership is the act of love to help others flourish, at work and beyond.
This realization that my boss truly loves me begs the question: how do I show love for others in my professional and personal lives through servant leadership, like my boss Steve, or Ken Blanchard, or any other great leader? But that’s a big question—and I’ll save answering it for another day!