Is there such a thing as servant leadership in government?

(This is the eleventh installment in my twelve-part blog series A Leadership Vision for America.)

I realize that what I have been saying about creating a servant leadership culture in Washington is not easy to sell. To a lot of people, it sounds like “soft management.”

When I am confronted by these kinds of concerns, I love to tell about an experience I had several years ago at my local branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Stop me if you’ve heard this one!

When you mention the DMV, most people would say it’s a government bureaucracy that often treats them as a number instead of a human being. I felt the same way at the time—but like we all do every few years, I had to go there in person to renew my driver’s license.  I hadn’t been to the DMV in years and headed to the office with low expectations.

I knew immediately something had changed when I walked in the front door and was greeted by a smiling woman. “Welcome to the Department of Motor Vehicles! Do you speak English or Spanish?”

“English,” I replied.

She pointed to a nearby counter and said, “Right over there.”

The guy behind the counter cheerfully said, “Welcome to the Department of Motor Vehicles! How may I help you today?” It took me only nine minutes to get my replacement license, including having my picture taken. I asked the woman who took my picture, “What are you all smoking here? This isn’t the same old DMV I used to know and love.”

She asked, “Haven’t you met our new director?”and pointed to a man sitting at a desk right in the middle of everything. I walked over to him, introduced myself, and asked, “What’s your job as the director of this branch of the DMV?” The man gave me the best definition of management I had ever heard:

“My job is to reorganize the department on a moment-to-moment basis, depending on citizen (customer) need.”

The director obviously had a compelling vision for his department. The point of their business was to serve the needs of their customers, and to serve them well. What did this director do? I learned that he cheered everybody on—that’s why he was out in the middle of the action. He also cross-trained everyone in every job—that way, if a flood of citizens came in suddenly, they would be able to provide the service that was needed. And no one went to lunch between 11:30 and 2:00, because that was the busiest time of day for customers to come in.

This director created a motivating environment for his people. His team members were really committed. Even employees I recognized from past visits—who at the time had seemed stiff and jaded—were now excited about serving.

When leaders are servants first and leaders second, they make a positive difference in everyone around them. Would you like to work for this kind of leader? You’d better believe it. Why? Because he’s a servant leader who treats his people as his business partners in implementing the service vision and solving problems.

If this philosophy can impact a government agency like the DMV, why can’t it impact all segments of society, including the U.S. government? 

To me, what’s needed are leaders in Washington who believe we should:

  • Have a Compelling Vision: If people don’t have a larger purpose to serve, the only thing they have to serve is themselves.
  • Treat Citizens as Business Partners: People who are well informed have a greater commitment to help solve problems.
  • Involve Every Sector of Society: No problem can withstand the assault of sustained collective thinking and action.
  • Elect Servant Leaders:  The more leaders we have in Washington who realize that their job is to serve, not to be served, the better chance we have of breaking our political deadlock and maintaining our reputable standing in the world.

Thanks for tuning in to the Leadership Vision for America series.  America is a great country and I feel blessed every day to be able to live here. Let’s encourage our leaders to do what they need to do to keep America moving in the right direction. And if you’re an American citizen, be sure to get out and vote on November 6, on national, state, and local political races and issues. Your vote counts! 

I’ll have some final thoughts next week as I conclude this series. What are your thoughts as Election Day approaches?

Elect Servant Leaders

(This is the tenth installment in my twelve-part blog series A Leadership Vision for America.)

Now let’s look at the fourth and final secret for fixing Washington. This secret will encompass and bring to life the first three secrets.

The Fourth Secret: Elect Servant Leaders

Assumption: The more that our leaders are in Washington to serve and not be served, the better chance we have to mend what’s wrong with our country.

The world is in desperate need of a different leadership role model. Everyone has seen the negative effects of self-serving leaders in every segment of our society. In fact, to a great extent, the whole economic downturn has been the result of self-serving leaders through the years who thought all the money, recognition, power, and status should move up the hierarchy in their direction, and everyone else be damned.

Yet, when I mention servant leadership to people, they often think it means the inmates are running the prison, or trying to please everybody, or even some type of religious movement.  They think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. Yet you can, if you understand that there are two parts to servant leadership:

  • A visionary, or strategic, role—the leadership aspect of servant leadership
  • An implementation, or operational, role—the servant aspect of servant leadership

The first secret for fixing Washington—having a compelling vision—was focused on the visionary/strategic, or leadership, aspect of servant leadership. Once an organization has a compelling vision, they can set goals and define strategic initiatives that suggest what people should be focusing on right now. With a compelling vision, these goals and strategic initiatives take on more meaning and therefore are not seen as a threat, but as part of the bigger picture.

The traditional hierarchical pyramid is effective for the leadership aspect of servant leadership. People look to their organizational leaders for direction, as Americans look to Washington. While leaders should involve experienced people in shaping vision/direction, goals, and strategic imperatives, the ultimate responsibility remains with the leaders themselves and cannot be delegated to others.

Implementation/operational leadership, or the servant aspect of servant leadership—living according to the vision and direction—is where most leaders and organizations get into trouble. With self-serving leaders at the helm, the traditional hierarchical pyramid is kept alive and well, leaving the customers uncared for at the bottom of the hierarchy. All the energy in the organization moves up the hierarchy as people try to please and be responsive to their bosses, leaving the customer contact people to be “ducks,” “quacking” and saying things like, “It’s our policy,” “I just work here,” “I didn’t make the rules,” or “Do you want to talk to my supervisor?”

Servant leaders, on the other hand, feel that their role is to help people achieve their goals. They intuitively know that effective implementation requires turning the hierarchical pyramid upside down so the customer contact people are at the top of the organization and can be responsible—able to respond and soar like eagles—while leaders serve and are responsive to the needs of their people, helping them to accomplish goals and live according to the vision/direction, goals, and strategic imperatives of the organization.

Since the customer contact people are “in the know,” they see themselves as your responsible business partners and, therefore, are committed to not only serving customers but to solving problems. This is what the second and third secrets of fixing Washington are all about:  We must treat our citizens as our business partners and involve all segments of society to solve our problems.

To wrap up my Leadership Vision for America series, I’ll have some final thoughts for you next time and then a special message on November 3. Let me know what you think!

Bounded Set Thinking vs. Centered Set Thinking

(This is the ninth installment in my twelve-part blog series A Leadership Vision for America.)

In my last post I stated that business and government can’t solve all of America’s problems by themselves. Ideally, our leaders in Washington would involve every sector of society in problem solving. The three sectors encompass nine different domains:

  • The Public Sector, represented by government, military, and education
  • The Private Sector, represented by business, arts/entertainment, and media
  • The Social Sector, represented by the faith community, nonprofit organizations, and families

When Eric Swanson and Sam Williams were working on their book To Transform a City, they come across a very interesting philosophy about problem-solving relationships. Paul Hiebert from Fuller Seminary discovered in the 1970s that when people come together to solve a problem, they often have a “closed circle” philosophy, or what he called a Bounded Set. A bounded-set thinker asks the question, “Do you believe like I believe?”  This becomes a divisive question because it separates those who are in from those who are out, limiting people who are allowed to work on the problem to those who sign off on an agreed-upon belief.  Whether it’s political, religious, or some other type of personal conviction—unless you believe what we believe, you can’t work on the problem. This philosophy doesn’t work because it is exclusive, not inclusive. The weeding-out process continues, the circle keeps getting smaller, and the problem doesn’t get solved.

A more productive way to look at problem-solving relationships is an open philosophy Hiebert referred to as a Centered Set. A centered set has no boundary that defines who is in and who is out. The question that determines if you are part of the problem-solving group is, simply, “Do you care about what I care about?” This philosophy works because it is inclusive of all belief systems and focuses on the matter at hand: Are you concerned about the problem we want to focus on?

How would this work in Washington?  It would be the job of the president and the legislature to first identify the key problem areas that need to be focused on to help keep America prosperous and safe. Next, they would select key people from each of the nine domains, whether inside or outside their own ranks, who care about each of the areas selected. Each of these groups would work with other American citizens to develop strategies to solve each of the key problems or concern issues going forward.

The people working together could have all different kinds of personal convictions about things as long as they were all passionate about the key problem area they were working together on—whether it be the economy, homeland security, unemployment, affordable housing, balancing the budget, improving the educational system, or another important issue.

Identifying leaders from each of the domains to work on each problem highlights the fact that no one segment of the population can solve all of America’s problems. In fact, one of my favorite sayings is, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

A perfect example of someone who lived and breathed this philosophy was William Wilberforce, who helped stop slavery in England. It took twenty years. He traveled the country on horseback and got to know key leaders from all of the different domains. He didn’t care what they believed politically, religiously, or economically—all he asked the leaders was whether they agreed with him that slavery was wrong.  If they agreed, he would help them determine how they could influence important people within different segments of society and get them on the “stop slavery” bandwagon. This led to a number of people from diverse backgrounds coming together to put an end to slave trading and ultimately abolish slavery in their country altogether.

This is the type of process our government leaders need to put into action to deal with today’s pressing issues. Right now, Washington seems to be dominated by the bounded-set philosophy, where “you have to believe what I believe” to even begin to work together on a problem, let alone agree on a solution. So you have one big bounded-set group, the Democrats, at odds with another big bounded-set group, the Republicans.

The only way to get anywhere is through compromise. What makes this third secret for fixing Washington so powerful is that it focuses on sustained collective action by all segments of society.

Next time I’ll bring it all together with the fourth secret for fixing Washington, which involves a practice that’s near and dear to my heart:  servant leadership.

Invite every sector of society to the table

(This is the eighth installment in my twelve-part blog series A Leadership Vision for America.)

Our leaders need to create a clear, compelling vision for America. They also need to start treating Americans as true business partners. Now let’s look at the third secret for helping to fix Washington:

The Third Secret: Involve Every Sector of Society

Assumption: No problem can withstand the assault of sustained collective thinking and action.

When I talk about sustained collective action, I’m talking about every sector of society being involved. The strategy to do this is an outgrowth of the thinking that went into Sam Williams’ and Eric Swanson’s book To Transform a City. (I’m currently working with Sam and a colleague of his, Mike Carlisle, on an initiative called Vision San Diego, with the goal of making San Diego truly “America’s Finest Region.”)

In their book, Williams and Swanson established that there are three primary sectors in our society, each having three domains.  They are:

  • The Public Sector – government, military, and education
  • The Private Sector – business, arts/entertainment, and media
  • The Social Sector – faith community, nonprofit organizations, and families

In the past, when it has come to finding solutions for city, state, or national problems, the focus has tended to be on only two of these nine domains—government and business. The self-serving mess we have in Washington is a perfect example. When people start believing that our problems can be solved only by government or by business, it dooms problem solving to failure because the other seven domains are on the outside looking in—and some of them have become our country’s most critical judges.

Take the media, for example.  I’ll never forget when I participated in a Young Presidents’ Organization University program in Singapore in 1984. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the leader who transformed that country, spoke to us. He was prophetic when he said:  “I love the United States, but I’m worried about you. I don’t think you are going to get strong leaders in the future because your press does not understand the difference between freedom of speech and national integrity.”  That was almost thirty years ago.

I think if the media were invited in to be part of America’s problem-solving team, they wouldn’t feel the need to set themselves up as judge and jury for our leaders and everything the government is doing. The reality is that all nine domains of society need to be involved for real problem solving to take place.

Next time I’ll explain the difference between Bounded Set and Centered Set decision-making philosophies.

What are America’s key national goals?

(This is the sixth installment in my twelve-part blog series A Leadership Vision for America)

In the past several weeks, I have gone into detail about the first secret our government leaders need to know to improve our system in Washington:  Have a compelling vision.  For a compelling vision to endure, all three elements—a significant purpose, a picture of the future, and clear values—are needed to guide behavior on a day-to-day basis. A perfect example of this is the way Martin Luther King, Jr. outlined his vision in his “I Have a Dream” speech. By describing a world where his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he created powerful and specific images arising from the values of brotherhood, respect, and freedom for all—values that resonate with those of the founding values of the United States. King’s vision continues to mobilize and guide people beyond his lifetime because it illuminates a significant purpose, provides a picture of the future, and describes values that resonate with people’s hopes and dreams.

Once you have a clear and compelling vision, you can establish goals that help people determine what they should focus on right now. In his book Educating Voters for Rebuilding America, Jack Bowsher suggests six potential national goals that would achieve the picture of the future he proposes:

  • Peace with strong defense and Homeland Security systems
  • Prosperity and a rising standard of living with high level of employment
  • Adequate and affordable health care system for all
  • Superior and affordable education systems
  • Efficient and affordable government
  • Decent retirement for senior citizens

I think Jack is really on to something with these goals. I would love to see each of our presidential candidates identify the key goals he wants to accomplish nationally, and then spell out his plans and programs to achieve those goals. Rather than debates, candidates could participate in goal accomplishment sessions: First they would have to agree on the key goals to accomplish in the country within the next four years, and then each would give his own strategies to achieve each goal.

Wouldn’t you love to hear our candidates lay out their specific goals for America and then clearly explain how they expect to accomplish those goals? Do you think this idea is realistic, unrealistic, optimistic, idealistic, or something else?

Next time, we will move on to the second secret for how our leaders in Washington can turn things around:  Treat citizens as their business partners.