Understanding Servant Leadership

As part of a new series, I’m introducing today’s leadership concept via a segment extracted from my latest book, Lead with LUV, coauthored by former Southwest Airlines president Colleen Barrett.


Understanding Servant Leadership

For those of you who may not be clear on the concept of servant leadership, read this excerpt from Lead with LUV where Colleen and I discuss why servant leadership is the very best way to lead.

Colleen: Ken, it makes me sad when people hear the term servant leadership and, as you have said, they think you’re talking about la-la land where the inmates are running the prison or trying to please everyone.

Ken: The problem is that they don’t understand leadership or, more importantly, servant leadership. They think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. Yet you can, if you understand that there are two kinds of leadership involved in servant leadership: strategic leadership and operational leadership. Strategic leadership has to do with vision/direction. It’s the leadership part of servant leadership. The focus for strategic leadership is the “what” that ensures everyone is going in the same direction. This is all important because:

Leadership is about going somewhere—

If you and your people don’t know where you are going,

Your leadership doesn’t matter

Alice learned this lesson in Alice in Wonderland when she was searching for a way out of Wonderland and came to a fork in the road. “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” she asked the Cheshire Cat. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” the cat said. Alice replied that she really did not much care. The smiling cat told her in no uncertain terms, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Colleen: At Southwest, we’ve always tried to make sure everyone knows where we are heading. Then, of course, we had to make it all happen.

Ken: In essence, that’s what operational leadership is about:  implementation—the “how” of the organization. This is the servant part of servant leadership. It’s what leaders focus on after everyone is clear on where they are going. It includes policies, procedures, systems, and leader behaviors that cascade from senior management to frontline employees and make it possible for the organization to live according to its vision and values and accomplish short-term goals and initiatives. These management practices create the environment that employees and customers interact with and respond to on a daily basis.

I hope you all believe, as I do, that effective leadership starts on the inside. Servant leadership is not just another management technique. It is a way of life for those with a servant’s heart.  The byproducts are better leadership, better service, a higher performing organization, and more success and significance. Stop and think about this:  Are you a servant leader?

2 thoughts on “Understanding Servant Leadership

  1. Some great points are made here:

    Servant Leaders Can be “Mean” Too: It is not “la-la land where the inmates are running the prison or trying to please everyone”, as Colleen stated. While it is not just about being mean either, it is about leadership and accountability.

    Organizations Practicing Servant Leadership: When you consider the list of organizations practicing servant leadership, you realize the U.S. Military is among many examples. I often use this to explain to people how servant leadership is not about being nice all the time. Instead, servant leadership is the only real form of leadership for sustainable success.

    I’m so glad you and Colleen joined up up on this book and can’t wait to read it, Ken.

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