3 Actions Every Leader Can Take to Serve Their People

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about servant leadership. I was recently reviewing Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert’s book, The Serving Leader (Berrett-Koehler, 2003 and 2016) when I realized how much I like the term serving leader—it makes the point that leadership is about doing something, it’s not just a philosophy. When you are serving, you are taking action.

In my recent work on servant leadership, I’ve been focusing in on three actions every leader can take to serve their people more efficiently.

The first action is about Presence. Be present when you’re with your people. Focus directly on them—not on the next meeting, or the call you need to make, or the text message that just came in on your phone. Don’t let distractions take you away from a living person who is right in front of you. As a serving leader, you need to listen with the intent to learn, ask questions for clarity, and offer the support and direction your staff needs to be able to perform at their highest level. Each person has very different needs, and as a serving leader it takes your concentration and attention to be truly present with each individual. In this 24/7 world, this skill takes practice and commitment.

The second action is Acceptance. Serving leaders look for and build on the strengths each direct report brings to the job. And, realizing no one is perfect, they also identify weaknesses—areas where they might be able to help the person learn and grow. Helping someone develop new skills is perhaps the ultimate act of serving. Accepting people as they are and paying attention to both strengths and weaknesses allows serving leaders to set team members up for success, which serves not only the individual but also the entire organization.

The third action is Creativity. Leaders work with teams made up of many different personalities and temperaments—and when you add the complexity of multiple generations in the workplace, the job of managing people can seem overwhelming. Some may see this as a challenge to be managed carefully, but the serving leader sees it as a chance to be creative and invite different perspectives to each project. Magical things can happen when different voices and opinions are shared in a trusting, collaborative environment. It brings about something I call one plus one thinking—where one plus one is actually greater than two. The job of the serving leader is to build a community where everyone feels they are part of the big picture.

I hope you think of yourself as a servant leader—but take it a step further and make sure you are taking the right actions to actively serve your people. Be present and focus on each person individually, accept people’s strengths and help them overcome weaknesses, and encourage creativity by inviting everyone to share their perspective. I guarantee that you’ll unleash talent and potential that will transform your direct reports, your team, and your organization.

PS:  Interested in learning more about servant leadership?  Join us for the Servant Leadership in Action Livecast on February 28.  The event is free courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers and The Ken Blanchard Companies.  Twenty different authors, CEOs, and thought leaders will be sharing how servant leadership concepts work in their organizations.  You can learn more here!

Let’s Clear Up Some Misunderstandings about Servant Leadership

When people hear the phrase servant leadership, they are often confused. Their assumption is that it means managers should be working for their employees, who in turn would decide what to do, when to do it, where to do it, and how to do it. If that’s what servant leadership is all about, it doesn’t sound like leadership to them at all. It sounds more like inmates running the prison, or managers trying to please everyone.

The problem is that these folks don’t understand servant leadership.  They think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. Yet you can, if you understand that there are two aspects to servant leadership:

  • A visionary/direction, or strategic, role—the leadership aspect of servant leadership; and
  • An implementation, or operational, role—the servant aspect of servant leadership.

The traditional hierarchical pyramid is effective for the leadership aspect of servant leadership. People look to their leaders for vision and direction. While leaders should involve experienced people in shaping a compelling vision, setting goals, and defining strategic initiatives, the ultimate responsibility remains with the leaders themselves and cannot be delegated to others. Once employees are clear on where they are going, the leader’s role shifts to the task of implementation—the servant aspect of servant leadership. The question now is: How do we live according to the vision and accomplish the established goals?

Most organizations and leaders get into trouble in the implementation phase of the servant leadership process. With self-serving leaders at the helm, the traditional hierarchical pyramid is kept alive and well. When that happens, who do employees think they work for? The managers above them. The minute an employee thinks they work for the person above them for the implementation process, they are assuming the manager is responsible and their job is being responsive to that manager’s whims or wishes. Now “manager watching” becomes a popular sport and people get promoted based on their upward-influencing skills. As a result, all the energy of the organization is moving up the hierarchy, away from customers and the frontline folks who are closest to the action. Servant leaders know how to correct this situation by philosophically turning the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down when it comes to implementation.

When that happens, who is at the top of the organization? The frontline employees who work with the customers. Who is really at the top of the organization? The customers themselves. Who is at the bottom now? The “top” management. As a result, who works for whom when it comes to implementation? The leader works for their employees. This one change, although it seems minor, makes a major difference. The difference is between who is responsible and who is responsive.

When the organizational pyramid is turned upside down, rather than employees being responsive to management, they become responsible—able to respond—and the manager’s job as a servant leader is to be responsive to them. This creates a very different environment for implementation. If a manager works for the employee, as servant leaders do, what is the manager’s purpose now? To help their employees accomplish goals, solve problems, and live according to the vision.

Servant leadership is when a manager’s mindset and skill set are focused on serving others first. This new approach, combined with a clear strategic direction, creates a 1+1=3 environment where leaders develop great relationships, achieve great results, and delight their customers.


Would you like to learn more about servant leadership concepts?  Join me for a free online Livecast featuring 20 different authors, CEOs, and thought leaders from all walks of life.  It’s a two-hour exploration of the new Servant Leadership in Action book I co-edited with Renee Broadwell, which goes on sale March 6.  The event is free, courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers and The Ken Blanchard Companies.  More than 3,800 people are registered already.  I hope you can join us. Use this link to register or learn more: Servant Leadership in Action Livecast.

Moving from Success to Significance

Several years ago, my friend Bob Buford wrote a great book called Halftime (Zondervan, 1997). One of the key points he makes is, later in life, most people like the idea of moving from success to significance—from getting to giving. But you don’t have to wait until your life is half over. If you want to find an environment where people at all levels can experience both success and significance, look for an organization led by servant leaders.

Many people, as they go through life, focus mainly on success. To them, success is represented by wealth, recognition, and power and status. Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting those things, as long as you don’t think that’s who you are. But I’d like you to focus on the opposite of each of those things as you strive to move from success to significance.

What’s the opposite of accumulating wealth? It’s generosity—of your time, talent, treasure, and touch (reaching out to support others). What’s the opposite of recognition? It’s service. And what’s the opposite of power and status? It’s loving relationships.

If you focus only on success—wealth, recognition, and power and status—you will never reach significance. That’s the problem with self-serving leaders; they have a hard time getting out of their own way. But if you focus on significance—generosity, service, and loving relationships—you’ll be amazed at how much success will come your way. Take Mother Teresa, for example. She couldn’t care less about wealth, recognition, or status. Her whole life was focused on significance. And what happened? Success came her way. Her ministry received tremendous financial backing, she was recognized all over the world, and she was given the highest status wherever she went. Mother Teresa was the ultimate servant leader. If you focus on significance first, your emphasis will be on serving others—and success and results will follow.

Life is all about the choices we make as we interact with others. We can choose to be serving or self-serving. Life constantly presents us with opportunities to choose to love and serve one another.

Someone once said to my wife, Margie, “You’ve lived with Ken for more than 50 years. What do you think leadership is all about?”

Margie said, “Leadership isn’t about love—it is love. It’s loving your mission, loving your customers, loving your people, and loving yourself enough to get out of the way so that other people can be magnificent.”

That’s what servant leadership is all about.

 

To learn more about servant leadership, read Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Resultsa collection of 44 essays from today’s top servant leadership experts and practitioners, coedited by Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell. Available March 6. Preorder now from your favorite bookseller.

Hello, My Name is Ken—and I’m an Egomaniac

I want to share a method for getting your ego out of the way and clear your path to becoming a servant leader. There are two sides of the human ego that can cause trouble. One is false pride—when you think more of yourself than you should. When this occurs, you spend most of your time looking for ways to promote yourself. The other is fear—when you think less of yourself than you should. In this case, you spend time constantly trying to protect yourself.

I love to start meetings with an Egos Anonymous session. It is a simple but powerful opening activity with a format similar to one used in many 12-step programs. Individuals stand up, introduce themselves, and then share an example of how they have let their ego get in the way of being their best. For example, I would say, “Hi, I’m Ken, and I’m an egomaniac. The last time my ego got in the way was…” and then I might talk about when I took too long to apologize or when I was impatient with someone I care about.

When you make this kind of admission in front of others it is an act of vulnerability that enables people to see you as you truly are, which builds trust and improves relationships. Try it yourself. Reflect on a recent situation where you reacted badly or in a way that was inconsistent with the person you want to be. If you are like most people, you’ll realize that your ego-driven episode was a result of either false pride or fear. You may have felt a need to win at the expense of others, or to be seen as smart, or to be accepted as part of a group. Both false pride and fear are damaging and can limit your effectiveness as a leader. The first step to changing your behavior is to identify the issue. Only when you realize you are operating out of false pride or fear will you be able to change.

To keep your ego in check, I recommend that you ask yourself a couple of questions. First, ask “Am I here to serve or to be served?”  If you believe leadership is all about you—where you want to go and what you want to attain—your ego is probably causing problems in leadership situations. But if your leadership revolves around meeting the needs of the organization and the people working for it, you are acting as a servant leader.

Next, ask “What am I doing on a daily basis to recalibrate who I want to be as a leader?” This could include how you enter your day, what you read, what you study—everything that contributes positively to who you are. Consider your daily habits and their impact on your life. Take time to explore who you are, who you want to be, and what steps you can take on a daily basis to get closer to becoming your best self.

Let’s face it; at times we all have poor reactions to situations. We need to continually monitor our behaviors so that we can make improvements. Your leadership journey begins on the inside—but ultimately, it will have a tremendous impact on the people around you.

Start now: “Hello, my name is…”

Why Isn’t Every Leader a Servant Leader?

My wish is that someday, every leader will be a servant leader. Unfortunately, the human ego can make it difficult. There are two ways we let our ego get in the way of leading with a serving heart and mindset.

One is false pride—thinking more of yourself than you should. You push and shove for credit and think leadership is about you rather than those you lead. Leaders who operate with false pride spend time doing a lot of self promotion. Another way the ego gets in the way is through self doubt or fear—thinking less of yourself than you should. You become consumed with your own shortcomings and are hard on yourself. Leaders who operate with fear spend time protecting themselves because they don’t really believe in their own talents.

Managers with either of these ego afflictions are not effective leaders. Let me explain what false pride and self doubt look like in action.

Managers dominated by false pride are often seen as controlling. Even when they don’t know what they are doing, they have a high need for power and control. When it’s clear to everyone they are wrong, they keep insisting they are right. In addition, they don’t support their staff members very well. When things are going well and people are feeling upbeat and confident, controllers tend to throw a wet blanket over everything. They support their bosses over their people because they want to climb the hierarchy and gain more control and power.

On the other side of the spectrum, fear-driven managers are often characterized as do-nothing bosses. They are described as never being around, always avoiding conflict, and not very helpful. They tend to undermanage even when people are insecure and need support and direction from a leader. This is because do-nothing bosses don’t believe in themselves or trust their own judgment. They value the opinions of others more than their own—especially the opinions of people they report to. As a result, they rarely speak up to support their own people. Under pressure, they tend to defer to whoever has the most power.

If any of this sounds a bit too close for comfort, don’t be alarmed. Most people have traces of both false pride and self doubt. The good news is that there is an antidote for both.

The antidote for false pride is humility. According to Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, there are two main characteristics that describe great leaders: will and humility. Will is the determination to follow through on a vision, mission, or goal. Humility is the capacity to realize that leadership is not about the leader—it’s about the people and what they need to be successful.

The antidote for self doubt is unconditional love. If you have kids or are very close with other family members or friends, you know that your love for them doesn’t depend on their success. You love them unconditionally whether they are successful or not. Loving yourself as a leader will help you operate with confidence and put self doubt to rest.

The best way to start serving others is to be open to the concepts of humility and unconditional love and practice them until they become habit. When that happens, you are well on your way to becoming a servant leader.