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.

Applying Servant Leadership

Continuing with the servant leader theme, I want to share a real-life example that I experienced. To help you realize that servant leadership can occur in any organization, consider what happened when I visited the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

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. In fact, I asked my assistant to schedule three hours for my visit. That’s how long it normally takes them to beat you up.

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—no private office for him. 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 the citizens (their customers), and to serve them well. What did this director do? Since he had philosophically turned the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down, his main role was being responsive to his people and cheering them on—that’s why he was out in the middle of the action. He also cross-trained everyone in every job—even those who normally weren’t out front, like bookkeepers and secretaries. Why? Because if a flood of citizens came in suddenly, they would be able to respond. 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. Everyone’s energy was focused on the citizens and their needs.

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.

Think about what you can do to bring servant leadership alive in your organization.

The Visionary Role of the Servant Leader

I love the saying “A river without banks is a large puddle.” The banks permit the river to flow and give it direction. In my last post I explained that the visionary part of servant leadership is about providing clear direction. If people don’t have a compelling vision to serve, they can’t work toward a common goal. They can’t keep organizational energy flowing in a consistent direction.

Walt Disney provided a great example of this when he started his theme parks with a significant purpose. He said “We’re in the happiness business.” That is very different from being in the theme park business. Being in the happiness business helps cast members (employees) understand their primary role in the company.

Walt Disney’s picture of the future was expressed in the charge he gave every cast member: “Keep the same smile on people’s faces when they leave the park as when they entered.” Disney didn’t care whether a guest was in the park two hours or ten hours. He just wanted to keep them smiling. After all, they were in the happiness business. A picture of the future should focus on the end result, not the process of getting there.

The Disney theme parks have four clear, rank ordered values: safety, courtesy, the show, and efficiency. Why is safety the highest ranked value? Walt Disney knew that if a guest was carried out of one of his parks on a stretcher, they would not have the same smile on their face leaving the park as they had when they entered.

The second ranked value, courtesy, is all about the friendly attitude you expect at a Disney park. Why is it important to know that it’s the number two value? Suppose one of the Disney cast members is answering a guest question in a friendly, courteous manner, and he hears a scream that’s not coming from a roller coaster. If that cast member wants to act according to the park’s rank ordered values, he will excuse himself as quickly and politely as possible and race toward the scream. Why? Because the number one value just called. If the values were not rank ordered and the cast member was enjoying his interaction with the guest, he might say, “They’re always yelling at the park,” and not move in the direction of the scream. Later, somebody could come to that cast member and say, “You were the closest to the scream. Why didn’t you move?” The response could be, “I was dealing with our courtesy value.” Life is a series of value conflicts. There will be times when you can’t act on two values at the same time.

Every organization should have a compelling vision that includes a significant purpose, a picture of the future, and clear values. These three elements will provide the strategic direction people need on a daily basis to perform at the highest level and secure organizational success.

Understanding Servant Leadership

I’m spending a lot of time lately thinking and writing about servant leadership. Although much has been said and written about the topic, I still run into people who don’t quite understand the concept. They tend to think it is about the inmates running the prison, or a leader who tries to please everyone, or some religious movement. But I’ve found servant leadership to be the most effective way to inspire great performance and to create great human satisfaction.

If you take a look at the companies that embrace servant leadership, you’ll notice one thing they have in common—they are all leaders in their field. I’m talking about companies like Southwest Airlines, Chick-fil-A, Disney, Nordstrom, Wegmans, and Synovus, to name a few.  Leaders in these companies understand the two parts of servant leadership:

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

All good leadership starts with a visionary role that establishes a compelling vision that tells you who you are (your purpose), where you’re going (your picture of the future), and what will guide your journey (your values). In other words, leadership starts with a sense of direction.

Once leaders have shared the vision and people are clear on where they are going, their role shifts to a service mindset for the task of implementation—the second aspect of servant leadership. In this role, the leader does all they can to help their team members accomplish goals, solve problems, and live according to the vision.

I have a great example of this.  My daughter, Debbie, who is now our company’s VP of Marketing, worked at Nordstrom when she was in college. After she was there a week or so, she came to me and said, “Dad, I have a strange boss.”  When I asked what was strange about him, she said, “At least two or three times a day he comes to me and asks if there is anything he can do to help me.  He acts like he works for me.”  And I said, “That’s exactly what he does. He sounds like a servant leader.”

Nordstrom understands that their number one customer is their people—that’s why Debbie’s boss was acting as if he worked for Debbie. He was giving her the responsibility to serve their number two customer—people who shop in the store. Servant leaders know if they take care of their people and empower them, their people will go out of their way to take care of the customers.

At Nordstrom, the vision is clear—they want to create a memorable experience for their customers so they will keep coming back. Leaders and employees alike understand their role in implementing this vision. That is why they are comfortable with going to great lengths to keep customers happy.

One of my favorite stories about Nordstrom came from a friend of mine who wanted to buy some perfume for his wife. He approached the counter and asked for the perfume.  The woman behind the counter said, “I’m sorry, we don’t sell that particular brand—but I know another store here in the mall that does. How long will you be in the store?”  My friend said he would be there about 45 minutes, so she told him she would take care of it and to come back. She left the store, purchased the product, gift-wrapped it, and had it ready for him when he returned. She charged the same amount of money she spent at the other store. So even though Nordstrom didn’t make any money on that sale, they created a loyal customer who—along with his friends—would tell that story for years. And how do you think the salesperson felt about herself that day?  I’ll bet she was proud to be able to serve her customer so well.

I hope these stories help you understand how servant leaders create an environment that gives their companies a competitive edge. Remember, the key to being a servant leader is to start with a clear vision, then shift into the service mindset with your team to help them perform at their highest levels. You’ll improve engagement and morale, build a loyal customer base, and create a secure future for your company.

Getting Your Management Career off to a Great Start

For decades, I’ve been talking to new managers about their biggest challenges. One thing I still hear over and over is how hard it is to balance being the tough boss and being the nice boss. I think this feat is especially difficult for the new manager who started as a high performing individual contributor, was promoted, and is now managing former colleagues and friends.

This common first-time manager dilemma reminds me of my longtime friend and coauthor Don Shula, legendary coach of the Miami Dolphins. In our book Everyone’s a Coach, he says it is more important to be respected than to be popular.

I offer two pieces of advice. First, think back to a leader who inspired you to great performance. More than likely it was someone who combined toughness with compassion. You knew that person cared about you, but also that they would not let up on you in the quest for excellence. To achieve this balance you need to set high standards to make sure each person on your team is adding value to the organization. You also need to be present for them to offer support and direction along the way. You must be willing to set stretch goals with your people, pushing them beyond their comfort level—and then you need to help them achieve those goals.

This is where the art of communication comes into play.  Having honest and open conversations with your people when setting goals, providing feedback, and giving direction will pave the way to building mutually respectful relationships with them.

My second suggestion is to ask for training. Our research shows that more than 40 percent of new managers go years without receiving any training in their new role! That’s incredible. Is it any wonder that 60 percent of new managers underperform or fail in the first two years? Without proper managerial training, you are likely to develop poor habits that will prevent you from being as effective as you need to be. And those poor habits you developed early can become the familiar, comfortable behaviors that will be more difficult to change as time goes by.

For example, as a new manager you might find it hard to delegate—especially if you were a successful individual achiever who was promoted into a management role. But even though it might be easier and faster to do some tasks yourself, you must learn how to get work accomplished through others. If you don’t delegate, your direct reports might see you as a nice boss, but if you show each person you care about their development enough to require them to carry their own weight, they will respect you as their leader. This relates back to Coach Shula preferring respect to popularity.

Are you ready to ask for training to learn the skills you need to get your management career off to a great start? And are you ready to push your people to find the greatness within themselves? I guarantee if you focus on both of these issues, you’ll set yourself and your team up for success.