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.

The Glass Is 100% Full

As humans, we often tend to look at the dark side of things. For many of us, the proverbial glass is always half empty.

This is unfortunate because research has shown that what we place our attention on tends to grow stronger in our minds and in our lives—for good or bad.  My daughter-in-law, Madeleine Homan Blanchard, has a master’s of science degree in neuroleadership from Middlesex University. As I’ve learned from Madeleine, studies confirm that your thoughts and experiences actually change the cells and structure of your brain—something scientists call neuroplasticity. If you focus on positive thoughts, your brain will strengthen the electrical pathways related to an optimistic outlook. If you focus on negative thoughts, your brain will become hardwired to pessimism.

There’s nothing wrong with identifying negative situations and working to make them better. The trick is to keep your eye on the positive. No one expressed this better than retired basketball legend Michael Jordan, who said:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Do bad things happen? Of course. But so do good things. This week Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reported that 2017 “was probably the very best year in the history of humanity.”  He pointed to statistics that showed a smaller proportion of the world’s population was hungry, impoverished, or illiterate than at any time before. “In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone,” Kristof reported. “After thousands of generations, they are pretty much disappearing on our watch.”

Take that, gloom-and-doomers!

As a witty T-shirt points out, technically, that proverbial glass of water is always 100% full—half is full of water, half is full of air! So look at the bright side—your brain will thank you for it.

Life is a Very Special Occasion

I can’t believe how fast this year has gone by. I like the joke about how life is like a roll of toilet paper—the closer you get to the end, the faster it goes!

Of course, everyone’s year is 365 days long. But for a lot of us, it feels like the years go by faster than they used to. Why do you think that is? I recently heard an interesting theory. When you’re in your 70s like I am, each year is only about 1/70th of your life. But when you’re 5 years old, each year is 20 percent of your life! That’s why the years seem to fly by as we age.

Remember when we were young, how we couldn’t wait until the school year was over? It seemed to drag on forever when we were waiting for summer to arrive. These days, at the beginning of each new year, Margie and I say “Just think, pretty soon it will be summer and we’ll be at our cottage in Skaneateles!”—because we know how fast those months will go.

Whether you’re young or old, though, I hope you enjoy every day. Life is a very special occasion. Don’t miss a minute!

Love versus Stuff

Over the past week, those of us living in southern California have had a whole new complication thrown into our busy holiday schedules: wildfires. For me it’s a reminder of the lesson I learned ten years ago, when our long-time family home burned to the ground in the massive Witch Creek fire of 2007. The lesson is this:

What matters in life is who you love and who loves you.

Everything else is just stuff.

Sometimes in our lives—and particularly during the holidays—we get lost in accumulation. We want to buy more things, do more things, see more things—and we get ourselves and our priorities out of whack.

How are you doing so far this month? Are you focusing too much on stuff—such as what you have and what you have to do—and not on the people you love?

It’s not too late to turn that around.

Reach out today and tell the important people in your life how much you love and care for them. Better yet, cozy up around the fire and spend time talking and laughing together. That’s the real spirit of the season.