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.

The Power of Serving Others

Our love and prayers are with everyone who is dealing with the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. So many are homeless as a result of this storm. It’s an awful situation but it’s amazing to see how people rally together to help each other in times like this. We saw it with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with the fires here in San Diego in 2007, with Hurricane Sandy in 2013—and now it’s happening with Hurricane Harvey. We have seen and heard countless examples of people serving each other during this crisis—and I’m sure there will be more.

When someone shows up to help, they don’t say “Wait a minute—what’s your religion? What’s your sexual orientation? Who did you vote for?” People who serve others don’t come with judgment; they just reach out with support and love for their fellow human beings. I love what actress Sandra Bullock said when she donated a million dollars to the Red Cross for Harvey victims last week: “There are no politics in eight feet of water. There are human beings in eight feet of water.” Isn’t that great?

During times like these, when I’m watching the heroic efforts of people taking care of each other, I always think how great it would be if we behaved this way all the time. It shouldn’t take a crisis to bring out the best in people. What are some ways we can keep ourselves in that servant heart mindset when times are bad and when times are good? Imagine the difference we could make in the world!

For now, we need to keep focusing our love, energy, and prayers on all of the good folks in the communities hit by Harvey. Please consider donating any amount to the Red Cross (www.redcross.org), the Humane Society (www.humanesociety.org), or, to find other worthwhile organizations, go to www.charitynavigator.org to ensure your donation will be used to help people affected by Harvey.

We are at our best when we stand together. Keep pumping out the love and the prayers! Good on you all!

The Power of Mentoring

This month HarperCollins is publishing the new book I wrote with Claire Diaz-Ortiz, One Minute Mentoring. Claire and I hope our book inspires a lot of people to get involved in mentoring, because we firmly believe mentoring relationships can change your life.

Behind every successful person, you’ll find a mentor—usually several—who guided their journey. There are many famous  mentor/mentee examples—Socrates and Plato, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey—the list goes on and on.

One of the surprise benefits of mentoring is that in many ways it benefits the mentor as much as the mentee.

If mentoring is so effective, why aren’t more people involved in mentoring relationships?

One of the biggest barriers people worry about is time. It’s true that a mentoring relationship will take a little time, but a few hours a month is not going to do you in, especially when you realize how energizing and inspiring those few hours will be. And often the best advice you’ll ever give or receive can be communicated in less than a minute. That’s why Claire and I call our book One Minute Mentoring.

So how do you find a mentor?

There’s an old saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.  Mentors are all around once you start looking for them.  You might find a mentor in a boss, teacher, neighbor, friend, or colleague. Or you might find one through a professional association, volunteer organization, or online mentoring organization.

That old saying works both ways—when you’re ready to become a teacher/mentor, the student/mentee appears.  We encourage people to step up and become mentors, because you won’t fully discover, appreciate, or leverage what you have until you start giving it away.

It takes time and intention to learn to drive—but once you know how, you can really go places! The same is true with mentoring.  We all have 168 hours each week. Investing a few of those hours in mentoring will energize you in a way that web surfing and TV watching never will.

Learn more about One Minute Mentoring or order your copy at Amazon.com.