Servant Leadership in the Midst of Tragedy

Several members from our church, including a friend of mine, recently traveled to the Holy Land. Before they left, my friend received well wishes from his friend, a rabbi at Chabad of Poway synagogue. “He gave us special blessings for a safe journey. Many people worried about our safety while we were in Israel and Jordan. How ironic that only a short time after our return, this attack took place at my friend’s synagogue, a mile from our home.”

On Saturday, the last day of Passover, Chabad of Poway was the scene of a shooting that left several people wounded and one woman dead. Witnesses say Lori Gilbert Kaye was killed as she jumped between the shooter and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein as bullets were fired. Friends of Lori describe her as a kind, generous person—a “warrior of love.”

During the attack, Rabbi Goldstein was shot in both hands. One of his fingers later had to be amputated. Yet, immediately after the shooter left the scene, the rabbi got up on a chair and said to the congregation, “We will not let anyone or anything take us down. Terrorism like this will not take us down.” What a great example of a servant leader—despite his own physical pain, he knew his congregation needed that comfort and encouragement right away. Rabbi Goldstein later spoke about the heroism he had witnessed. “It’s standing up to evil, standing up to darkness. It’s necessary in life. We can’t just be a bystander. We need to be an activist and get out there and be a hero. Light pushes away darkness.”

Only a few hours after the shooting, more than 900 Jews, Christians, and Muslims from all over San Diego attended an interfaith prayer and peace vigil at our own Rancho Bernardo Community Church, which is less than a mile from Chabad of Poway synagogue. It was a wonderful demonstration of the power of peace, love, and prayer.

No matter what evil there is in the world, we need to come together and love our neighbors. So this week, no matter where you live, reach out to people in your community who may be hurting—and always remember to keep your I love yous up to date.

Ask Empowering Questions

Most of us—even millennials—have a history of working under guidance and control at school and in our workplaces. Therefore, we tend to think of authority as external rather than internal. The following questions are all too familiar to us:

At school: “What does the teacher want me to do to get good grades?”

At work: “What does my boss want me to do?”

While things are changing, we live and work in a culture predominated by top-down management and hierarchical thinking, so we’re far less likely to ask questions like these:

At school: “What do I want to learn from this class? How will I know I have learned something I can use?”

At work: “What do I need to do to help my company succeed?”

These are empowering questions. President Kennedy made a call for these kinds of questions when he challenged Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Empowering questions open the possibility for us to become stronger and more competent. So why don’t we ask them more often?

It gets back to all those hard-earned parenting, teaching, and managing skills we learned from our hierarchical culture. Indeed, we feel it is our responsibility as parents, teachers, or managers to tell people what to do, how to do it, and why it needs to be done. We feel we’d be shirking our responsibilities to ask children, students, or direct reports empowering questions such as these:

“What do you think needs to be done, and why is it important?”

“What do you think your goals should be?”

“How do you think you should go about achieving your goals?”

Many of us are afraid to relinquish control to our direct reports because we’re concerned about outcomes. Yet organizations with a culture of empowerment almost always outperform their hierarchical competitors. Consider the following story from Ritz-Carlton, a company famous for its culture of empowerment.

A loss prevention officer at The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, was called for the second time to a guest room after receiving a complaint of children playing hockey in the hallway. A typical response might have been to knock on the family’s door and ask them to be quiet. But Ritz-Carlton encourages its employees to think for themselves as they live by the company’s “Gold Standards.” These standards invite empowering questions such as:

  • How can I respond to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests?
  • How can I create unique, memorable, and personal experiences for our guests?

Rather than tell the parents to shush their hallway-hockey-playing kids, the loss prevention officer came up with a creative solution. He enlisted banquet employees to isolate space in one of the meeting rooms and create a hockey rink, using banquet tables as a frame. While the “rink” was being set up, he drove to a local sports store and bought two hockey nets, six sticks, and hockey balls. Finally, he delivered a written note to the family, inviting them to an impromptu hockey match against the Loss Prevention All-Stars.

Needless to say, the family was wowed.

A tight match was played between the Loss Prevention All-Stars and Team Family, with Team Family emerging victorious. The game was recorded on the Loss Prevention in-house cameras and Team Family was sent photos of their epic game.

Double-wow.

My friend Tony Robbins often says, “Successful people ask better questions and as a result, they get better answers.” So, ask yourself some empowering questions, and encourage your people to do the same.

Now More Than Ever: A Leadership Vision for America

Several years ago, I was struck by how many people were expressing disappointment with what was going on in Washington. No matter which side of the political fence they were on, people agreed that special interests and partisan gridlock were hurting our nation’s ability to govern itself.

It occurred to me that four leadership secrets I’d learned over the years could lead to effective solutions to the problems in our nation’s capital. In response, I wrote a white paper entitled “A Leadership Vision for America: Rebuilding a Divided House.”

Recently, Don Miller—the bestselling author and creator of StoryBrand—was inspired by my four secrets and became determined to share my thinking with key people in Washington. Drawing on his extensive contacts, he and our Blanchard colleague, Sheri Lyons, were able to present my white paper and discuss its ideas with key people in the office of the vice president in Washington, DC.

You may remember the 12-part blog series I wrote from June 2012 – November 2012 about those leadership secrets. Here they are in a nutshell:

  • Create a Compelling Vision. We no longer know what business we are in as a country (our purpose), what we are trying to accomplish (our picture of the future) or what should drive our behavior as a country (our values). The Bible says that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” That doesn’t sound promising! We need a big picture vision we can all agree upon.
  • Treat citizens as business partners. Most of us are in the dark about the bills that are being passed and generally what’s going on besides chaos. We need greater transparency in government.
  • Invite every sector of society to the table. There are several sectors in our nation. In the public sector we have government, education, and the military. In the private sector we have business, the media, and the arts. In the social sector we have families, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits. Right now, the only two big voices are government and business; the other sectors are left out of the process. We need all voices to be heard and considered.
  • Elect servant leaders. Servant leaders do not focus on winning. Instead, they focus on the well-being of the communities they serve. Until we elect representatives who put service ahead of ego and ideology, our government won’t improve.

In the years since I wrote “A Leadership Vision for America,” disappointment with Washington has turned to embarrassment. We certainly need some different thinking if we are going to rebuild a divided house. In the meantime, let’s pray that representatives in our nation’s capital start caring more about helping America regain its reputation as “a shining city upon a hill” than getting re-elected.

 

Vulnerability in Leadership: a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

Every day, one of my friends sends me a quote from a little book called Live and Learn and Pass It On, edited by H. Jackson Brown. Here is one I particularly enjoy:

“I’ve learned that everything I truly value has been gained by vulnerability on my part. It is the secret to life.”  (Anonymous, age 21)

The reason I love this quote is because it reminds me of the work of Brené Brown, who describes herself as a researcher and storyteller. Brené spoke at our client conference last fall and was one of the first people to study and write about the power of vulnerability.

As a leader, you might think that if you admit to your people you don’t know how to solve every problem, they will see you as weak. Quite the contrary. When you show your vulnerabilities, rather than thinking less of you, people will think more of you. Why? Because they already know you don’t know everything!

Colleen Barrett, president emeritus of Southwest Airlines and my coauthor on the book Lead with LUV*, has been known to say, “People admire your skills, but they love your vulnerability.” When you are willing to acknowledge that you don’t have it all together, your people—including customers and family members—know they might have a chance to play a part and make a contribution.

Brené Brown says being vulnerable requires courage as well as humility. Most people who aren’t willing to show their vulnerability don’t want to admit they are scared little kids inside. Being humble is not the same as lacking confidence. I have always said “People with humility don’t think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less.”

So, have a vulnerable, courageous, and humble day. Isn’t it great to know you don’t need to have all the answers to be admired by others?

 

*LUV is the stock symbol for Southwest Airlines.

You Don’t Need a Fancy Title To Be a Servant Leader

One of my favorite stories in our recent book, Servant Leadership in Action, comes from James Ferrell of the Arbinger Institute. The leader James writes about doesn’t have a fancy title, but he’s a living example of Robert Greenleaf’s definition of a servant leader as someone who “focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”

Who is this servant leader? It’s the man who collects the trash in James’s neighborhood each week.

“Our trash is collected on Friday mornings,” James writes. “One Friday morning, as I heard the garbage truck pull into our cul-de-sac, I realized that I had forgotten to take the bins out.”

Perhaps you can relate to the panic James felt as he threw on some clothes and hustled down the stairs—not to mention the sinking feeling he had when he heard the truck pull away. “A week with no room in our garbage bins!” James thought with a grimace.

But when James looked out the front window, he saw his two bins—and they were empty! He was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for his amazing neighbors.

A few weeks later James bumped into two of those very neighbors: David, who lived across the street, and Randy, who lived around the corner. David was telling a story about how he’d seen the garbage truck driver walking around and picking up trash strewn all over the street. David said he felt badly, because he’d overpacked his bin and it was likely the spilled trash was his.

“So,” David said, “I decided that the next week I’d go out and thank that driver and give him a gift.”

But the next week the truck was early. By the time David rushed out the door, it had already rounded the corner. “The truck was parked in front of Randy’s house,” David continued. “Then I saw the driver wheeling Randy’s two garbage bins down from the side of his house!”

“Wait!” Randy interjected. “The garbage man did that? I thought the neighbors had helped us out.”

As he listened to this story, James had the same reaction. He realized that the driver must have helped with his bins, as well.

“Now,” James writes, “you might think that David, Randy, and I had it made at this point. After all, we wouldn’t even have to take our trash out to the street anymore; the garbage man would do it for us!”

But that’s not how they responded. Instead, the garbage truck driver’s selfless actions motivated James and his neighbors to remember to take out their bins, because they didn’t want to make things harder for the driver. Plus, they took care to leave ample room between the bins, something they’d heard they were supposed to do, but hadn’t bothered with before.

“In a way,” James continues, “our garbage man trained the entire neighborhood to make his life easier. How did he do this? By making our lives easier, which is the essence of what servant leaders do.”

In Leading at a Higher Level, my Blanchard colleagues and I define leadership as the capacity to influence others by unleashing their power and potential to impact the greater good. James Ferrell’s story underscores the point that you don’t need a fancy title to be an effective servant leader.