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.

What Great Leaders Know and Do: It All Begins with “Seeing the Future”

OneThe Secret Book Cover of our favorite publishers, Berrett-Koehler, just released the 10th Anniversary Edition of The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do—the first book I coauthored with Mark Miller.

The message in The Secret is as powerful in today’s increasingly complex world as it was when it was published ten years ago: You can serve without leading, but you can’t lead without serving. I’ll be blogging a few times over the next several weeks about each element of the SERVE model we present in the book.

To begin, the S in SERVE stands for See the Future. As leaders of a group, department, or organization, we must have a compelling vision of the future.  This compelling vision stirs the passion not only within us but also within the people we serve. It tells everyone who we are, where we are going, and what will drive our behaviors.

Sheldon Bowles, a friend and coauthor, provides one of my favorite examples of a man with a clear vision for his company. Sheldon is one of the founders of Canada’s DOMO Gasoline company.

Many years ago when gasoline companies were all shifting to self service gas stations, Sheldon decided that it would be the perfect time to go into the full service business. He loved to venture where there was no competition—and full service would be DOMO’s market differentiator. He knew people didn’t go to gas stations for enjoyment; they went for a specific reason and wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible.

Sheldon decided to create an experience for the customer when they pulled into a DOMO station, and the pit stop of the Indianapolis 500 race served as his inspiration. He hired mothers, retirees, and others who were interested in working part-time and dressed them in red jumpsuits.

When a customer drove in to one of the stations, attendants would race toward the car, pump the gas, look under the hood, clean the windows, and take the payment. The values that drove everyone’s behavior were safety, speed, and fun. As the customer drove away, they were handed a card that said “P.S.—We also sell gas.” As a leader, Sheldon had a clear picture of the future and communicated it effectively to his people.

What’s your vision of the future?  Is it compelling?  Have you shared it with your team?

I look forward to sharing more about the SERVE model in future blogs. If you’d like to learn more, join Mark Miller and me on Monday, September 29 at 11:00 a.m. PDT/2:00 p.m. EDT when we will host a free webinar on the key concepts of The Secret.

Is there such a thing as servant leadership in government?

(This is the eleventh installment in my twelve-part blog series A Leadership Vision for America.)

I realize that what I have been saying about creating a servant leadership culture in Washington is not easy to sell. To a lot of people, it sounds like “soft management.”

When I am confronted by these kinds of concerns, I love to tell about an experience I had several years ago at my local branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Stop me if you’ve heard this one!

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.

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. 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 their customers, and to serve them well. What did this director do? I learned that he cheered everybody on—that’s why he was out in the middle of the action. He also cross-trained everyone in every job—that way, if a flood of citizens came in suddenly, they would be able to provide the service that was needed. 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.

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.

If this philosophy can impact a government agency like the DMV, why can’t it impact all segments of society, including the U.S. government? 

To me, what’s needed are leaders in Washington who believe we should:

  • Have a Compelling Vision: If people don’t have a larger purpose to serve, the only thing they have to serve is themselves.
  • Treat Citizens as Business Partners: People who are well informed have a greater commitment to help solve problems.
  • Involve Every Sector of Society: No problem can withstand the assault of sustained collective thinking and action.
  • Elect Servant Leaders:  The more leaders we have in Washington who realize that their job is to serve, not to be served, the better chance we have of breaking our political deadlock and maintaining our reputable standing in the world.

Thanks for tuning in to the Leadership Vision for America series.  America is a great country and I feel blessed every day to be able to live here. Let’s encourage our leaders to do what they need to do to keep America moving in the right direction. And if you’re an American citizen, be sure to get out and vote on November 6, on national, state, and local political races and issues. Your vote counts! 

I’ll have some final thoughts next week as I conclude this series. What are your thoughts as Election Day approaches?

Elect Servant Leaders

(This is the tenth installment in my twelve-part blog series A Leadership Vision for America.)

Now let’s look at the fourth and final secret for fixing Washington. This secret will encompass and bring to life the first three secrets.

The Fourth Secret: Elect Servant Leaders

Assumption: The more that our leaders are in Washington to serve and not be served, the better chance we have to mend what’s wrong with our country.

The world is in desperate need of a different leadership role model. Everyone has seen the negative effects of self-serving leaders in every segment of our society. In fact, to a great extent, the whole economic downturn has been the result of self-serving leaders through the years who thought all the money, recognition, power, and status should move up the hierarchy in their direction, and everyone else be damned.

Yet, when I mention servant leadership to people, they often think it means the inmates are running the prison, or trying to please everybody, or even some type of religious movement.  They think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. Yet you can, if you understand that there are two parts to servant leadership:

  • A visionary, or strategic, role—the leadership aspect of servant leadership
  • An implementation, or operational, role—the servant aspect of servant leadership

The first secret for fixing Washington—having a compelling vision—was focused on the visionary/strategic, or leadership, aspect of servant leadership. Once an organization has a compelling vision, they can set goals and define strategic initiatives that suggest what people should be focusing on right now. With a compelling vision, these goals and strategic initiatives take on more meaning and therefore are not seen as a threat, but as part of the bigger picture.

The traditional hierarchical pyramid is effective for the leadership aspect of servant leadership. People look to their organizational leaders for direction, as Americans look to Washington. While leaders should involve experienced people in shaping vision/direction, goals, and strategic imperatives, the ultimate responsibility remains with the leaders themselves and cannot be delegated to others.

Implementation/operational leadership, or the servant aspect of servant leadership—living according to the vision and direction—is where most leaders and organizations get into trouble. With self-serving leaders at the helm, the traditional hierarchical pyramid is kept alive and well, leaving the customers uncared for at the bottom of the hierarchy. All the energy in the organization moves up the hierarchy as people try to please and be responsive to their bosses, leaving the customer contact people to be “ducks,” “quacking” and saying things like, “It’s our policy,” “I just work here,” “I didn’t make the rules,” or “Do you want to talk to my supervisor?”

Servant leaders, on the other hand, feel that their role is to help people achieve their goals. They intuitively know that effective implementation requires turning the hierarchical pyramid upside down so the customer contact people are at the top of the organization and can be responsible—able to respond and soar like eagles—while leaders serve and are responsive to the needs of their people, helping them to accomplish goals and live according to the vision/direction, goals, and strategic imperatives of the organization.

Since the customer contact people are “in the know,” they see themselves as your responsible business partners and, therefore, are committed to not only serving customers but to solving problems. This is what the second and third secrets of fixing Washington are all about:  We must treat our citizens as our business partners and involve all segments of society to solve our problems.

To wrap up my Leadership Vision for America series, I’ll have some final thoughts for you next time and then a special message on November 3. Let me know what you think!