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April 26, 2007

News & Opinion: Being a Servant

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 10:47 PM – Filed under: Leadership & Strategy

Let me begin with our office setting:
If you haven't heard about our work environment (or have yet to stop by and say hi), here's an introduction. The building we have been in for the last 10 years is an old pantyhose and make-up factory warehouse. The space is large, wide-open, and undivided by cube walls. Eight of us sit in the large warehouse space. My desk is four feet from Rebecca's desk and six feet from inBubbleGuy's desk. Jake, our shipping manager, sits back near the freight elevator and numerous pallets of books. Jack and Todd both have their own office in the back. There aren't a lot of secrets here. Everyone knows (and can hear) what everyone else is doing.
Right now, I'm half-listening to a meeting happening on the other side of the room. The folks who are responsible for manning the phones, fulfilling orders and getting them to wherever they need to be in the world are meeting. Todd's there, too.
For some reason, it reminded me of the Inc. article on servant leaders I read as I fell asleep last night.
The phrase, servant leaders sounds quite humble and, to some, may even sound weak. These are the leaders who stop looking at "employees as a means to an end; rather [look at] employees' happiness and satisfaction is the end. A former AT&T executive named Robert Greenleaf introduced the concept in 1970 (although the authors of the New Testament had laid the foundation a bit earlier)."
When starting a leadership role, many leaders feel the need to set boundaries. As Matthew Hayward explains, "'Founders in the early days [of their position] have a profound need to establish their credentials. They may look on servant leadership as something to evolve into--later.'" That ideal seems to have been ingrained in each of us. If people see a leader as tough in the beginning, they won't step on toes or take advantage of him later when he eases off.
This doesn't have to be the case. Two entrepreneurs learned and used servant leadership in growing a $30 million company. Three reasons why they are servant leaders:
  1. The higher you rise, the harder you must work for others.

  2. Although you hold formal authority over employees, you must treat them like customers and, when reasonable, do their bidding.

  3. When your desires and the needs of your organization conflict, your desires draw the low card.

A servant leader is one who stops asking what can you do for me and asks what can I do for you? What can I do to help you do your job better?
For me what's interesting about servant leadership is it changes the conversation. No longer is the experience merely what is on the boss' agenda. Now employees are empowered to speak openly about what's going on in their world.
Servant leadership has three (at the very least) positive outcomes:
  1. Provides for open communication.

  2. Makes for a better boss-employee relationship.

  3. Enables the leader to see trends.

Often times problems are kept between fellow employees and team members. When you bring people from a team together and start asking what's going on, you get a better feeling for the overall atmosphere. You may hear trends in what's being said. Maybe Tom, Erik and Sally are all saying their computers are running a bit slower or that customers are asking for another way to get information. What is there to lose?
As a whole, the servant leadership idea also reminded me of Erika's book. I know you've heard us talk about it. Her goal is to make every work environment a bit better by consulting on social interaction styles and the resulting relationships.
I'll stop there. In case you missed it, here's the article link again.