By Dave Guerra
The servant leadership revolution is on. And if there is an epicenter it must be in Texas.
Servant Leadership Simplified
If you drill servant leadership down to its intrinsic essence, this translates into a decentralized structure that focuses on employee empowerment and encourages responsibility, self-direction, growth, and innovation. It also means having upper management share key decision rights with employees who work directly with customers — the people most aware of what is needed to serve clients and remain competitive — because they are on the front lines of the business. When companies are close to the customer, they make better decisions to help retain clients as well as win new ones, and encourage innovation. Corporate cultures that centralize power can end up stifling innovation.
Most importantly, servant leadership is focused on serving all stakeholders of the corporation. This includes employees, customers, shareholders, and the community in general. This is in contrast to the traditional corporate mantra emphasizing shareholder return as the single measure of success, which often can be at the expense of other stakeholders where short-term returns become the single driver of corporate success, trampling other interests.
Servant leadership is not a new concept; it was originally coined by Robert Greenleaf who was an employee of AT&T for 40 years. Greenleaf began what is known today as the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. In 1970, Greenleaf wrote, “Its essence lies in the paradox that the best leaders are the ones who make themselves least; that the focus should be on the growth and welfare of others, with a bottom-up approach to work and organizational structure. In simplest terms, other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer do those served become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
There are ten essential characteristics of servant leadership: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.
To make a commitment to servant leadership is to take the stance that what is good for customers is good for business. Such a culture encourages people to create products of high quality and value in terms of price and utility to customers. These organizations operate with the paradigm that everyone is either serving a customer or serving someone who is serving a customer, with the CEO as chief servant — resulting in an upside down pyramid.
Perhaps the antithesis to servant leadership is selfish leadership. Many firms that went against the grain of servant leadership have fallen by the wayside during the last decade including Enron and Worldcom, derided for placing greed and illusory growth over customers and stakeholders. Employees, especially those in upper management, were unduly focused on short-term success and personal gain over sustainability, professed company values, and other stakeholders.
Texas can claim a seminal influence in the corporate servant leadership movement because of adoption by many prominent organizations headquartered in Texas, some of whom have operated by these principles for decades, a few for well over a century.
“Servant leaders have humility, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They are kind, and stay vigilant to people going through hard times, because one never knows how and when they can make a difference in another person’s life. They have moral courage to stand up for what is right, and to resist the temptation of short-term gains.”
Jim Hackett, CEO, Anadarko Petroleum
“When you are treated as if you will become your best, will do something great, your own intrinsic motivation is awakened. I am an example of this, first owing to my father and then others who saw something in me. By relating to the essence of people–not who they are today, but from their unfulfilled future–you can change them, release their ‘Seabiscuit.’”
George Martinez, CEO, Allegiance Bank
“Servant leadership does not imply being a slave to other people’s wants but rather requires identifying and meeting the legitimate needs of others and seeking their greatest good.”
Kip Tindell, CEO, The Container Store
There are other examples of servant leadership led companies like Blue Bell Creameries, Club Corp., HEB, TD Industries and Southwest Airlines.
The Bottom Line
Numerous studies from highly credible sources like the U.S. Conference Board, Hewitt Associates, and the Society for Human Resources Management point to the worst levels of employee engagement and workplace fulfillment in decades.
Companies that take a serious look at servant leadership and embrace its principles will flourish, and servant leadership can be applied to any business to help it run better. For investors and potential employees, it can be used to distinguish firms that have the best chances of success in today’s intensely competitive and uncertain global business environment.
Dave Guerra is author of “Superperformance,” “The Superperforming CEO,” and “Super Projects,” and is the CEO of Corpus Optima, a one-stop shop for performance transformation services.
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