“To be an excellent leader, you have to be a superb follower.” – Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines.
If you’re not following Josh Bersin’s writings, you should be. He’s written a couple of posts lately that deserve discussion. The first is on Forbes, and it’s titled “Culture: Why It’s the Hottest Topic in Business Today” and it addresses the employee engagement and retention crisis facing organizations. The second is on his blog, “A New Market is Born: Employee Engagement, Feedback and Culture Apps.”
My takeaway from his recent work is that organizations need to examine their leadership. Yes, organizations need to develop and maintain an excellent culture. They need to engage and retain their employees. And it’s perfectly OK to use technology tools and apps to facilitate the conversation. But none of it can happen without leadership.
In fact, let me take it one step further and say none of it will happen without using some of the qualities found in servant leadership. I learned about servant leadership years ago when I participated in a program called Leadership Broward. The program was designed to encourage business leaders to become active community stewards. Servant leadership was one of the concepts shared during the program.
To give you a little history, servant leadership was started in the 1970’s by Robert Greenleaf, director of management research at AT&T. Greenleaf’s job was to study how the best leaders emerged in organizations. During the same time, Greenleaf was personally troubled by the student unrest found on college and university campuses.
Greenleaf decided the best way to understand the youth movement and what was happening in society was to read a novel that was very popular with youth at the time. The novel was “Journey to the East” by Hermann Hesse.
SPOILER ALERT: “Journey to the East” is about a group of people traveling to a new land. Accompanying the group is their servant, Leo, who sings songs and takes care of their stuff. During the trip, Leo disappears. The group struggles to stay together and eventually disbands. Several years later, it’s discovered that Leo – the group’s servant – was really their leader.
Inspired by Leo’s character, Greenleaf realizes the key to leadership lies in “serving” (i.e., focusing on the people you manage) and writes what’s considered to be his most famous essay, “The Servant as Leader”, outlining 10 qualities associated with servant leadership. Here are a few of them:
- Leaders are committed to developing others and helping them become good leaders.
- Leaders not only empathize with others, but accept them for who they are.
- A leader responds to a problem by listening first.
- Leaders conceptualize and articulate a clear vision with passion, which engages and energizes the rest of the team.
- Leaders have foresight and use good decision making skills.
- Leaders open the doors of perception and become self-aware.
Greenleaf’s writings have been criticized over the years, but in reading his words, I find it amazing that over thirty years later, many (if not all) of the characteristics are still associated with leadership. Maybe they’re not called by the same name, but the traits are similar. Earlier this year, in my interview with Dr. Ken Blanchard, he shared his take on servant leadership:
“In fact, I am a big fan of servant leadership. I think vision and direction is the leadership part of servant leadership and operational leadership is the servant part of servant leadership. Vision and direction has to come from the top of the hierarchy. That doesn’t mean you don’t allow people to participate in formulating the vision, but the responsibility for establishing the vision lies with the hierarchy. Once people know where they’re going, then you have to turn the hierarchical pyramid upside down. Now you as the leader serve your people by helping them implement the vision.”
There’s no magic formula to being a good leader. But if there was, serving the people you work with every day has got to be a big part of it. It’s also what it takes to engage and retain talent within your organizational culture.
Image courtesy of Sharlyn Lauby