Category Archives: Leadership Style

Leadership & Creating an Environment of Service

Servamt Leadership 2 No_optA lot has been said about the leader as “servant”. I expect, given that it is a relatively young term (having been ‘born’ in 1970), it is also subject to wide interpretation. As such, while some people will experience great results from their efforts to serve, others will consider it a fad that will go away if they ignore it. Still others will make every effort to embrace the notion of the Servant Leader but find themselves exhausted, confused and possibly resentful because people seem to be walking all over them.

So what to do?

Well, first I’m thinking that we need some clarity about what it means to serve or be a servant. So I looked it up in a number of dictionaries and found this:

“Servant leaders are humble stewards of their organizations’ resources.”

A Servant is one who serves another, providing help in some manner.”

“A servant is a person who performs duties for others”.

So far so good.

Then I went to the Thesaurus for some synonyms for the word servant. Between the words attendant and steward lay these words, lackey, flunky, minion and drudge.  Okay then, herein may lie a problem.

Perhaps it is that many of us, when we think of the term Servant Leadership, take this subservient perspective (a.k.a. lackey, flunky, minion and drudge). In other words, it suggests that by serving, we are also submitting to the whims of others for no other reason than to render them superior. And, let’s face it, our egos are going to have a hard time with that. So, if you have been leaning in that direction when you think about the notion of Servant Leadership, I have some good news for you. I don’t think it’s about that at all.

Here’s what I do believe it’s about. It’s about…

knowing the Over-arching purpose I believe a good servant leader will focus on an over-arching purpose. This purpose becomes the master and the guide for all activities undertaken within the framework of the company. The leader serves the purpose through people. For instance, Southwest airlines’ over-arching purpose is stated as: “To provide the best service and lowest fares to the short haul, frequent-flying, point-to-point, non-interlining traveler.” This simple statement lets everyone know why Southwest Airlines is in business and whom it is there to serve.

However, in order to succeed, this understanding of service must permeate the organization and so it also becomes the role of the leader to:

Serve the people who are working to fulfill the over-arching purpose. This means providing the resources needed for people to do their jobs well and happily. It includes delivering needed training, supplies, connections, information, accommodation, direction and anything else that allows people working in the company to move the organization closer to the achievement of its purpose.

Encourage and develop an environment where people serve each other.  Where we can go wrong with this servant leadership thing is that we fail to expect all people working in the organization to serve too. Or, we simply don’t convey it very well.

Those who believe servant leadership to be a role only for the designated leader would be wrong. In truth, an environment that embraces service will do so in an all-encompassing way. This means that regardless of title or position, each person will both lead and serve another, or a group of others, to achieve company goals and make a contribution to the achievement of its purpose.

So, having said all that, what does it actually take to create this environment where service is king? Well, for what it’s worth, this is what I think about that.

It takes Discipline: Staying focused on the over-arching purpose and using it, as a guide for providing service to others is not easy. As humans, we can become easily distracted. It may be easy to stay the course and remain true to the purpose when times are good. But, when they are not so good, it becomes tempting to stray and do what is expedient instead.

It takes Humility: Putting others before ourselves is sometimes a challenge, especially in business, but humility is an essential ingredient in a successful service environment. I’m not talking about being obsequious here. I’m talking about simply being unselfish and mindful of others’ needs and contributions.

It takes Collaboration: Simply put, in order to serve the purpose and each other, we have to learn to work together, avoid internal politics and protectionism and share our ideas and resources with each other more freely.

It takes Trust: Trust is often an earned thing. However, a leader who serves the people will, in my view anyway, start from a platform of trust rather than skepticism. In my experience, people respond well to a leader who conveys faith in their intent. People who feel trusted are more likely to be willing to serve the over-arching purpose. Will you be disappointed? Yep, from time to time you will. But, if you start out not trusting my hunch is you’re going to be disappointed anyway.

And:

It takes Faith: I’m not talking about the religious kind of faith here. I’m talking about the kind of faith that makes you believe so strongly in your company’s purpose and its people that all of your activities centre around them and the financial results that you realize from that come as a by-product of your collective effort.

So, is servant leadership for the faint of heart? I’d say no. Is it about subservience, or slavery? Certainly not.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*Note: this post was originally published in 2010.

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Filed under communication, Customer Service, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, organizational Development

The Story of A Great Leader

teacherIf you were to ask me to describe someone who demonstrated greatness in leadership, I
might be tempted to paint the picture of a larger-than-life super hero, perhaps a president, a king, or a captain of industry.

I might not come up with Roberta Guaspari. Nonetheless I believe she is just that, a great leader.

Roberta Guaspari teaches children to play the violin. When she first started, she was a single parent to two young boys. To earn her living she arranged to provide violin lessons in school to the children of East Harlem. What she had going for her was the love of music; the ability to play; and the strong desire to make a difference for children whose opportunities were limited by their circumstances.

She has a clear and passionate vision which is simply,“for kids to have music in their lives

She believes that her vision is important because music, “empowers these children with the ability to make something beautiful that allows them to believe in themselves and know they’re special”

This is Roberta’s primary purpose, to help children love music, play music and believe in themselves. It is not about money or attention for herself but about something bigger than that, much bigger.  She is a great leader because not only can she see a better future for the children she teaches, she helps them get there, even against great odds.

In 1991, Roberta’s music program was cut from the school board budget. That meant, not only was she out of a job but the children (and their parents), who so depended on her, would lose something that had become vital to their development and future.

Roberta did not back down. Instead, she kept her focus. She forged relationships with people who had the power to help. And they did. She plucked up her courage and made much larger strides than I suspect even she thought herself capable of. Throughout it all, it seems  she never lost sight of her primary purpose.

Empathy, Vision, Focus, Determination, Courage, …and a violin. This is what makes Roberta Guaspari a great leader.

And, (the violin, notwithstanding),  such qualities exist in other great leaders, each of whom typically:

  • Have clear, well-articulated visions of the future
  • Lead with great will, humility and focus
  • Build strong alliances with a variety of people
  • Strive to achieve things that are greater than themselves and for the greater good

To demonstrate that the kind of leadership I describe can bring great results, here is a clip of Roberta Guaspari presenting her students at Carnegie Hall in a fine performance accompanied by Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and Mark O’Connor.

Great leadership Indeed.  that’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This is a refreshed version of a post I wrote in 2010.

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Taking a Look at Command, Control and Authority

I once had a boss who was  a real “my way or the highway” kind of guy. He was a stickler for punctuality and his need for control was so strong that he posted one of his managers at the elevators each morning armed with a clipboard and orders to write down the names of all those unsuspecting stragglers who deigned to arrive past the expected starting time.

One morning I peered over the shoulder of one of these hapless managers only to see that, having caught someone alighting from the elevator at 9:02 a.m., he had written, “girl with red hair and green sweater”

I asked him how he expected to create anything that the boss would find useful if he didn’t know the names of the people he was there to “catch”. He said,

“I have no *f*&*%! idea. I’m just doing what I’m told”

That is a classic consequence of creating and working in a Command and Control culture. It assumes that the person in charge is the holder of all wisdom, skill and experience; a person who knows exactly what they are doing at all times and the Mecca to which everyone bows. And the rest of us simply do as we are told.

Except we don’t.

In fact, while we are doing as we are told, we are also finding ways to quietly sabotage progress. We waste time grumbling. We call in sick when we are just too fed up to go in. We arrive on time but then do nothing for the first hour. We spend time dreaming up other ways to get around the stringent rules set out for us; and somewhere in all of that, productivity, dignity, a sense of accomplishment, and of purpose, are lost.

So no, Command and Control in a business or organizational environment is not a leadership style that serves us any more… at least not in large doses.

Having said that there are situations that will call for an authoritative approach to leadership. For example:

  • In times of revolutionary change when the future feels doubtful, this take-charge style is needed, and often appreciated, to help people over the hump of uncertainty.
  • When under tight deadlines or in crises, there often just isn’t time for lengthy debate or consensus building.
  • When the leader has more knowledge around a certain issue and it just makes sense for him or her to make a decision for everyone.
  • When the organization has drifted from its purpose or lost sight of its vision a strong authoritative presence is required to recalibrate organizational focus.

So, in short, while we love to hate Command and Control, we would be wise to allow that there are times when authoritative leadership is necessary. The trouble is, if not used well, it can easily morph into something that fails to serve the organization or the greater good. So, like the delicate balance of a perfect stew, the application of control and authority must be carefully measured and administered to render it both useful and palatable.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This is a refreshed version of a post originally published in 2011

 

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Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, Organizational Effectiveness

Successful Leadership ~ The Story of a Man

I wrote this post in 2010.  Being part of this retirement celebration reminded me that when it comes right down to it, it is our humanity and what we do with it that makes the difference between success and failure.  Nothing else really seems to matter that much.

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The other evening I attended a retirement celebration for a former colleague.  It was a wonderful gathering, a room packed full of people who were there because they genuinely liked and respected the man who was about to embark on the next phase of his life.

In his business career, the man did not rise to the top of the executive ladder.  Nor, I would hazard to say, did he make lots of money or enjoy an opulent lifestyle.  He may not even be widely known to people much beyond his immediate sphere of influence.  But his impact has been felt. He is successful.  He is a leader.

Throughout the course of the evening, many people got up to speak.

His bosses praised his leadership in community activities; his ability to galvanize his local workforce; and his good humour and cheerful disposition.  Those bosses, who were younger than he, thanked him for his guidance and mentorship.

His colleagues spoke about lifelong friendship; told stories of the fun they had together and how they all managed to work hard in spite of their youthful exuberance.

His staff thanked him for his support and guidance.  While they were happy for him as he moved on to other things, they were sad too, as they told their own stories of meeting challenges together; overcoming obstacles; achieving goals; and yes, having fun all along the way.

His sons told stories of their life as they grew up.  The stories were witty and poignant and full of pride.  They were two young men who had grown up to be fine, funny and thoughtful, two young men who thanked their parents for giving them a good start in life.

When it was his turn, the man did not talk about his accomplishments at all.  Instead, he spoke with pride about the accomplishments of others, especially his children. He talked about the constant love and support he received from his wife. He talked about what he had learned over the course of his career and from whom.  He made many self-deprecating remarks.  And he said thank you…a lot.

Much has been written about the characteristics of successful leadership and while I certainly think there are core elements associated with it, there are other lessons in there somewhere. Like:

Successful Leadership is not formulaic.  It is open to interpretation and it requires the involvement of the whole self.

For instance, while we know that good communication is key to good leadership, how we communicate to get the desired result will vary depending on the leader. The man was successful because he did not pretend to be anyone else.  His communication style included fun, laughter and humility.  It worked for him simply because it is who he is.

And:

Successful Leadership is more about love than we would like to admit.

Okay, I can feel people cringing as they read this because injecting the word love into a business environment starts to feel a bit, um, ethereal.  But, there are all kinds of love…love of challenge; love of ideas; love of people; love of good honest work.  And, it is this love that carries successful leaders through thick and thin.

At this retirement party there was indeed love, and respect, for the man who for thirty-five years, took all of himself with him wherever he went.

So, imagine your own retirement party. What do you want people to say about you?  What kind of memories do you want to have? What do you want to give? What will it take for you to get what you want?

Think about it.  And, if you feel so inclined, I’d love to hear what you come up with.

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Collaboration & Six Ways to Make It Work

Collaboration is described in the Oxford dictionary as;”working in combination with another”.  It sounds so simple doesn’t it?  But of course we all know that ‘simple’ does not always equate to ‘easy’.  This post, from 2011, takes a look at how we might create a working environment that helps to make collaboration possible…and also productive.

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One day, I went with my granddaughter to the playground and watched her as she dove happily into play with the other children.  I envied her ability to simply become part of the group.  It was lovely to see the easy cooperation that danced among them as they shared the various pieces of playground equipment and discussed the merits of this climbing apparatus over that.  It was then I began to think about collaboration and what it means.

Some people think that collaboration is just like that… playing and working together cooperatively for a common purpose.  In the case of the children in the playground that purpose is simply to have fun.  But, I think collaboration, while having elements of that, is more. It is a labor of love ~ deeper and more focused . It holds more tension and requires us to listen to each other and communicate on a variety of levels through diverse means.

Randy Nelson, Dean of Pixar University made reference to this in a keynote speech he made about collaboration.  He describes it as “co-operation on steroids”, an apt description, I think.

My definition goes like this:

Collaboration is the act of coming together and working with another, or others, to create something that goes beyond the ability of any one person to produce.

Here’s what I think it looks like when it’s in action:

Those who successfully collaborate:

Engage in, and value, conversation

They take an interest in others. In fact, they use conversation as a simple yet very effective way to learn about others and the potential they may have for working well together in collaborative efforts.

Find ways to draw out creativity in themselves and others

At Pixar, they use improvisation as a tool for opening doors to new ideas and perspectives.  Others use a variety of brainstorming techniques.  No idea is discounted or censored, just played with until it either becomes something bigger, or fizzles out.

Actively seek self-knowledge and Learning

Those who know what they’re good at and enjoy, also know how they can make their best contribution to the collaborative effort.  They use their curiosity as a tool to explore and discover new possibilities.

Invite Contribution and accept what is offered without judgment

Often it is the case that someone will offer an opinion or a piece of work and our first instinct is to look for flaws.  Those who collaborate productively resist the temptation to do this, choosing to build on what is offered instead through questions and discussion.

Make Others Look Good

In his keynote, Randy makes reference to making your partner look good. To me, this means focusing on the work and the contributions others make before seeking personal recognition

Manage disagreement well

While we might like to think that effective collaboration does not include disagreement, it does.  Those who are skilled collaborators see the value in the tension that disagreement can produce and use it as a bridge to get to something different, or something better.

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The bottom line for me is that collaboration is hard. Its success depends on making the work more important than any one individual.  It asks us to subordinate our desire to compete with others and instead find personal satisfaction in the joint effort.  But, done well, collaborative efforts produce some pretty amazing, and very successful things.  Just ask Pixar

*

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

(The Pixar film is respectfully used only for illustration purposes with no intent to infringe on copyright or gain financially in any way)

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Filed under Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

A Case for Being a “Nice” Boss

‘Nice’ is not a word that is often used to describe successful leaders. But, it’s really all about how you look at it.  This post, from 2012 attempts to shift the perspective about ‘nice’ from one of weakness to one of strength.

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My uncle, now deceased, used to have a little wooden plaque hanging on the wall of his den.  It read, “It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice”

I was reminded of this the one day when I caught myself being not nice to a young man who was conducting telephone surveys for an insurance company.  Specifically, I allowed my disdain for unsolicited telephone surveys to affect the way I spoke to him.  That wasn’t fair.  And it definitely wasn’t nice.  So I apologized and then did my best to separate my dislike for the survey from my empathy for someone doing an honest and thankless job.

It occurred to me then that nice, at least in corporate settings, is often the victim of our contempt and in fact frequently equated with weakness.  The perspective is that people who are nice are pushovers. They lack character. They are spineless, maybe even incompetent.  When we ask people to describe a leader, they invariably say things like, strongdecisive, visionary, and courageous.  Rarely are they characterized as ‘nice’.  Indeed in some organizations we even expect our leaders to bring with them a measure of unpleasantness.  It goes with the territory.  After all, they are busy people. ‘Nice’ doesn’t get the job done.

But to me, ‘Nice’ gets a bad rap.  In fact, it has an important role to play in organizational success.  It could also use some repositioning in terms of the way we think about it.

So let’s try it.

What if we decided to equate ‘nice’ with strength instead of weakness?  What would it look like?  Well, here’s what I’m thinking about that:

When “nice” = “strength”…

It would look like Kindness  ~ We’ve all heard it.  “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” It’s an old American proverb with an enduring ring of truth.  And really, it takes just as much time to be mean as it does to be kind.

It would look like Truthfulness ~ Here’s where ‘nice’ grows teeth. Sometimes engaging in difficult conversations and telling people what they need to hear to make better choices is much nicer than avoiding or misleading them.  Often, taking the easy way out is very far from being nice.

It would look like Respect  ~ To me, respect asks us to behave like adults and treat others like adults too.  There is no room for condescension or patronizing behaviour in my definition.  It’s simply not nice.

It would look like Generosity ~ Generosity is often about letting go of something we’d rather keep for ourselves.  It is a demonstration of regard and a vote of confidence.  It takes strength.  And, it’s a nice habit to adopt because generosity can be catching.

It would look like Clarity ~ Being clear about what we need and what we expect is part of the package, especially if we intend to use those expectations as a benchmark for performance appraisal at some point.  Otherwise, it’s not fair and especially not nice.

It would look like Empathy ~ Seeking to understand how things are for others is a primary role of the leader.  It’s the way s/he “tunes in” to the work environment and engages people, not only in conversation but also in playing a willing part in fulfilling the organizational purpose.

It would look like Civility ~ Good manners are certainly part of being nice.  We may think we don’t have time for this. We are too busy.  I assert, however, that for workplaces to be ‘livable’ they must include courteousness.  People work better together when they treat each other well.  It’s as simple as that.

The truth about being “nice” is, it really doesn’t matter what you call it.  It’s not about the word.  It’s about the behaviour that the word suggests.  If we choose to look at being nice as a weakness, we will continue to discount its value in the workplace.  We will cling to the notion that “nice ‘guys’ finish last” and  keep on accepting objectionable behaviour from leaders who believe it.

So let’s remember those words from the American Playwright, Wilson Mizner, ~ “Be nice to the people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down”

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

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Choosing to Lead and Two Simple Truths

Leadership can be a complicated thing.  But there are some simple truths about it that can help us  cut through all of the, ahem, BS that so often clings to it. This post, from November 2011, raises just two of them.  What would you add?

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Leadership, while studied widely and deeply, remains misunderstood by a surprisingly large number of people.  In this world, there are some who would have us believe that leadership is only for a select few.  There are some too, who believe it is the job of leaders to rescue the rest of us from our various predicaments. And, when they fail, these same people feel somehow justified complaining about it.

think leadership is available to all of us.  It is a choice we make.  It doesn’t always come with a title or a big office but it is there and it asks us to do something with it.  Of course, the more we learn about it, the more likely we are to make it a conscious part of our lives.

Those among us who  remain unconscious and unaware of our own potential to lead would do well to rouse ourselves.  The world needs us all to wake up, not simply to point fingers of blame or criticism in someone else’s direction but to stand up for something, take responsibility for something or set a positive example for someone else.

If this sounds daunting, it could be.  But, it doesn’t have to be.  There will always be greater and lesser leaders among us.  But leadership does not always have to be larger than life. Nor does it have to be complicated.  There are two simple truths that guide me and here they are:

The First one is this.  Leadership is not about you

Real leadership happens when our role as leader becomes about something other than ourselves. At these times, our individual importance is overshadowed by the purpose we are there to serve.

Evidence of it is shown in the quality of our relationships with those around us. Leadership asks that we give others what they need to be at their best.  It asks us to guide them, coach them, talk to them, listen to them, encourage them, and expect the best from them.  Whatever we do, it must  be about that and about a shared purpose.  Real leadership is never about any one person.

The Second Truth is this.  You don’t have to be a hero

Peter Drucker once said, “No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it.  It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.”

Most of us are just that…average human beings.  We do not have to have special powers to lead. Sometimes all it takes is to believe in something enough to be willing to go first. Leadership is about caring.  It is about doing and participating.  If we expect perfection from it, we will be disappointed.  If we spend our time looking to the few for answers, we miss the opportunity to find our own answers and to explore possibilities that can only be found in the brainpower of the many.

The bottom line is, leadership is neither heroic nor about any one person.  It lives in us all.  We show it when we exercise our right to vote.  We show it as parents.  We show it in our communities when we volunteer.  We show it in our workplaces by being there and doing our best, regardless of our title.  So when we doubt our ability to make a difference because we don’t see ourselves as leaders, we would be doing ourselves a service by remembering that acts of leadership are choices we make. Be they big or small, all are important.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

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