Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Servant Leadership: The Unintended Benefits of Taking a Back Seat

In one of those searing moments in life, where every spoken word is remembered in Dolby Digital and every blink of the eye in HD, someone I cared about told me that even though I was a leader, I took a back seat to social situations.  This was not intended to be a compliment. Aside from the surreal experience of its triviality, the dissonance of that comment struck and stayed with me.

I went home, took out my Myers-Briggs ENTJ personality manual, and reread the list of traits that place me among one percent of women who are most likely to succeed as an executive.  I checked for indicators that this personality should also be the center of social situations and found nothing.  Of course, he was accusing me of not being a charismatic leader. I admit that I'm not a Pied Piper, nor am I the life of the party.  But, we noncharismatic chiefs hire charismatic managers, ESTJs, for the purposes of commanding a presence. We all know that a charismatic leader makes a dangerous Top Dog.

The health of any organization is in steadfast longevity.  May the fire burn long and steady; not fast, flashy, and brilliant.  Good executives recognize that they are but one who relies on a well-managed system beneath.  Systems must act autonomously with high degrees of self-efficacy, enabling layers of employees to make independent and wise decisions.  A leader who believes that his personality can propel such a sophisticated mechanism is in for a rude awakening.  And organizations who look for a persona to revitalize their operations are selling their souls.  They will pay.

The city of Detroit knows best that a single product economy suffers when that product suffers.  Wall Street knows that good investment strategies require diversification.  Betty Crocker knew that when all the food on your plate is one color, it isn't appetizing. When you put your organization into the hands of a single personality, your success will last only as long as the individual's relationship with you. The cliff experienced with the company's loss of such a figure produces quite a hangover.  On the other hand, your failure with such a force will last as long as anyone can remember that individual's imprint on their lives. And the better a job you did choosing the charisma, the more defined that imprint will be.

Better that the organization chooses the servant leader.  There is exponential value in finding someone that thrives on building success in others, who takes a back seat to recognition or acclaim, and who maintains high expectations for performance.  Servant leadership has been defined by multiple authors. All agree that it has the unique effect of facilitating the achievement of those led, not the grandeur of the leader.  It focuses on leading to create the optimal conditions for breeding success, rather than directly touching every moment of realization.  It enables, inspires, encourages, and supports.  It results in the voluntary and intentional reversal of the roles of leader and follower.  In a powerful, servant-led organization, no one can name the individuals most responsible for achievement, only that everyone seems to have a part.  Stepping back as a leader creates confident employees who are more practiced at exercising and developing good judgment, have higher frequencies of positive customer-organization experiences, and in the end, generate a better product.  More importantly, authentic and wide mastery growth within the workforce makes the gains sustainable.  In a servant-led organization, the leader always takes the back seat.

Believing and exercising servant leadership in my professional role, I am not surprised that, socially, I sit down with a group of people I've just met and spend time hearing, observing, and learning about them before I venture to add, build, or contribute to the conversation.  While I may not immediately step forward to command a presence, I can guarantee that I take the time and attention to meaningfully understand the unique personalities and motivations of those present.  And, the next time we meet, our interactions will have considerably more significance than rehashing stories I have already told.