Monday, April 25, 2016

Leaders and Servants

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” ― Max De Pree

I bumped into an unhappy former colleague at an industry meeting a while back. He told me that the insurance world had changed, and that now claims executives were expected to practice something called “servant leadership.” He rolled his eyes as he emphasized “servant.” He seemed genuinely concerned but I suspected he, like most people, probably wasn’t entirely clear on what the term “servant leadership” meant. So I asked him to tell me more.

His CEO, fretting over lackluster results, decided it was time to transform the company’s operating culture and improve results by reducing the employee turnover rate and increasing customer satisfaction and persistency. He had hired a consulting firm to engineer a leadership team makeover, to move the group away from a “transactional” leadership mindset and into a “servant” leadership mindset. The firm was scheduled to be on site the following month.

“What exactly are you concerned about?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be a servant. I am a senior executive, a leader. My job involves establishing strategy, securing resources, attracting and developing good people, setting performance objectives, measuring performance, and delivering results.”

Of course, he had done some research and discovered Robert K. Greenleaf, who launched the modern servant leadership movement in 1970 when he published The Servant as Leader. He showed me Greenleaf’s paper on his phone, but at 27 pages long it was too onerous to be immediately useful. He read somewhere else that servant leaders believe in the concept of an inverted pyramid organization in which top management “reports” upward to lower levels of management and ultimately to front line employees.

“Imagine that—30 years in this business and now I am supposed to report to my employees? That’s ridiculous.”

He had another commitment, so we agreed to get together later that day to talk further. Curious, I pulled up the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership site:
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
Larry Spears, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, identified ten servant leader characteristics:
  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Healing
  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Conceptualization
  • Foresight
  • Stewardship
  • Commitment to personal growth
  • Building Community
Dr. Kent Keith, the former CEO of the Greenleaf Center, offered a definition of servant leadership that includes this explanation:
Greenleaf said that "the servant-leader is servant first." By that he meant that that the desire to serve, the "servant's heart," is a fundamental characteristic of a servant-leader. It is not about being servile, it is about wanting to help others. It is about identifying and meeting the needs of colleagues, customers, and communities.
Nothing particularly nettlesome so far, but what about the inverted pyramid?

Ken Blanchard, in Servant Leadership Revisited, argued the pyramid should be right side up for matters such as vision, mission, values and goals, but inverted when it comes to implementation or execution. His inverted pyramid has customers at the top and customer contact people right below them. The customer contact people are responsible for meeting customer needs, and the managers and executives below them on the inverted pyramid are responsible for helping the customer contact people succeed in doing that.

When I got back together with my former colleague later that day, I asked him to think about the ways in which he was responsible to his employees. In other words, what did he provide that they expected and needed from him? His list included strategic clarity, adequate tools and resources, fair and measurable performance objectives, timely and accurate communication, feedback opportunities, inspiration, trust, integrity, honesty, accountability, coaching and career development. We talked about the pyramid, and how responsibilities and expectations flow both ways, so he made a similar list of the things he expected and needed from his employees.

Finally, we looked at the Oxford Dictionary definitions of servant:
  • A person who performs duties for others, especially a person employed in a house on domestic duties or as a personal attendant.
  • A person employed in the service of a government. 
  • A devoted and helpful follower or supporter
The first definition bothered him, the second didn’t apply, but he liked the third and agreed he definitely had a responsibility to be a devoted and helpful supporter of his employees.

I told him I thought he would probably have an easy time of it with the consultants because it appeared he was already thinking like a servant leader—even though he had never thought of himself in those terms.

“We’ll see,” he said. “Unfortunate choice of terms, though. Why couldn’t they have called it something less provocative?”

“Ask the consultants,” I suggested.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired insurance executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator and watercolor artist.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors