What separates the very best leaders from all the rest? Why is it that some leaders seem to consistently outperform all others? Is it in their DNA? Are these “great” leaders born? Since we’ve never met an unborn leader, we’ll assume they’re all born. So what makes them different? Do they know something that other leaders don’t? Perhaps.
However, great leadership doesn’t start with what you know. It begins with a fundamental belief—a different motivation. The very best leaders are driven, or feel a sense of calling, to serve. This is not a new idea, but it is a radical one by most standards. Greenleaf and others were writing about it many years ago; Lincoln, Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless lesser-known leaders have applied this secret with tremendous success for ages.
We quickly acknowledge we didn’t invent servant leadership; what we’ve tried to do is give it new life and attention by using new language to describe it. In preparing our book The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do, we did interviews, studied global best practices, and read scores if not hundreds of books, old and new, on the topic of leadership. We were trying to answer a simple question: “What do great leaders do?” Our conclusion: the best leaders serve!
Leader as servant—could this idea, so counterintuitive, really be the secret of great leadership? Yes, but not in a soft or abstract way. Serving as a leader doesn’t mean being unaware of results or undisciplined in your approach to leading. It actually means executing very well on a few fundamental practices that seem to show up over and over in the writings and the practices of outstanding leaders around the world.
Before we proceed to present this idea of serving as a leader, a quick disclaimer seems in order. Great leaders serve in countless ways. Countless is far too many to think about, much less do. To help you put servant leadership into action, we’ve developed a five-point list that represents the key practices that most often surface in the very best leaders. It is through these practices that leaders develop and deploy their leadership capital.
What are you trying to accomplish? What are you trying to become? What does your organization want to accomplish? The answers to questions like these are what vision is made of. Vision is something that all leaders have. They are able to see a desired future that is in the best interest of their organization and their followers. In many instances, the leader is not only the first to see this promising new future but is often the primary spokesperson for the vision.
A tremendous example from history was President Kennedy’s 1963 announcement that before the end of the decade America would land men on the moon and return them safely to earth. Another classic example is from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When he shared his vision for America, he said, “I have a dream that one day my children will be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” Both of these outstanding examples of vision carry an inherent risk. The risk is that because these are from well-known, global leaders, they may fuel the myth that creating and communicating a compelling vision is someone else’s responsibility.
When discussing the topic of vision with emerging leaders or men and women who are not the president or CEO of their organization, we often encounter an assumption that vision must come from the top of the organization. Therefore, all other leaders in the enterprise are off the hook. This is not true. Although vision from the top is critically important, it is no substitute for personal vision, vision for your team, your department, or your division. It actually doesn’t stop there. Servant leadership works in the home, school, church, and community. It begins when leaders are willing to serve by sharing their vision for a preferred future regardless of the venue or their place in the enterprise.
Once the vision is declared, it’s not uncommon for the leader to dedicate huge amounts of time and energy to communicating it to anyone who’ll listen. It is the process of making the vision a reality that allows outstanding leaders to distinguish themselves from mere dreamers. How do they make the vision a reality? Primarily through the practices that follow.
Who will be on the team? What will the leader do to create an environment in which people will whole-heartedly invest themselves? In many of our workshops and training sessions, we ask leaders to tell us how they create this type of environment. Often, it becomes obvious that this has not been the focus of their work. To help stimulate their thinking, we ask them to think of a time when they were fully engaged, personally. This may have been at work, but it may have been at home, or on a sports team, or on a committee in the community. Then we ask them to identify the factors that contributed to their high level of engagement. Their answers always include things like clear roles, adequate resources, targeted feedback, a sense of contribution, and a belief that their input mattered. All these conditions are the direct reflection of things leaders do—or fail to do. The presence or absence of these things determines the level of people’s satisfaction and discretionary effort. And in the end, discretionary effort may well be the competitive advantage of the future.
We were trying to answer a simple question:
“What do great leaders do?
The best leaders also serve by creating an expectation that those around them will grow. It’s not just an expectation; it’s something the leader is willing to model and support with time, interest, and resources. Herb Kelleher provides a notable example. He mentored, coached, and prepared Colleen Barrett, his administrative assistant, to become president and COO of Southwest Airlines upon his retirement. This was no accident.
Who are you mentoring? Who are you preparing to take your place? In some organizations, a growth expectation has been institutionalized. At Chick-fil-A, the adoption of the service model described in this article informs all leaders that they are not leading to their full potential unless they are developing others.
In many organizations, it goes well beyond the one-to-one mentoring modeled by Herb Kelleher and the leaders at Chick-fil-A. We know of organizations that require annual personal development plans for every associate. These plans are not only created, they are reviewed by the supervisor and funded by the organization. The best leaders know that growing employees increases the likelihood of a growing organization; that’s why developing others is core.
Reinvention sounds like a buzzword from the 1980s. However, the term communicates a big idea. The best leaders are always concerned with how to get better. This fixation is not confined to helping others get better. Great leaders want to improve themselves as well. The very best see this not as a luxury but a way to stay competitive in a changing world. David Nadler wrote a very good article recently in the Harvard Business Review: “The CEO’s Second Act” (January 2007) speaks to the need for personal reinvention. In his article, David provided case studies of four CEOs who held different views on this topic. According to Nadler, Stan O’Neal did a good job of reinventing himself at Merrill Lynch and Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard did not. Those who survive take this practice seriously. Bottom line: The best leaders are learners.
Leaders are not leading to their full
potential unless they are developing others.
Great leaders are also willing to reinvent the way the work gets done and the way the organization is structured. One example of this is Ralph Stayer. Tom Peters made Ralph famous many years ago when he did a profile of Ralph’s company, Johnsonville Foods. Ralph tells the story of a meeting with his management team in which he displayed a blank flip chart page. He informed the group that this was their new organization chart. Sheepishly, someone pointed out to Ralph that the page was blank. To that Ralph responded, “I know. We get to decide how we can best structure our company to serve our customers and our associates for the next six months.” From that day on, this was a meeting that Ralph held twice a year using the same blank page. He knew what great leaders all know about structure—structure should enable performance, not inhibit it.
Structure should enable performance, not inhibit it.
Reinvention is a skill set and a mind-set. The leader serves the organization by challenging the way things are. This discontent with the status quo invariably stimulates progress. A commitment and passion to reinvent continuously, if done wisely, accelerates the journey to make the vision a reality.
What’s more important, results or relationships? Many leaders would be quick to answer, results! Not so quickly, outstanding leaders reject the underlying assumption behind this question. This question implies a trade-off these serving leaders are not willing to make. Jim Collins, in Built to Last, talked about “The genius of the AND.” A focus on results AND relationships is a classic example of this concept. Jim found this “AND principle” in all the Built to Last organizations. It was true in General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, American Express, and all the other enduring organizations he studied. This same trait—the ability to embrace two seemingly opposing ideas—is evident in the best leaders around the idea of results and relationships.
Again, there is a misconception that this focus on results and relationships means that the leader is soft on results and issues of performance. Truett Cathy, the octogenarian founder of Chick-fil-A, a multibillion-dollar, privately held fast-food company, embodies this practice of focusing on both results and relationships. His organization is well known for generosity and long-term relationships (Chick-fil-A has an annual staff retention rate of 97 percent!). Cathy, a pragmatic businessman who treats employees like family, says it like this: “Without margin, there is no mission.” He obviously understands the importance of making a profit. At the same time, by also valuing relationships, he enhances his returns decade after decade.
To the serving leader, the definition of success is two-fold. They believe you can’t have true success without results and relationships. To focus on either at the expense of the other is a short-term strategy. Long-term success is built on an unwavering commitment to both.
How’s your credibility as a leader? This, perhaps more than anything else, will ultimately determine your leadership effectiveness. If leaders are not trusted by their followers, they forfeit the opportunity to deliver on the other practices we’ve reviewed. So what does “embody the values” have to do with trust? Everything.
We often describe leadership as an iceberg. Think back to your fifth-grade science class. Do you remember how much of the iceberg was under water? If you guessed around 90 percent, you’re correct. This provides an outstanding metaphor for great leaders. About 90 percent of a leader’s success is determined by what is not seen—the 90 percent under the water represents the character of a leader. The 10 percent above the water line represents the skills of the leader. Both are critical. Although leadership skills are the focus of our book, effective leadership is not all about skills. Certainly, great leaders must have the skills. However, if you think about icebergs, what poses the greatest threat to ships is not what is visible above the water. The real danger cannot easily be seen. It is usually the submerged portion of the iceberg that creates the greatest risk. What can’t be seen from the surface is what sinks ships. The same is true with us as leaders. Most leaders don’t fail for lack of skills, although plenty do. Most leaders fail for issues of character. Peter Drucker said it like this: “The quality of character does not make a leader. However, the absence flaws the entire process.”
People always watch their leaders. They’re trying to determine their trustworthiness as leaders. Are they men and women worth following? Are they leaders of character? What leaders believe and how they behave is of the utmost importance. If leaders say one thing and do another, they are not walking the talk. The best leaders know their values, share their values, and, most important, they live their values. This creates trust and the opportunity to serve as outlined in the first four practices.
Most leaders fail for issues of character.
We hope that after reviewing these five practices, you’ll agree—these are the primary ways great leaders serve their organization. It was true in the past, it’s true today, and it will be true tomorrow. So if these ideas have stood the test of time and still seem relevant today, why are servant leaders the exception and not the norm? Why don’t more leaders choose to serve? We could cite dozens of reasons—but we’ll explore just two in the space remaining.
It is staggering how many organizations have asked gifted individual contributors to step into positions of leadership without any training at all. This is probably the greatest cause of leadership failure in business today. It’s built on the faulty assumption that anyone can, without any new knowledge or skill, lead others. The truth is that talent, and even success, in one job may do nothing to prepare an individual to lead. The good news is that the fundamental skills of leadership can be taught, and many companies around the world are doing just that. Corporate universities and chief learning officers are becoming more widely accepted. And even better news, this revelation that leadership can be taught is not confined to the corporate world. Private schools have begun to teach leadership skills to their high school students. Even some churches and other nonprofit organizations have awakened to the idea that everything rises and falls on leadership—and leadership can be taught! The organization without leadership training is placing a huge bet—against the odds.
We live in a world that is fundamentally about “me.” And let’s not too quickly judge our leaders alone. Virtually all of us have our own interests at heart most of the time. We have come to believe that if we don’t look out for ourselves, no one will. The marketplace in which we work has been described as a jungle. And we all know that in a jungle, only the strong survive. But this propensity to be preoccupied with self seems to have escaped the truly great leaders. It’s not that they think less of themselves; it’s that they think of themselves less often.
Great leaders don’t think less of themselves;
they think of themselves less often.
A final thought in defense of becoming a serving leader. Some will say, “Because servant leadership is not common practice, it must not work.” This would seem like a rational argument if it weren’t for the example of personal health and fitness. The fact that so few people exercise, get enough sleep, and eat right does nothing to invalidate the principles and practices of a healthy lifestyle. Neither does the lack of servant leaders reduce the validity of the idea. Take it on faith, if by no other means—serving others works!
At the end of the day, if any of us want to be great leaders, we must ask and answer the fundamental question, “Am I a serving leader or a self-serving leader?” It is our prayer that you and millions of leaders around the world will join us on this grand adventure and learn to serve!