3 Steps to Becoming a Servant Leader
by: Alex Stubenbort “The best leaders value their words and use them sparingly. When they have accomplished their task, the people say, ‘Amazing! We did it, all by ourselves!’”- Lao Tzu
“The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say 'I'. And that's not because they have trained themselves not to say 'I'. They don't think 'I'. They think 'we'; they think 'team'. They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don't sidestep it, but 'we' gets the credit.... This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.”- Peter F. Drucker
As a young boy playing little league baseball, my father taught me a valuable lesson:
“Alex, when you win, only talk about the team’s performance, and when you lose, only talk about your own.”
Those words have stuck with me ever since, but what does such a simple philosophy have to do with visionary and strategic leadership? Simply put, people are more willing to share a leader’s vision and strategy when they believe, in their hearts, that it will be accomplished by them as capable, able-bodied parts of a whole, not the product of purposefully manipulative leadership. Furthermore, when things fail to go as planned, people look to their leadership to humbly accept responsibility as servant/leader. Although this understanding of leadership is far from new (the aforementioned Tao Te Ching was written in the 6th Century BCE), it has found new traction in modern thinkers including Peter F. Drucker, Ken Blachard, and Malcolm Gladwell.
First and foremost, a servant leader’s vision and strategy must be compelling. So what threatens a vision’s compelling nature? Ken Blachard would argue EGO. At the 2013 Servant Leadership Winter Conference, Blachard put forth the proposition that the ego bares two undesirable fruit: false pride and fear of self-doubt. Both can and will threaten a clear and compelling vision. By remaining humble, Blachard argues, the leader, “…doesn’t think less of themselves, they merely think of themselves less.” And this is paramount to vision because any compelling vision is bigger than one man/woman’s claustrophobic convictions. Imagine a vision void of concern for personal praise and gain. We rarely see such a vision from our leadership, and yet we tend to long for such leadership universally. Although it is difficult to do, a good vision lies primarily in the hands of a leader who is comfortable enough to ignore the question, “How will this make me look?” and instead focus on the moral obligation at hand.
Secondly, vision is the ability to see what is invisible to others. Most scholars agree that Servant Leadership is predicated on 10 basic principles. Two of these principles are Conceptualization and Foresight. To showcase Conceptualization, a Servant Leader must be able to align present realities with future possibilities. Likewise, a servant leader must encompass Foresight by possessing a well-developed intuition. All too often, intuition is under-minded by meatheads as an inherently female trait, and in this case “female” is used by said meatheads pejoratively. However, many thinkers, including Malcolm Gladwell, are revisiting this often overlooked character trait. Although he acknowledges that intuition is far from a replacement for critical thinking, in his 2005 book Blink Gladwell exemplifies the power of intuition through anecdotes, studies, and raw statistics and his findings are staggering. Imagine if a leader can tap into his/her own intuition and partner it with his/her own Conceptualization of things to come. The results would be awe-inspiring. Therefore, a vision must be comprised of two well-trained systems of thought: critical thinking and intuition.
Lastly, a compelling vision and strategy must unite your people in the beliefs that what they do is for the sake of others and that through their work they make a positive impact on the world. If such a vision is accomplished, employees are no longer operating from the motivational perspectives of self-validation or self-promotion. Instead, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders will see their work as paramount to the implementation of moral and ethical rightness. With so much of the moral rightness being sucked dry of education by “big hats” in Tallahassee and Washington D.C, employees are searching for a leader who is willing to go against the grain and encourages their staff to do likewise in the name of bettering their craft and, in turn, bettering the tomorrows of the students that they serve. To succeed at such a lofty goal, a leader must be willing and able to function from Servant Principles like Listening, Empathy, Stewardship, and Community above and beyond traditional motivators like Adherence, Structure, and Hierarchical Definition. This can be risky and, at times, costly. However, it is rooted in the understanding that our moral obligation to serve comes first.
Ultimately, visionary leadership encompasses three primary principles. It must be void of ego and the despicable fruit such a character trait can produce. It must be informed equally by a well-trained ability to infuse critical thinking and intuition. Lastly, it must be rooted in a moral obligation to serve children and the community first and foremost. If a vision and a leader possess these three principles and practice them with fervor, the proverbial sky is the limit.