What If Leadership Were a Conch Shell?

“Leadership is much more an art, a belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do.”
– Max De Pree

“Servant Leader”.

Two words that have become the commodity answer we give whenever managers in an Agile environment ask “I’m a manager. What am I now?” But, like Agile itself, there is no “standard” job description for a servant leader. With little more than the two words to go by, managers often struggle and improvise with how to become a servant leader. But this problem is not unique to Agile environments. In fact, the concept of “Servant Leadership” predates the Agile Manifesto by almost a quarter of a century. Servant leaders are essential to any people empowered or emancipated environment.

I’ve always been curious of the term Servant Leader. Both for myself and for others I serve. A series of recent events restoked my curiosity.

  • In one of the organizations I serve, I participated in a conversation with other Agile practitioners about the role and responsibilities of Scrum Master. We started with the Scrum Guide’s description of Scrum Master and what they do. In essence, “The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team”.
  • I co-delivered a talk with my good friend Andrew Goddard at Agile Ottawa’s monthly meetup. The talk was entitled The Rise of Capabilities in a Time of Agile. We covered a variety of emancipated environments and the capabilities (including leader) that arise and emerge in those environments.
  • On August 8th, it was the 2nd anniversary of the passing of Max De Pree. Max De Pree was the Chairman and CEO of Herman Miller, an innovative office furniture company. For me, he epitomized and inspired what a servant leader can be.

What is a Servant Leader?

The term “Servant-Leader” came into the lexicon over 40 years ago in 1977 when Robert Greenleaf published a book of essays entitled, “Servant Leadership – A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness”. Here’s how Greenleaf introduced the concept of the servant as leader.

“The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

He goes on to describe specific leaders past and present who demonstrated these shadings and blends only to conclude that these examples of leadership are

“…’so situational’ that it rarely draws on known models. Rather, it seems to be a fresh creative response to here-and-now opportunities. Too much concern with how others did it may be inhibitive.”

How does one know whether they are a Servant-Leader? Greenleaf suggested the following,

“The best test, and difficult to administer, is this:

  • Do those served grow as persons?
  • Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
  • And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?
  • Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

As one sets out to serve, how can one know that this will be the result? This is part of the human dilemma; one cannot know for sure.”

Greenleaf’s essays are historically, intellectually and philosophically expansive. His servant leadership ideas go beyond the individual to include the concept of institutions as servants. The type of Institutions included business, education, foundations and churches. The richness of his ideas took me a while to unpack and understand. There are aspects I’m still trying to appreciate.

Greenleaf’s “Servant Leadership” book of essays is the definitive source for what a servant-leader could be. However, my favorite book on servant leadership is one written by Max De Pree – “Leadership Is An Art”.

It starts with the title. Leadership is not scientific. It is an art. And “art” succinctly captures Greenleaf’s “shadings and blends” along the leader-first to servant-first continuum. The book is a collection of De Pree’s ideas on what it means to be a leader. He was the living epitome of those ideas every day at work as the CEO of Herman Miller. The book is not a prescriptive set of practices but rather an invitation to personally interpret those ideas and make them your own.
De Pree doesn’t differentiate between good leadership and servant leadership. In the chapter entitled “What is Leadership?”, he describes leadership in a way that rings true with Greenleaf’s ideas. In fact, he refers to Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership book as “an excellent book”. Good leadership is synonymous with servant leadership. Maybe that’s the way it should be to remove the mysticism surrounding the term servant-leader.

Here is a sample of my favorite ideas from the book:

“The art of leadership: liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible.”

“Leaders don’t inflict pain; they bear pain.”

“Understanding and accepting diversity enables us to see that each of us is needed. It also enables us to begin to think about being abandoned to the strengths of others, of admitting that we cannot know or do everything.”

“The measure of leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body. The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers”

“Business has been moving… from a posture and a practice of management through power to a process of leadership through persuasion.”

“Leaders need to foster environments and work processes within which people can develop high-quality relationships.”

“Understand that relationships count more than structure… Structures do not have anything to do with trust. People build trust.”

My favorite idea from De Pree’s book is,

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.”

It’s arguably De Pree’s most famous quote. It’s often quoted without the last 3 words.

That’s a shame.

For me, the words “and a debtor” say just as much about what a leader is as the rest of the quote, if not more. De Pree states that “Leadership is a concept of owing certain things to the institution.” These things being “assets” and “a legacy”.

Assets such as services and products are what enable continuity of the institution’s financial health.

A legacy “provides greater meaning, more challenge, and more joy in the lives of those whom leaders enable”. De Pree goes on to say that “Leaders owe people space, space in the sense of freedom. We need to give each other space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity… so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion.

What Will It Take?

Just like the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”, it will take a person’s universe to raise a good leader – a servant-leader. Looking through a systems thinking lens, any one the person interacts with will play a part.

  • The person who wants to become a servant-leader.
  • The people who the servant-leader will serve: employees, colleagues, friends and family members.
  • The institution the person is part of.
  • The institution’s customers and clients.

What may ail servant-leaders in the long run may be the same thing that ails the spread of Agile ways in organizations – the clash of two worlds. The complacency and cynicism of the status quo world and the urgency and willingness of the new world. What we need are people like Max De Pree who have the courage and fortitude to challenge the status quo. It starts there.

But here’s the real kicker – you don’t need to have the title “Manager” or “Leader” to be a servant-leader. In his book, De Pree notes that “in some South Pacific cultures, a speaker holds a conch shell as a symbol of a temporary position of authority.

Anyone can be a servant-leader. Are you?

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