Glimpses Into Servant Leadership

I hate KIA (“Know It All”) managers!

There, I said it.

You know the type.

Those who relish any opportunity to dominate conversations. To show everyone how much they know and how little everyone else knows. To solve everyone’s problems for them whether they needed help or not. Like the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas, they spout knowledge high into the air drenching everything in its path.

However, what if they were acting from good intentions? What if they got to where they are, based on being rewarded for being a KIA? What if it’s the only way they know how to manage, to contribute?

Rather than vilifying them, should we feel sorry for them? How might we channel their good intentions down a new path? One that acknowledges the world that tolerated, and even encouraged KIA behaviours, no longer exists.

Replaced by a world where,

  • Learners trump Experts
  • Collaboration trumps Competition
  • Collectivism trumps Heroism
  • Listening trumps Talking
  • Failure trumps Success

How might we describe management and leadership in that new world?

Some would say “Servant Leader”! But, what does that really mean? There are plenty of resources available to help with that. Including the landmark book by Robert K. Greenleaf, “Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness” and my personal favourite, Max De Pree’s “Leadership is an Art”.

But, what does it look and feel like? If you were to use one word to describe it, what would that word be?

A picture is worth (at least) a thousand words. How about story-telling? Is a story the “new” picture?

So, here are some of my recent stories. Some glimpses into greatness. As well as glimpses into moments of weakness. Glimpses into what servant leadership could look and feel like.

  1. Steadfast. That’s the first word that popped into my head when I think about arguably, the greatest servant leader over the course of 70 years and 214 days – Queen Elizabeth II. She lived to serve the UK, the Commonwealth and the World. I, like millions around the world couldn’t help but get choked up in remembering her during her funeral. She’s the only Queen I’ve ever known. I’ve seen her grow old through the lens of our Canadian currency. She aged gracefully and she never wavered from her purpose. Although, at times she would bend to the court of public opinion, she did it in a way that didn’t betray her service to those who depended on her.
  2. Vulnerable. During a recent client discovery session with the leader of an organization that had been using agile ways of working for many years, he admitted they had lost their way and needed an agile refresher. This from an organization and leader that had been perceived as being the gold standard for agile ways. His courage in openly admitting their fall from grace exchanged personal reputation for organizational improvement.
  3. Overcommunicate. One of my favourite parts of “Leadership is an Art” is where Max De Pree expounds on the virtues of the art of communication. Suggesting we err on the side of overcommunicating. A normally well-intentioned leader, in an organization I’m coaching recently needed to prematurely terminate the contracts of several people due to budget cuts. They were all colleagues of mine. And how did I and everyone else learn of this? Not from the leader but rather from the colleagues themselves. You can imagine the shock and fear that spread like wildfire, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Always overcommunicate!
  4. Trust. I found myself shamefully judging a colleague recently because they weren’t showing up for some key work sessions. I don’t know how many times I had to recite an aphorism that I learned from Lyssa Adkins, “People act from good intention. I remain open to discovering it”. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
  5. Empower. The word is easy and fashionable to say but much harder to do effectively. Recently a group of leaders wanted their people to weigh in on a decision. They each passionately shared what they wanted first and then asked their people what they wanted. It was a Hobson’s Choice disguised as an act of empowerment. If you want to truly empower people, don’t start by telling them what would make you happy. And, don’t ask a question if you’re not willing to accept any answer.
  6. Compassion. Some people, including myself have confused compassion with empathy. I consider myself an empathetic person but didn’t fully appreciate the difference between empathy and compassion until recently. Simply put, compassion = empathy + action. It’s not enough to feel someone’s pain. What will you do about it? Be empathetic but don’t stop there. Demonstrate compassion.

“… in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are forgotten.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury,
The Most Rev Justin Welby (from his eulogy to Queen Elizabeth II)

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