Jul 17, 2013 | Leadership, Servant Leadership

In this series, I have been writing about my journey in servant leadership, the style of leadership that reverses the polarity of power.  My guidebooks were Robert K. Greenleaf’s 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, and the biography Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership, by Don M. Frick

In last week’s post, To Serve or To Lead, I shared how I resolved the paradox between serve and lead.  This week, I will share what it was like to put servant leadership into practice.

One of the first paradigm shifts I had to make as a servant leader was to define service.  Until then, I thought service meant performing an action to save others the trouble.  As a leader, I began to realize that when I took sole responsibility for performance, I was the one who benefitted the most.  I had done the research.  I had applied it to the business problem.  I had connected the dots.  But I had not yet learned to apply Servant Leadership Principle 2:  Leadership is influence.

Getting the Win
The trouble began when I tried to move my team to take action on a large project.  No matter how animated my attempts were to describe the result I was looking for, the team faltered in the execution.  The service side of me wanted to deliver the project by myself and get “the win” for them.  The leadership side of me knew this was a short-sighted solution.  I turned to Greenleaf for an answer:

No matter how much an executive knows about a particular business function . . . he had to get the thing done through people . . . how well he could accomplish this goal would largely determine his success or failure as an effective leader.” (Frick, 187)

If I performed the job myself, I was not a leader.  I was a thief.  I was developing and empowering myself, and robbing my team of the opportunity to learn and grow.

Act II, Scene I
My next approach was to treat team projects like plays.  I would write the script, assign the roles, and direct the action.  This, too, began to unravel as soon as the team members started to ad lib.  I tried to keep them on track by vetoing all ideas that did not fit my vision.  After all, I was the leader.  It was my job to share my vision and ensure the team stayed on script.  Why wasn’t this working?  Again, the Greenleaf material provided the advice I needed:

Management is a function, not a class. (Frick, 265)

Leaders should bite their tongue and allow group members to arrive at their own conclusions, not as a strategy but because leaders will likely learn something new in the process and group members will own the new insights. (Frick, 191)

I was using my positional authority to manufacture a win.  I treated the ideas contributed by my team members as distractions rather than opportunities to create something better as a collective.

A Leader Learns
Many months and several projects later, I  began to see real changes in myself and my team.  My new goal was not just to deliver a winning project, but to invite the team to take part in the creative process and develop something they could own.  I became less directorial and more facilitative.  I kept the team focused on the project deliverables and guided and inspired them along the way.  More often than not, I attended team meetings standing at the whiteboard instead of seated at the head of the table.

Team meetings become much more animated. The room was alive with energy as the team supported and challenged one another and I scrawled and encouraged from the whiteboard.  By the end of the meetings, the team had taken the bones of my vision and given it legs. We developed a rhythm for delivering winning projects for which the team members shared ownership and accountability.

That was the beginning of a long growth trajectory for myself and my team.  They learned to trust their instincts, and I learned that the true win for a leader is to inspire and equip her team members to achieve their highest potential.

Question: If leadership is influence and everyone can influence somebody, can everyone be a leader?  Please leave your comments below.

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