Servant Leadership and the Pursuit of Excellence

Being a Servant or Whole-sale Self-Preservation
Sometimes the best way to understand a concept is by looking at it in the stark contrast of its opposite. This is certainly true for the concept of servant leadership. Besides sounding a bit like an oxymoron to some the phrase, “servant leadership” seems too ambiguous to put into action.  What does servant leadership look like in the daily grind and more importantly does it make a difference?

I am indebted to Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times for his op-ed piece on the plight of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Rutten’s article about owner Frank McCourt’s chapter 11 bankruptcy filing provides the perfect contrast to the concept of servant leadership.  So, the following is a definition of the opposite of servant leadership:

His latest maneuver – a desperate flight into chapter 11 bankruptcy protection – essentially makes one of Los Angeles’ civic treasures, the Dodgers, a hostage.  It’s always a sad spectacle when mediocrity and cunning are mobilized by an instinct for self-preservation so all-consuming that it would countenance the ruin of everyone involved.[1]

What caught my attention is not the extraordinary degree of transparency that accompanies celebrity crises – I have no wish to take potshots at the trauma the McCourt’s share in their divorce and very public business failings.  I cannot avoid the fact that every leader walks in full view of others – including those who show a pattern of self-preservation.  The pattern of self-preservation identified in Rutten’s article is the opposite of what one expects to find in a servant leader.

What seems to escape some of the leaders I work with is that their employees actually know what is going on and see their leaders arrogantly marching through the business like the king in his new clothes.  The only person who is unaware of the naked reality of the leader’s behavior is the leader.

Behavior is an Amazingly Transparent Judge of Intention

If employees are so observant then why don’t they say something to the leaders to stave the ultimate collapse of the organization or business generated by a leader’s “spectacle of mediocrity”?  They do. I recently worked with a functional team in a manufacturing plant who watched their manager go down in flames financially, morally, ethically over a sexual liaison with one of his direct reports. The rest of the team saw the shenanigans of the manager clearly for what they were – while the manager apparently felt confident he had successfully covered his very exposed backside. If you lead others (have any position in which others report to you) then understand that your reports see you for what you are because they see your behavior. Why is it that we think what we say can actually cover up what we really do?

The employees watching the self-destructive machinations of their manager alerted the chain of command.  Another six months passed before senior management acted on what the employees told them.  The senior management understandably wanted to collect evidence of the violation but there was more to it than that.  Leaders don’t hear or see their employees as clearly as their employees see the leader’s behavior for the simple reason that some leaders see others through a distorted lens as mere objects to be used or manipulated to achieve their personal goals. As people we are loath to admit this yet…seeing ourselves as others see us can be startling.  The distortion of how we see others is not an either/or reality.  It is a perspective on a scale of intensity. Yet, to the degree it exists at all it still has a negative impact.

In their book, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, the Arbinger Institute tell a story that raises some simple questions that serve quite effectively as mirrors to how we view those around us.[2] These questions test not only one’s perspective of others but demonstrate the degree servant leadership exists in behavior. Test yourself for a moment, are you a servant leader?

  1. Do you remember when you had the chance to fill the care with gas before your spouse took it, did you decide he/she could fill it up just as easily as you, so you took the car home empty?
  2. Do you remember the time you promised the kids a trip to the ballpark but backed out at the last minute, on some feeble excuse because something more appealing had come up?
  3. Do you remember the time you took the kids to the ball game anyway but made them feel guilty for it?
  4. Do you remember the time you parked in the Handicapped Only parking zone and then faced a limp so people wouldn’t think you were a total jerk?
  5. Do you remember the time, when reading to your toddler, you cheated him by turning more than one page at a time because you were impatient and “he wouldn’t notice anyway?”
  6. Do you sometimes demean others?
  7. Are you sometimes punishing and disdainful toward people around you, scornful of their laziness and incompetence?
  8. Do you more often try to do the acceptable thing? Do you indulge the people who report to you with kindness and all the other “soft stuff” you can think of to get them to do what you want – even though you still feel scornful toward them?

Here is the point – people see behavior for what it is.  Don’t rush past this sentence.  Stop – if you see these behaviors/attitudes in you then admit them. Self awareness, being aware of the impact of your behavior on others, is critical to effective leadership and it is the essence of servant leadership.

So what is the business point? Behaviors such as those implicit in the questions above cause employees to disengage, reduce their commitment, max their sick time, engage in work slowdowns and switch to new jobs at rates far higher than their counterparts who work for bosses who understand their attitudes are transparent in their behaviors. This understanding generates either continued denial or deep change.  When deep change occurs then the pursuit of excellence also emerges – excellence that seeks to raise the capabilities and capacity of everyone on the team.  Excellence is not achievement or power or affiliation. Excellence requires a participation entire networks which makes strong and healthy personal relationships absolutely essential.

Servant Leadership

The pursuit of excellence, that quality of product and service that differentiates one group from all others, is not a simply rhetorical device of business schools trying to increase their tuition cash flow by garnering desperate students trying to survive the global economy. The pursuit of excellence is the best pathway toward profitability in a market crowded with hawkers. It is my thesis that the exercise of servant leadership is one of the fastest ways to reinforce the commitment, contribution, confidence, conviction and cultural alignment of employees around the values of a company (assuming those values seek the greater good). So what is servant leadership?

The servant-leader is servant first . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve—after leadership is established. 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. . . The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant- first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.[3]

Servant leadership is an orientation to leadership that owns a transparent moral imperative, exercises personal awareness for the impact of behaviors, recognizes the contribution potential of employees and builds a culture characterized by modeling, mentoring, development, discipline and fun. Servant leadership engages the essential activities of vision, structure, profitability and benevolence in an accessible way to employees, board members, stakeholders and stockholders.

When Ken Melrose (former CEO of Toro) stepped into his role at Toro the company was losing money with sales plummeting from $400 million annually to $200 million annually. The perspective Melrose took to the assignment was one of servant leadership.  Melrose believed in people. He states, “You have to grow good people to be even better people. It’s like growing fine turf. You need to feed (train) them, pull them up in time of need (nurture and motivate them), and basically give them room to grow (empower them). Toro has great people, which makes for a good work environment.”

The changes Melrose initiated at Toro started with a significant reduction of force and a reduction in perks (servant leadership does not mean avoiding difficult realities – conversely it means facing them squarely). Everyone shared the burden of the circumstance including the executive suite. Melrose intentionally exercised servant leadership and created a company culture in which employees know they work for the customers and everyone is empowered to serve the customers.  Did servant leadership work?  Near the end of his service sales at Toro hit $1.4 billion!


Clearly the future of Dodger baseball in Los Angeles now seems to depend on the removal of its narcissistic owner – what does the future of your organization need? In his pursuit of greatness Frank McCourt only demonstrated that the essence of greatness i.e., character and service, was not part of the equation of his pursuit. Leaders whose quest is to appear great, who demand respect or loyalty from the cowering masses, who stomp in angry tirades about all their enemies show the world by their behavior that they neither understand greatness/achievement nor have what it takes to get there.

Conversely leaders who see their power, privilege and position as a platform for serving others understand how to be attentive, inquisitive, transparent and focused. Their pursuit of goals does not find a stumbling block or barrier in the presence of others.  Instead they inspire others to the same nobility of cause and commitment of action.  Servant leadership creates a culture of service that doesn’t have to consistently harangue their employees on customer care, the dismantling of silos, or reduction of waste. Servant leadership creates a culture of care, collaboration and concern that consistently addresses the money generating values of the business with the passion of ownership and pride. Why not focus on being a servant leader?

What does your organization need to thrive in the future?  If you have followed the career path of the Dodgers’ present owner then your organization needs to remove and replace you. If you follow the other path, the path of servant leadership then the question isn’t focused on you, it is focused on how your company/organization serves its market creatively – and the question is not an emotional drain but an adventure energized by the engagement of employees who know their value, see their contribution is recognized and can’t stop talking about how great their company is.

[1] Tim Rutten, “The McCourt’s Foul Ball,” The Los Angeles Times, 29 June 2011, A19.

[2] The Arbinger Institute, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002), 7-9.

[3] Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader (Indianapolis: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 1970, 1991), 7.

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