Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Serving Leader

So I just finished reading a fantastic book called The Serving Leader. This is unlike any business book I've read to date. The writer labels the technique of a servant leader as a paradox.  It's an anti dog-eat-dog culture. A servant leader is not concerned about his own persona of excellence and he habitually gives credit to others. The servant leader realizes that he qualifies to be first by putting other people first. He protects his own value by giving it all away.

I started working with this new company a little over a month ago called RAC Acceptance. The atmosphere I have experienced with them is one that has been completely foreign to me. It's energizing and positive and the management displays a sincere desire to see their employees thrive and succeed. I've been impressed although I haven't been able to quite put my finger on the driving force behind the unique personality of this business. Since the first day of my hire, I've made it known that I am gunning for a promotion toward managing my own site at the first available opportunity. I know this sounds like a "fat chance" situation (for anytime soon) since I only joined the company 6 weeks ago, but I do believe it is attainable. Soon. My district manager has been kind enough to come up with a developement plan for me in order to guide me toward my goal of management. And one of his assignments was to read The Serving Leader which he describes as the mascot book of RAC Acceptance. As I read the book, pieces mentally fell into place as I began to understand the guiding principles of my wonderful employer/s.

It's been humbling for me to rearrange the furniture in my brain so that I could comprehend this upside-down stradegy toward success. Typically, a management system portrait will demonstrate a pyramid with the big boss-man on top and the diligent little worker bees on the bottom. However, the authors of this Servant-Leader system draws an entirely different picture. The method taught here is "upending the pyramid". Turn the thing upside down as you check your ego at the door. The basic outline is as such:
  • Upend the pyramid. Always remember that you qualify to be first as your put other people first. You are in charge principally to charge-up others. *I am not in charge so much as I am committed to whatever causes my followers to get charged.* Charge others up. Again, get your ego out of the way so that you can build up others. This builds self-esteem in others which invests in their personal growth, resulting in success. This causes genuine, confident teamwork. And love.
  • Raise the bar.  Be picky. Choose and stick with high standards. Continually raise the bar in order to raise the expectations for performance. The biblical account of Jesus Christ and His 12 apostles is used to illustrate this point. Jesus had tons of followers, but He took a handful (12) to completely invest in, teach, and prepare them to do the same with others. To serve many, you first serve the few.  And it's about removing the obstacles of followers. Educating them. Executives and managers must become better teachers in order to drive the success of their employees. The more you teach people to not need you, the greater your value. Woah... I'm still thinking about that one. I'm removing my career hat for a minute and donning my mommy hat: "Teach them to not need me?" Hmmm... Okay, back on topic: To protect your value, you must give it away. "If you want to hang onto your value, give everything away that you have." And it's about the multiplication of excellence. Human nature is to try to live up to what is expected of you. "What kind of service is it to deny a person the challenge to become really terrific?... the best way to reach down to someone is to give them a challenging reason to reach up."
This must be done in balance, though. I know of an organization who takes pride in setting unattainable goals in order to force their employees to try hard enough that, although they didn't quite reach the company standard, they [allegedly] did better than they would have if given a slightly lower goal. The justification for this was "if I ask you to write 10 accounts and you only write 7 because it is impossible to write 10, this is wonderful because if I only ask you to write 7, you will probably only write 5 because it is human nature to operate this way." This defeating mentality really beats up the employees and keeps the morale at a low.
 "The best way to reach down to someone is to give them a challenging reason to reach up." Once again, I have to switch hats.... What if we treated each other this way in our everyday lives as well? What if the businessman treated the beggar this way? What if I treat my children this way? What if our church treated the needy this way? What if the government treated the under-educated, under-motivated this way? I wonder...? Okay, back on topic again.
  • Blaze the trail. Get to know the organization (or your family or your community -or whatever your object of focus might be) by making it your focal point of prayer. Yes, that's what I said. Prayer. A challenge given in the book is to pray daily for the focal organization. By targeting that organization with prayer, it will be natural to know every breath of the organization. Investigate its finer ins and outs. Get to know the company intimately.
  • Build on strengths. We've taken "personality" tests for work and "love-language" tests for our relationships and the "strengths" tests for ministry endeavors. These tests all show us one thing: We each have our own individual set of strengths and weaenesses. Rather than focusing on the weaknesses of others (and ourselves), focus on the strengths. Use the strengths to build on. And, in so doing, we need to adopt a fresh set of eyes. You can't build on strengths if all you see is weakness.

"Lone Star" is an oxymoron. If a star is alone, it can't shine.

  • Run to great purpose. I'm noting this last although it is illustrated as the foundation of the servant leader method. (Refer to the upended pyramid.) This is the glue that holds the entire system together. Serving leaders articulate a purpose so compelling that people are willing to run toward it. The story of Nehemiah in the Old Testament is used to illustrate how a senior executive encouraged his people toward greatness in order to complete the daunting task of rebuilding the walls and gates of the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah knew the solution to his great purpose would require everyone's best strength. He brought everyone together one day after receiving his command and provided the people with a purpose and a challenge to restore Jerusalem to its former glory. He divided the work among families according to where they lived along the destroyed walls and then he "upended" the pyramid by investing in them, helping them to succeded at their great task. Soon, critics came out, threatening the workers. But Nehemiah offered physical and spiritual protection to keep them safe and successful. Nehemiah's work ended up a huge success because his workers ran with great purpose and this purpose had completely captured their hearts.
No, purpose isn't the final point. It's the first point. The purpose has to be bigger than the people involved... Self-interest is what drives most corporations. But it isn't really the answer that delivers and it isn't the answer that truly satisfies.

Like I said, I'm rearranging the furniture in my brain right now. I attended an assistant managers meeting last month -my first one- and the quesstion was asked, "What drives you? What motivates you?" My answer was "The potential to succeed, move up the ladder, and bring home more money." But now I realize I was looking at this thing upside down. Typical board room answers: "to get a promotion" and "to get a bigger salary" and " to win the boss's job"... those are empty, self-interest answers. The great purpose, though... This pulls the entire serving leader technique into focus: "Making a difference in others is the whole point in our lives. It is the great purpose that gives us everything we need to run the best race we can. In addition, my faith keeps me in mind of the fact that my life doesn't belong to me. My living needs to serve a purpose bigger than myself."
  1. bring great purpose to the table.
  2. turn your leadership into service to your workers.
  3. hold high expectations.
  4. make sure your team has what it needs in training and resources and clear running ground.
  5. maximize the strengths your have.
"Live [your purpose] out very personally, or set priciples in motion at a large corporate level. let it bring deep private meaning to your life and to your family, or let it produce great public value... Or, better yet, do both."

In conclusion, serving leadership requires deep humility and a willingness to pour yourself into the life of others. Allow yourself to be nurtured for a great purpose by something bigger than yourself. Also to note: We all have mistakes in our past. We all have those skeletons. But what we do with them is the issue. We are each faced with 3 choices:
  1. Pretend that everything is okay. This requires putting on a front for people. Acting. Or, simply making excuses for our meaningless lives. This is how you become a smaller person. Just remember that this choice causes you to be justified in your own mind, but useless to anyone else.
  2. Destroy yourself with lament and self-incrimination. (Boy, I've been there. And recently!) Thinking that you've wasted too much time and that there is no way to get back on track. No second chances. I believe this might be the common fundamental, crippling struggle for many of us.
  3. Ask to be forgiven. Own up to your mistakes. Then seize your future with all you've got.
Again, I say this was a great read! I have so many books on my "to read" list. So when I first checked this one out, I thought I'd rather be reading a book on say,... parenting. But now that I've read it, well... I kinda think I did. And relationships. And true christianity. And community. And loving others. And teamwork. And business management.

1 comment:

sarahspicuzza said...

It's inspiring that you found so much insight and value in "The Serving Leader." I would love to connect with you further on the topic. Can you send me a quick line at Thanks!