As a teacher, I have run across ambitious students who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, they reply: “I want to be a CEO so I can fly in a private jet and have a mini-golf course in my bathroom.” After laughing, I always mention something about the hard work of being a CEO and they just shrug. It’s hard when you’re twelve (or even twenty) to imagine the reality of running a multi-million dollar corporation. Coming out of the 1980s and 90s, there has been this romanticized CEO image that has pervaded American culture. However, after the recent trend towards fraud and other white collar crimes in large and small companies has tarnished this image of private jets and mini-golf course sized bathrooms. The heart of greed and unbridled capitalism has promoted a culture of dishonesty and unethical conduct in order to increase profits. After our economy being seriously burned by the fallout of these decisions, there has been a counter movement (which BCWI is a part of) to bring integrity and honesty back to business, not only because it is the right thing to do but because it provides more financial viability.
A huge part of increasing integrity in the workplace is the development of leaders who display a servant attitude. At BCWI, we have seen servant leadership in the leadership teams of the Best Christian Workplaces.
Servant leadership is best when the person is a servant who also leads those around him, instead of a leader who happens to serve once a month or year. Having this attitude will do three things to increase a servant leader’s effectiveness: build trust and history with employees, provide critical information for the direction of the company, and maintain the right mindset.
Building History and Trust
Having a servant first, leader second mindset will build rapport and trust with employees. This is the first thing that Robert Greenleaf discusses, whose book on servant leadership is a pillar and foundation on which all other books on the subject are supported. Greenleaf discusses good servant leadership in the introduction of his book by discussing the characters in the book Journey to the East. A group of men travel to the East in search of spiritual enlightenment. Along the way, their servant Leo disappears and the group disintegrates without him to hold them together. The end of the story reveals Leo as the Leader of the Enlightened organization that they had journeyed to find. Greenleaf uses this example to show how important it is for the greatest leader to be seen as a servant first, Leo had proven his character to the men through all of his smart decisions and solid actions. Leo was a leader that these men could easily accept because of their history and the trust already developed. Servant leaders need to be servants first because of the relationships that form because of this connection. Like we learned from Robert Shaw in his book Trust in the Balance, trust requires a long track record of large and small events that build upon each other. If the leaders of an organization are always serving their employees, then the employees know that the leaders have their best interest at heart and will trust and act on decisions faster and more completely.
In addition to organizational trust, servant leadership also provides the best information about where the direction of the company should head. Being involved with employees will show leadership exactly what is going on with their company: the areas for both potential and problems. Being on the front lines with employees will also show the needs of the clients; this insight will allow employees to serve better and reach more recipients. Bill Robinson, the former President of Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington (a Best Christian Workplace!), discusses servant leadership in his book Incarnate Leadership. He writes about the tendency of leaders to separate from their employees. Employees tend to put the leadership of their organization on pedestals, not intentionally but partly as a sign of respect. Servant leaders gently refuse to be elevated in that way, they dwell among the people they are leading and make an effort to meet with as many employees as possible each week. Robinson calls this the paradox of ‘leading from among’ instead of leading from ahead (35).
Some of the problems we see with organizations that we survey are with a detached leadership. So often employees will tell us that the leadership had no idea what is really going on, or that the leadership passively allows unhelpful or unhealthy things to happen without really understanding or caring about the consequences. One of the practices we recommend to keep contact between leadership and employees is ‘Managing by Walking Around’ or MBWA. I wrote about it in a previous blog, and it applies here again. Having a presence among employees makes a huge difference in the relationship.
A great example, which I’ve mentioned before, is from another BCW: Southland Christian Church. Al interviewed the leadership team for a podcast on Positive Core Attributes. Charlotte Ewing and Kurt Braun discussed how their Campus Development Director Gordon Walls demonstrates outstanding servant leadership. He personally makes an effort to serve his staff, constantly being present among staff and asking “How are you doing?” and “What can I do to help?” They discuss how this is not a ‘management plan’ but an attitude.
Mindset of Humility
Lastly, having a servant first attitude will help leadership maintain the right mindset. Robinson also talks about the idea of ‘bending the light,’ reflecting glory back onto God or other people and not absorbing it like so many leaders tend to. Oftentimes, being the leader of an organization can go to people’s heads, (this has happened to me in much smaller roles, I can’t imagine what being president of an organization would do to me). Being a servant leader helps keep pride and arrogance in check by remaining focused on the reason why leaders are in their position: to serve and equip their employees so their employees can serve the clients in the best possible way. Being a leader is not about the fancy car or the big house, but about the responsibility for the community and the organization one leads. Humility is crucial in order to maintain that mindset. Robinson is quick to point out that humility absolutely does not mean timidity, leaders can be humble but aggressive, which is the magic combination to move a company forward.