Servant leadership is an approach that is quite different from some of today’s other popular styles, such as autocratic, participatory and democratic. Robert Greenleaf and the Greenleaf Foundation is credited with coining the term Servant-Leadership — that true leadership must be executed in the form of true service. His title says is all: The Power of Servant-Leadership.
World-class companies like Marriott International and Starbucks embrace servant leadership principles. Although the system is growing, the limitations of the human ego still compel us to determine who is worthy of service and who is not. This approach forces the team to rethink their feelings about status. Servant leadership applies equality to all and discourages comparing the worth of customers or individuals.
But leading by serving is not for everyone. Some are, by nature, strong warrior types who drop the hammer because they must. Others, including traditional business consultants, are charged with rolling out non-negotiable performance standards. Some readers may remember the infamous Chainsaw Al Dunlap whose ruthless headcount cutting created fear and loathing. These people may not necessarily consider themselves servants but certainly regard themselves as industry leaders.
Let’s apply servant leadership to an equipment dealership. Many companies prominently display a mission statement indicating excellence in serving. Senior management proudly reinforces that their organization is all about the customer, and all about providing unparalleled service. The message is that customers automatically deserve and shall receive unrivalled service from the dealership team. But in the practice of servant leadership, that same value perspective must extend to employees, suppliers and the community.
Leadership Lesson #1: Leading through service requires a culture of self-development. Now comes the concept of mutual service: those on staff serving the organization and upper management, and those at the top returning that service mentality to the team. This is a cultural commitment to each link in the chain. Serving each other, in the same spirit with which we serve the customers, requires a well-defined vision and clear intent. The team must engage in purposeful practices of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, trust and teamwork.
Leadership Lesson #2: Seek balance in performance and priorities. The balancing act lies in the prioritization of service. This is a skill that, for some, may require a lifetime to master. Others are born ready. The decision to serve oneself, family, the dealership — or even a higher power — may present as an impossible dilemma. But those choosing servant leadership must master the art of balance. Some critics will argue that true leadership requires followers. Otherwise, there is a lack of clarity about who is leading and where they are leading to. Leaders are often measured strictly by specific performance indicators. Others are graded according to how many followers they have amassed. What’s important is that servant leadership leads to a highly engaged workforce, which always leads to excellent dealership performance.
Leadership Lesson #3: Rise above judgement of others. A demographic that needs mentioning is swelling into the global workforce: Millennials. How they approach business and life is quite different than the historical paradigm of “put your head down and work.” The largest understanding gap occurs between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Gen Xers are right smack in the middle of that and are quite often blamed for the perceived difficulties that Millennials present. However, those born in the 1980s and after have come into a very different world than did Boomers. I won't embark on the worldview in this article, but I will say this: each generation has worked to serve. In fact, the complaints we most often hear about Millennials in the workforce are more about work style and less about actual performance. Thus, the question arises: in pursuit of life balance, is the next generation of players on the equipment dealership team serving the organization first? Or, are they placing a premium on their time, families and energy, thus presenting as less engaged than previous generations?
Here is the process of valuation which I warned about: judging the priorities of others as held against a preconceived standard. Where fellow workers direct their energies is perhaps not for anyone else to evaluate. Rather, it is the process of self-actualization, instinctively pursued, that we must remember is the truth and the journey of the human being.
Servant leadership is a mindset and an art form. We have an abundance of brilliant mentors to learn from — those who made the commitment and lived it through impeccable action. Many dealerships have chosen this path and are enjoying success through leadership that serves all. The rewards are even greater than strong financial results and a benevolent community presence. Perhaps true service is the key to unlock success far beyond the goals of the organization.
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