Servant Leadership 101: One Powerful Habit Effective Servant Leaders Share

8417804534Have you  witnessed  how  much time really effective leaders spend building relationships?  It is a continuous effort, a constant part of what they do – asking questions, listening, trying to understand what people are thinking, looking into what is happening from the perspective of others.

Leaders with the most inspired, engaged, and effective organizations  spend most of their time building relationships with and among people.  They naturally break down barriers and connect silos (see my post about silos here).

What is really going on here?  Every conversation, every new link made, every experience shared, every new person engaged builds the health of the network.  What network, you say?  The communication and relationship links across functional borders, across physical and geographic separation.   There is nothing profound about saying that people who are great “connectors” make it tons easier to get things done.  Great leaders within complex organizations intentionally and actively build links and connections – targeting the connections that most powerfully affect the way work is done, the quality of the work experience, the effectiveness by which the team accomplishes the mission.

I have often used the word “enabling” and “catalyst” to describe the impact of a servant leader.  How is such impact achieved?  By acting to enhance the way the human networks in their world work.

Imagine the improvement in influence and effect you would have if you constantly focused on improving the way the people in your life connect, share, and bond.  For many, it would be a transformative change.  Every moment spent in that state would build the effectiveness of others.

Try it out.  Go beyond the surface level and find out what is going on in the world of folks you meet and know.  Look to make a connection, to offer to help.

I have been inspired recently by Steve Beecham, a master networker and motivational speaker.  Take a look at Steve Beecham’s Bassackwards Business:  The Power of Helping Without Hustling.  His website is

And let me know what you think.

Related Content:

1.  What Are the Most Important Things Great Leaders Do? (

2.  How Leaders Create and Use Networks (

3.  Six Rules of Leadership Networking (leading


Hire Talent, not Experience! (and 5 Simple Steps to Find the Talent You Need)

3427501183Recruiting is a pain.  It is hard to get right, and so painful and damaging to get wrong.

We make it so much harder on ourselves when we focus on experience.  Here is my controversial statement for today:  experience is no indication of ability or success.  Makes sense, right?  I might have cooked a lasagna, but it doesn’t mean it is any good.  I might have drawn a picture, but it could be awful.  And the harder the task, the less likely that experience alone is any indication of success. So, of all the folks who have done a job like the one you want done, most have not been very good at it.

Then why do we only look for folks who have done the job before that we want done now?  Is it that we just don’t have the patience, process, or ability to train someone to do the work?  Admittedly, if I can find a talented person who has also done the job before, then we have the best of both worlds.  Just realize you may not have that option.

The best Manufacturing Engineer I ever hired spent the first part of his career as a cook.  The best Project Manager I have ever worked with had spent most of her career as a Manufacturing Engineering.  The best Operations Manager I knew spent the last 5 years as a naval officer.  You can see, though, that in each of these examples the earlier work developed or built upon a talent that mattered to their next role.  As a cook, the engineer learned how to simplify complex tasks, to break things down, and to add some creativity into his work.   As a Manufacturing Engineer, the future PM learned to understand tasks, priorities, and milestones as they flowed in the real world.  And she did so with attention to detail and discipline that the best PMs would recognize.

So, stop scanning resumes for a narrow set of experiences.  You are wasting your time.  Instead….

1.  Identify the talents, the basic attitudes and attributes, of the very best people doing that job.  Now you have a target that matters!

2.  To find folks like this, think of jobs where such people thrive.  That might be a job like the one you are looking to fill, but there are certainly others as well.   Now you can look at someone’s resume and consider experience from the talent-centered point of view.

3.  By all means, if there is some critical knowledge or experience you must have, identify it.  But don’t go overboard.  Talented people learn quickly and adapt.

4.  Signs of great talent often include:  a positive, energetic attitude;  curiosity and a passion for learning;  a solid record of doing important things in their chosen field.

5.  Absolutely must avoid:  any kind of negativity or negative attitude; a tendency to attribute their problems to the fault of others; a solo player – great teams are held together by relationships, no hermits welcome.

Now go forth, and build that great team!


Related Content:

1.  How Great Manager Define Talent (

2.  Your Best Employee May not Have Industry Experience, (

Do Managers Really Matter?

2200500024Many of us know people ( or maybe entire teams) who believe  managers don’t matter.

The kind of “manager” we are discussing here focuses on coordination, orchestration, and people-related tasks – the overhead of running a team or organization.   Things like making goals clear, providing resources, recruiting, providing performance feedback and career development, making big picture decisions about the business and the people – that kind of thing.

So you might be able to see how this kind of manager might appear sort of extra.  After all, managers aren’t actually playing the music, carrying the football, or writing the software.    I once had a reasonably savvy boss question my plan to hire a manager by asking, “so you need to bring in this other guy to tell the experts what do?”   The implication being that the right team of experts would not need much management.  Hmm.

Let’s use the technique from my last blog post to test whether there is truth in this managers-don’t-matter idea.  Let’s give it some validity, look for facts that support it…

Take the example of self-conducting orchestra.  The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra ,  founded in 1972, has been conductorless since its inception.  Leadership roles shift to different musicians depending on the demands of the piece performed.  This team of about 20 musicians performs some of the most complex classical-music to world-class standards.  But we see that there is a leadership role in a given piece assigned to a specific musician.  So this is more like a rotating-conductor model (admittedly, a conductor and manager are different, but they are similar in key ways – work with me here).  One might reasonably wonder how this scales, whether it works for a large orchestra.

Or consider WL Gore and Associates.  As described in a post on the guardian website,

” In Gore’s self-regulating system, all the normal management rules are reversed. In this back-to-front world, leaders aren’t appointed: they emerge when they accumulate enough followers to qualify as such.”

A very successful company where the leaders/managers emerge.  But they still exist.

The reality is that the need for a great coach, conductor, platoon commander, or company manager exists.  The question is how to identify and appoint these folks.  Or whether to distribute their leadership roles  among people in the team.  Evidence from the world of sports, or music, or the military would seem to show that if a leader is not identified, one will emerge – that the need for clear goals, for decisiveness, for coordination, and for handling the overhead of running a team demands that a  team leader-coach exist, and that the manager in a business serves (or should serve) this role to be, well, useful.  Such a person needs pursue excellence in management in the same way an excellent violinist continuously practices and refines her craft.

The Gallup organization has performed extensive studies of management, management skills, and taken on the task of defining “Great Managers.”  Great managers do specific things to establish an engaging work environment and to build team engagement.  And there is significant and measurable impact on profits/outcomes that occurs where engagement is higher.  Take a look at these Gallup posts here and here, which make a compelling, data-based case that…managers do matter.

What do you think?


Essential Qualities of a Leader: Passion for the Truth, and a Powerful Bias that Stands in the Way

4696352143Pursuing the truth is essential for servant leadership.

What do I mean, “truth” ?  The truth for our purposes here consists of the available facts, and the identification of the actual cause(s) of  event(s) or circumstance(s).  It is this second part – figuring out the causes, that requires leaps of reason that get us into trouble.  But more on that in a minute.

So… it’s often hard to figure out what the absolute truth of a situation is – we operate mostly with incomplete information, and causes can be obscured by confusing signals.  But a leader has to be passionate, and energetic, and persistent about seeking the truth in a situation.   Getting at the knowable facts, pursuing the best available idea of what cause and effect are, is critical to good leadership decisions and effective action.

For the skeptics in the crowd, think on this example, drawn from my recent past:

A project being developed by an otherwise capable team is late.  Really late.  Why is that, and what should be done?   Actions must  to be taken that  make things better, and the choice of what actions to take must be based on an accurate judgment about the causes of the project delay.  This seems obvious – leaders that take steps that make things worse, or create change that has no effect, are not really serving the team or themselves at all, are they?

By the way, the leaders in this situation are not necessarily those formally holding management titles.  Highly effective action can be driven from any level.

Yet there is a powerful bias that stands in our way.  The bias is that we are going to most easily see the evidence that confirms our pre-conceived ideas about why the project is late.  Based on nothing more than guesses clouded by emotion and loosely based on past experience, we will already have a theory about the cause, and we will tend to notice more the evidence that  favors the  pre-conceived notion.

So let’s say that we have had some conflict with a key person on the project team, and they have in another setting proven to be an obstacle to progress.  We may suspect (or expect!) that they are a holding the team back.  So here is where the bias kicks in,  the confirmation bias.  The questions we ask, and the information we are most sensitive to, will center on this person and his/her  impact on the project.  And we very well might find things that disturb us in those answers, that seem to confirm our opinion.  So we more intensely focus on our theory.

We often hear the term, “rush to judgment” in prominent court cases.  Confirmation bias is a powerful force in police investigations, and history is full of examples of innocent people convicted by a building confirmation bias that pulls in the police, the witnesses, and ultimately the jury.

Back to our example:  asked what might make a project late, project managers might point to common factors such as unclear requirements, changes to project scope, unexpected/unanticipated technology challenges, and a host of issues shown over time to cause most  project delays.  But the confirmation bias has already been at work, and a few specific individuals who are seen as the source of the delay are removed from the project team.

How does it work in this case?   Not very well.  The delay lengthens even more, though eventually the team delivers a high quality product.

Here are some steps that will reduce the confirmation bias and help a servant leader come closer to the truth:

1.  Put a list together of the facts.  No causes, not theories.   The verifiable facts.  Involve the team and the knowledgeable experts.  This will serve as an invaluable reference for decision-making.

2.  Develop multiple  possible causes  from these facts.  The more the better.  Involve  folks not influenced by inside knowledge of the team or the project.

3.  Consider the opposite:  if there is a developing theory, or as a cause starts to surface, specifically identify an opposing theory and invest time to see if it is true.  Example:  A new product is not selling well, and the theory is developing that it is not a compelling product.  Consider the opposite: it is compelling, but we are not succeeding at communicating its benefits/the price is too high/etc.

4.  The truth might be surprising, so communication is critical.  It is a tough role to be the bearer of a surprising truth, one that counters conventional ideas and a developing confirmation bias.  Be prepared to clearly and effectively and persistently communicate why you believe another theory (cause) is closer to the truth.

5.  Take action.  Effective action is the reason for all this trouble about figuring out causes, the truth, etc.  Serve your team by taking the steps that actually make things better.

Here is quote from the intriguing blog  You are Not So Smart  that brings this home:  “Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.”

The confirmation bias is ever-present.  So develop the habit of looking elsewhere for the truth.  You might be led back to your pre-conceived ideas.  But the journey will often take you in surprising directions.

Essential Qualities of a Leader: A Belief You Really, Absolutely Must Have for Servant Leadership

6918240903I am going to say something, and I want you to pay careful attention to your reaction.  How you react will tell us alot about how painful this is going to be.

Here it is:   You are not always right.  In fact, you are probably often wrong.  You might even be hopelessly self-deceived.

How did you feel when you read that?  Did you immediately bristle with offense, or frown with skepticism?  Did you defenses go up?  If so – we have a long way to go in leadership development.

I don’t want to hear your defense.  I am not interested in stories about how smart you are, or how you rose to leadership by being good at what you do.

If you believe you are always or even mostly right, I can tell you that servant leadership is a long, long way away.

For the belief that that answer lies outside us is what drives us to listen.  It’s what drives us to collaborate.  It’s what drives us to seek the expertise and voice of others.  It’s the engine of our desire to learn and to help others learn.   It is the energy behind our search for the truth in our leadership and decision-making.

It the root of humility and a servant attitude.

The truth is many of us have work to do here.  Admitting that we are often wrong or incomplete in our thoughts or decisions is not the kind of thing that comes easily or quickly or feels natural.

So starting at your very next meeting/conversation/event, tell yourself this one thing:  I do not have all the answers.

You may be surprised how quickly it transforms your leadership and effectiveness.

You Care about Your People – But What About Your Customers?

All this talk about compassion and the Golden Rule and team engagement focuses on internal teams.  But there is a wonderful symmetry that the principles of high-service leadership work brilliantly for your customers.

For if you treat customers as you would want to be treated, you will create engaged customers and deeper customer relationships day after day, and build a community of people who remember the special way they were treated.  This is common sense, right?

Well, I have often said that common sense is an uncommon virtue.  Because many companies just don’t get it.  Bad customer experiences are everywhere.

Why is it so special to be treated compassionately and fairly as a customer?  My theory is that some folks providing a product or service feel they are in a momentary position of power.  After all, the customer is coming to buy from them, right?  This feeling of superiority gets worse with less competition, or with related attitudes that occur when a customer has already bought/is locked in.  Think of the struggle getting  your ticket reissued while stranded at an airport, or the endless pitches for useless add-ons at a car dealership.

Here is a neat little article about  L.L. Bean’s  compassionate customer service.

4 Simple Questions that Will Supercharge Your Team’s Effectiveness

8989977702What if there were one thing you could do, based on four simple questions, that would take only a bit of effort and an hour or two a week

and would increase the performance of your team by 25%?

Well…there is.   Lead your team to conduct After Action Reviews, or event debriefs.

In a recently published meta-analysis of available data on debriefs (Hum Factors. 2013 Feb;55(1):231-45), researchers reported that, on average, debriefs improved effectiveness by 25%.  On Average.  That means for some individuals and teams, the effect was greater.  

Here is a link to the article.

Debriefs have long been a central practice for high risk professions such as military aviators.  More recently, the use of debriefs (and checklists as a way to preserve lessons and improve performance) have begun to revolutionize performance in the medical and surgical professions.   ( A really great read on the improvements brought by checklists in the surgical profession is Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto:  How to Get Things Right ).

One way to approach debriefs, patterned loosely on the Army’s After Action Review process, is lead you team (assembled together for the purpose!) to consider four simple questions.

1.  What was supposed to happen?

2.  What went well?

3.  What didn’t go well?

4.  What do we want to do differently next time?

Pretty simple process:  Identify significant events with learning potential – large AND small events.  Take an hour with your team to debrief.  Maybe have a person outside the team facilitate.  Get everyone to participate. Write the results down and use the lessons to modify or create a process/checklist.

Why, in this age of information abundance and advanced management theories is such a powerful tool often unused?  Lots of reasons, but perhaps looking backward is just not what high-achievers naturally do.  Perhaps we think that the lessons are clear and that a discussion of them is not needed.  Perhaps it seems difficult to debrief difficult experiences without controversy.

Positive events matter – you want to debrief positive events as much as possible, since understanding what we do well is a wonderful template for repeating success.

Push through this, make it part of your culture.  You will create openness, transparency, and begin to build a learning organization. You will be amazed at the sense of progress and hope it brings into your team, and how quickly team performance accelerates.

And you will wonder why you waited so long to start.