Gain Competitive Advantage Through Servant Leadership

Twitter continues to amaze me as a way to connect with interesting people from all over.  Months ago, I met Bill Flint and we began a conversation.  Bill is the founder and CEO of Flint Strategic Partners based in Indiana.

Recently, Bill poured his thirty-eight years of business experience into a book on one of my favorite subjects:  servant leadership.  Bill sees servant leadership as a way to distinguish a company.  In fact, the full title of the book sums it up well:  The Journey to Competitive Advantage Through Servant Leadership.servant leadership

I’ve previously written about the characteristics of servant leadership.  Bill’s book includes his own definition and his unique perspective of this type of leadership.

I decided to share a conversation with Bill about his experiences and his work. I liked Bill’s thought that competitive advantage is like a journey, not a destination. And servant leadership is one way to help you on the path.

Bill, your book is filled with wisdom and information for developing leaders.  Let’s focus on just a few areas.

If you want to be a great leader, you need to watch out for certain temptations.  You share six areas servant leaders need to guard against.  Walk us through these areas and why they can trip up aspiring leaders.

  1. Self-Centeredness: Is when the most important person in your life is yourself. All of us struggle with self-centeredness at times. We are born selfish. A good example is to put a couple of two year olds in one room with one toy and you will see it in action. As a leader, self-centeredness says to your people, “It’s all about me, my accomplishments, my title, and you are here to serve me.” Leaders never really fool their people as they can see right through us. Self-centeredness can destroy the chance leaders have for real meaningful relationships with their people and for achieving the results the business needs. People don’t expect perfect leaders, but they want leaders who are real and care about them.
  2. Sense of Entitlement: Is when you believe because you have a title you are special and should be treated differently than others. You are #1 in your own mind.  Servant leaders put their people first. They realize people (the ones who do the work every day) are entitled to have a leader who will lead them with honesty, caring, integrity and encouragement. A sense of entitlement usually leads to destruction. Just ask the Enron executives and Dennis Kozlowski former CEO of Tyco and so many others who have fallen into the “it’s all about me” trap.
  3. Motives: can be driven by both good and evil. They drive us to make decisions and actions that impact others and ourselves. The motivations that drive us are as varied as the people with whom we interact. Servant leaders are motivated to impact the lives of those they have been called to lead.  They desire to help their people discover and reach their potential. They know to accomplish this they will need to build relationships with their people by listening, teaching, coaching, inspiring and helping them grow. Servant leaders understand their role as a leader is to grow both their people and the bottom line. It’s not either or.
  4. Seeing Success as Something You Achieved: In spite of what many leaders may think as they move up the corporate ladder, we never achieve anything in life by ourselves. Success has many partners. As I look at my own life and career, I can see the faces of so many who walked with me on my journey. My wife, for example, who sacrificed so much so I could travel and pour my time into people’s lives. The real trouble starts when you start thinking you are the smartest person in the room and you achieved everything by yourself and that the failures and struggles in your life were always caused by others. When you start thinking this way, it’s time for you to get ready for the fall.
  5. Don’t Take it Personally: In business and life many things will not go as we planned.  People will get hurt by our decisions, your team fails at something, people won’t listen to you, you cannot help those who don’t want to be helped, or people blame you for some actions or results. But learning to not take it personally is key to being a successful leader.  We must remember we are not perfect. Don’t get defensive because that can make situation worse. Learn from the mistakes and ask what you would do differently. Leaders are called to make tough decisions and most will impact people. We need to make sure when we make those tough decisions we do so with care and an understanding of what people will be going through. Servant leaders try to always treat people with dignity and respect no matter the circumstances.
  6. Letting the Noise Get to You: Being a servant leader can be overwhelming at times. Leading people the right way, making tough decisions and trying to balance everything in our lives can bring us to a point of exhaustion and to our knees. It does us no good to pour our lives into people’s lives as we watch our own family and life destruct. There will be times we need to take a break and get away from it all and let our mind and body catch up with our purpose and rediscover what is really important to us.Flint Servant Leadership at leaderfest

Listening is something I’m really working on this year.  Why is listening so important?  How do you become a better listener?

To become a good listener requires discipline and control. We think that as leaders we must have all the answers and control situations which cause us to talk way too much. Listening says to people, “I care about you; you are important, and I want to know your thoughts and ideas. I want to get to know you.” My wife taught me I’m so much smarter when I just listen to her and don’t try and fix everything for her. It’s amazing how smart we seem to others when we use our time to listen. I became a smarter leader by listening to my people. I leaned how smart they really were.

Let’s turn to Human Resources.  I’m a big supporter of HR and particularly value HR’s input into business decisions.  I was nodding my head when I read your chapter on HR.  How should a leader view HR?

In most companies, especially the small to mid-sized companies, the HR professional wears many hats and most have a real feel for the people issues the company is facing.  If we as leaders dismiss what our HR people tell us about morale, about which leaders and managers need training and about what we should be doing with our people strategy, then we miss out on information that can make a major difference to our people and our results. HR should be at the table with all the other executives involved in strategy and major decisions.  In business we say, “Sales is the voice of the customer,” then, “HR is the voice of the people.”  Nothing happens in business that doesn’t involve or impact people, which means we better listen to our HR professionals or pay the price later.

You don’t mince words when you identify “counterfeit servant leaders.”  Give an example of a counterfeit leader.

Simply put, people are not important to a “counterfeit servant leader.” They think people can easily be replaced and are lazy. When I was president of a manufacturing company in Wisconsin, I would take plant tours with the plant managers. When we would walk by the machines and talk to the people, the plant manager would always smile and talk with the people. I could tell right away by people’s reaction if this was normal. If I saw people roll their eyes at the leader or barely speak to him I knew this was a counterfeit leader acting friendly and trying to impress me. Leadership is about people. A leader’s # 1 priority is to help their people grow as people. Counterfeit leaders do terrible harm to people and the company.

You talk about five leadership styles starting with an unofficial leader and the highest is a servant leader.  When you meet a servant leader, what do you notice first about him or her?

They talk about their people in very positive terms. They talk about “we” not “I” when giving credit for accomplishments.  They spend lots of time with their people listening to their ideas, struggles and issues. They build relationships with their people so they can understand their people’s potential, their skills and what motivates them. If a leader doesn’t understand the diversity of their people, they will end up leading generically, putting everyone in the same box. Servant leaders are in the trenches with their people, not hiding out in an office complaining about how much work they have to do because their people are lazy. Servant leaders “do life with their people.” People really are the most important thing to servant leaders in their leadership role.Bill_Flint_Photograph_-_12-10-10_-_smaller

How does servant leadership create competitive advantage?

In business your competitors can buy the same type of building, equipment and raw materials you have, chase the same markets and customers, and hire similar people. What is hard to duplicate is a group of servant leaders who understand that the people who come to work every day are the only true competitive advantage—the  people who bring their skills, personalities, talents, innovative ideas and desire to be part of something bigger than themselves. Servant leaders know how to build an environment of mutual trust and respect between leaders and their people—how to nurture that talent and help their people discover and reach their potential.  They build a sense of team, set expectations and hold themselves and the people accountable for the results. They see leadership as a calling and not as a job. It truly is about leaders who understand that leadership is about serving the people who implement the strategy, build the products or provide the services to your customers. That’s what builds a true competitive advantage.


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