How Servant Leaders Achieve Better Results
Recent studies show that only about 20 percent of workers understand their company’s mission and goals. Only 21 percent say they would “go the extra mile.” Less than 40 percent believes senior leaders communicate openly and honestly.
Today many feel that they are over-managed and under-led.
Jude Rake has over 35 years leading high-performance teams. He is the founder and CEO of JDR Growth Partners, a leadership consulting firm.
I’ve written and spoken about servant leadership all over the world. And so I read with great interest Jude’s new book, The Bridge to Growth: How Servant Leaders Achieve Better Results and Why It Matters Now More Than Ever and asked him to share some of his thinking and research with you.
Learn from Pat Summitt
You personally observed Pat Summitt’s leadership and watched her in action at half-time. You saw her growing other leaders, not demanding followership. It was such a powerful example. Would you share that story?
Several years ago when I was COO at a large consumer products company, we needed a keynote speaker for our annual marketing and sales meeting. Given that our company was a big sponsor of NCAA women’s college basketball, we decided to invite Pat Summitt to be our keynote speaker.
Pat inspired everyone with her energy and her famous “Definite Dozen Leadership Traits for On and Off the Court Success.” After our meeting at dinner, I shared with Pat that I had coached youth basketball for many years. She graciously took interest and invited me to be a guest coach at a Lady Vols game. I was floored! I took her up on her offer and eventually travelled to Knoxville for an unforgettable weekend.
I knew that Pat was an outstanding coach, and I admired her for her accomplishments, but I had no idea just how good she was at cultivating leaders throughout the Tennessee women’s basketball program. From the moment I stepped onto that campus, everything was executed with excellence. I soon learned that I would be shadowing Pat. I discovered firsthand why so many recruits chose the Lady Vols program, and why so many former players and coaches use terms of endearment when recalling Pat Summitt’s influence on their lives.
Game day was quite a production, from pre-game activities to post-game reception. Anyone who watched Pat from the sidelines might expect her to lead everything with an iron fist. It was quite the opposite. Pat was clearly orchestrating everything . . . but the entire weekend appeared to be executed by everyone but Pat. She had done most of her leading and coaching in practice. The assistant coaches and players stepped up to the plate time and again, as did her administrative support staff. They took turns leading, and they collaboratively leaned on each other’s strengths to elevate performance throughout game day activities.
During the game, we sat immediately behind Pat and the team. At halftime the Lady Vols were trailing. We went into the locker room with the team. Pat was not there. I watched as the players—by themselves—took turns facilitating a brainstorming session about what had worked well and what needed improvement. Then they presented their analysis to the assistant coaches for input and guidance. Clearly, these players and assistant coaches had been trained well. They knew what to do without being micro-managed. Finally, Pat joined the team, and the players and assistant coaches collectively presented their conclusions. Pat succinctly graded their performance and assessments, added her own personal evaluation, and they aligned on an action plan for the second half. Everyone had led at some point. They leaned on each other’s strengths and focused on the biggest opportunities for improvement. They debated vigorously and respectfully. Ownership was achieved. There was no lecture or screaming. Half-time ended with a quintessential Pat Summitt inspirational call to heightened intensity and hustle, and the team went out and kicked their opponents’ behinds!
For me, this was an impressive example of a leader growing leaders and difference-makers, not just demanding followership. Pat Summitt showed us that leaders can be demanding, passionate, and ultra-competitive, yet still focus a significant amount of their time, energy, and empathy on the development of leaders at all levels of their organization. It’s what fueled her unprecedented results at Tennessee, and it’s the most important thing leaders do.
How to Build a Team
Talk about the strategy to build a team where the sum is more powerful and impactful than the parts.
Individuals play the game, but teams beat the odds. Full disclosure: I borrowed that saying from the US Navy Seals, an organization I respect and admire. The best leaders surround themselves with the most talented people they can possibly find, and they are secure enough to hire people who are better than they are in key areas of responsibility. Most importantly, they build high-performing cross-functional teams with complementary skills that augment and fuel each others’ strengths and offset or at least mitigate weaknesses.
Building a high performance team is as much art as it is science. The best leaders think like engineers and “feel” like artists. Teams are a lot like living, breathing organisms that respond to many variables that leaders must persistently tinker with and balance. These variables should be attended to as vigorously as a master gardener who weeds, fertilizes, waters, and prunes a garden. The old days of promoting people onto teams based entirely on relationships or individual results are over. Of course, results matter . . . but how results are achieved matters more than ever, because we know that tapping into individual behavioral preferences and core values to create team synergy can make all the difference.
We all have individual strengths that enable us to perform certain roles and tasks more comfortably and better than others. Members of higher performing teams learn to lean on one another’s strengths to synergistically achieve a higher level of performance than could be achieved by operating individually or in silos. They also understand that differences challenge assumptions, and assumptions are sometimes blind spots. Unbalanced teams will have more blind spots, more unproductive conflict, and more unforced errors. A great leader needs to constantly assess the balance the team is achieving and orchestrate it proactively.
What’s the best way to build a culture where the consumers and customers matter most? What typically gets in the way of a customer-centric culture?
In many organizations, important decisions are made in conference rooms that do not include seats at the table for the most important people. Consumers and customers are not in the room! Consumer research is occasionally cited to support an opinion or a recommendation, or comments from the field sales force are added to the discussion through a third party, but the focus of most of these conference-room conversations is still directed inward, not outward. Objectivity can be sacrificed, and this can lead to execution that falls short of delighting consumers and maximizing ROI (return on investment).
A leader can shift an organization’s center of gravity by championing consumers and customers throughout the day. It’s not easy because daily corporate demands steal time and energy. Leaders are busy managing stakeholders, handling urgent organizational fire drills, performing administrative duties, reviewing financial performance and projections, and so on. But there is a cause and effect relationship here. Without the former, all of the latter will ultimately suffer.
Most leaders talk about superior customer service and delighting consumers. But when you look deep into their organizations, you see behaviors misaligned with their words. People come to work every morning to the same job with mounting distractions, and it’s easy to lose sight of what is best for the people who buy and use the company’s products and services. It is human nature for workers to bias analysis, decisions, and behavior to self-interest instead of consumer or customer interests.
It’s leadership’s job to align individual, organizational, customer, and consumer interests as much as possible. Complete alignment may never be fully achieved, but it’s a worthy goal. Research suggests that alignment is well below 50 percent in most organizations. The best leaders recognize this reality, and they work tirelessly to close the alignment gap.
It’s important for leaders to get out of the corner office and model the behavior they want their organization to emulate. Ask the penetrating questions that remind your people that consumers and customers matter most. For example, begin every town hall or company-wide meeting with compelling stories about your consumers and customers. Bring the external world inside your company’s walls, and show your people the value your organization adds to society.
The best leaders visit the front lines regularly, particularly when they can add unique value to customer conversations and develop productive relationships with customers and potential partners. They also attend ethnographic research sessions to actually experience their products and services with consumers in their world, real-time and elbow- to-elbow. To be clear, I am not suggesting that leaders should micro-manage or usurp the responsibilities of their marketing and sales teams. I’m recommending that leaders routinely join marketing and sales people in the field in order to become the champion of the customers and consumers they serve. Leaders who follow this advice will ultimately be more informed decision makers when they are back inside the walls of their companies, and they will teach their workforces how to make smarter choices based on market rather than internal needs.
Innovation Springs from Culture
In one chapter, I was struck when you said, “While success is fueled by innovation, success can also stifle innovation.” Talk a little about this and what to do about it.
Winning companies thrive on innovation, and innovation springs from culture.
As a business grows and accumulates resources, leaders often put in place safety processes and practices to avoid mistakes that might undermine the success they’ve achieved. These practices, meant to minimize risk, can become barriers to innovation because the punishment for mistakes overwhelms the rewards for innovation, and then institutional inertia sets in.
Every business needs new ideas to prosper long term. But new ideas are the natural-born enemies of the way things are. I would go so far as to say that there are more barriers to innovation than enablers in every company in the world. In many cases, the barriers are necessary. They are an integral piece of the management puzzle for buttoned-up leaders who attempt to live up to their fiduciary responsibilities with excellence. Examples include the legal function, the budgeting process, the new product development process, monthly operating reviews, and audits. They all serve vital management roles when it comes to managing risk and efficiencies. These important processes and practices help leaders avoid screw-ups. They were created long ago to promote discipline and align resources, increase predictability, and control behavior. These are all worthy imperatives for a business firing efficiently on all cylinders.
But when these forces are out of balance, they can also thwart the behaviors companies need to continuously raise the bar and out-innovate the competition. Big ideas, curiosity, passion, flexibility, outside-the-box thinking, and agility become the enemy. The culture evolves toward management and control more than leadership and innovation.
Leaders must carefully manage this delicate balance because in many companies the forces of inertia can be daunting even to the most courageous and tenacious difference-makers that the leaders depend on to raise the bar. So leaders must do much more than implore their troops to innovate in speeches and newsletters. They need to drive, fuel, and champion innovation as a way of life across their entire organization by building and nurturing a culture that embraces and unleashes it.
I truly believe people take jobs and join companies with an innate desire to creatively solve problems, to make a difference, and to win. How they are greeted and treated by your culture will determine just how much of their ingenuity is accessed and leveraged as part of your workforce. The most important thing leaders can do to drive innovation is cultivate a culture that embraces and nurtures this yearning to create, solve, and contribute to winning.
Leaders have to work hard to build and nurture a culture that shuns unnecessary bureaucracy, fails fast on bad ideas, lowers the cost of experimentation, and focuses precious resources on the highest ROI initiatives. Many successful startups create this kind of culture naturally and often without intention, but maintaining it over the long haul can be just as difficult as renovating an older culture at a mature company. Whatever the state of your company, it takes a lot of heavy lifting to balance the forces that thwart innovation, and cultivate a performance-based culture of innovation that stands the test of time.
Let’s talk about high-EQ leaders. How are they different?
The best leaders invest the time and energy to get inside the heads of the people they are leading. They don’t just follow the golden rule and treat people the way they personally want to be treated. They work hard to understand the formative experiences and motivations of the people they lead, and they try to see the world through the lenses of others. While they lead with unwavering principles and drive, they are agile in their dealings with others because they understand that everybody is motivated by a unique view of the world, grounded in personal, formative experiences.
This does not mean that great leaders are chameleons. Most are quite steady and consistent in their beliefs and practices. But they also have a high level of self-awareness with an acute understanding of how their feelings affect themselves, other people, and their performance. Their unwavering focus on their values and priorities makes them the enemies of politics, infighting, and passive-aggressive behavior. They have a clear sense of where they are headed, and most importantly, why.
Great leaders are driven to put points on the board—not just to achieve goals, but to exceed them. In emotionally intelligent leaders, this motivation is matched by contagious optimism, even in the face of adversity. They consistently raise the performance bar, and they love keeping score and teaming with others to win. They are lifelong learners, and they seek challenges that will both stretch their capacities and strengthen their skill sets. While they take personal pride in their achievements, they also exhibit admirable commitment to their teams and the people they lead.
High EQ leaders foster cultures of trust and fairness and are capable of being vulnerable with the people they lead. They are in touch with their emotions and comfortable discussing feelings. This enables them to deal with ambiguity, change, and even crises with agility because they don’t panic. These are the moments that set them apart. While others retreat toward self-preservation, high EQ leaders suspend judgment, analyze the situation, and draw out the best thinking in their teammates. Their extraordinary ability to self-regulate helps them make tough, principle-based decisions while appreciating the feelings of others, because they avoid confusing empathy with sympathy. This self-regulation also helps them avoid impulsive temptations: sending a powerful message to their teammates that their integrity is unwavering. Ultimately, they bring out the best in others.
Finally, high EQ leaders work diligently to build a solid foundation of relationships with stakeholders, teammates, customers, and partners. These leaders are very good at finding common ground with a broad range of people. They are persuasive and nimble communicators, adjusting their approaches, not their principles, based on the needs of their audience and the situation. In contentious scenarios, they have the keen ability to navigate toward win-win solutions. They can see the gray when most see only black and white. They help others navigate choices that might appear to be either/or into solvable paradoxes. These leaders cultivate healthier organizations because their teammates work to emulate their collaborative and emotionally intelligent role model. They are force-multipliers, and their results are rarely one-hit wonders because talented people flock to them and are inspired to help them build upon their successes.
What does it mean to be over-managed and under-led? How prevalent is this?
Many leaders ascend to ever-increasing levels of influence because they are smart and assertive, and because they deliver good results—and not necessarily because they are great at bringing out the best in other people. Yet leading people becomes increasingly important the higher one ascends. Could this be why so many would-be leaders struggle once they reach senior leadership positions in businesses, schools, governments, churches, and other organizations?
Unfortunately, many organizations treat leadership as though it is an innate ability. Something you’re born with. Something that just happens naturally. While organizations readily invest in teaching their employees routine or requisite skills, they provide little development when it comes to leading people. This is one reason why so many organizations are under-led and over-managed, and why so many people feel disengaged from their organization’s mission and goals.
I’ve been a CEO so I understand that most leaders are inundated with multiple urgent responsibilities that demand their attention and can distract them from things that matter most. It’s easy for leaders to dedicate most of their time and energy to managing the countless fires that always seem to be threatening their organizations. The remainder of their time can be consumed by the need to develop productive relationships with the stakeholders that control resources they need to survive and prosper. Strategy, talent development, nurturing a healthy culture, and building workforce commitment can feel like luxuries appropriate to address only when time permits. Unfortunately, time rarely does permit, and leaders who travel down this well-worn path deliver sub-optimal results while wondering why their workforce doesn’t perform at a higher level. Their workforce is being managed, but it is not being led.
The data is clear on this. Several recent studies by reputable firms such as Gallup, Towers Watson, and Deloitte reveal that only about 20-30 percent of workers today understand their company’s goals and feel truly committed to their company’s success. Their leaders have not fully engaged them in the development and execution of their company’s mission, goals, and strategies to achieve a brighter future.
Apparently, many people are settling for a job that satisfies their basic needs, yet denies them a motivating answer to two important questions: “How does my personal work connect to my company’s goals?” and “How can I help us achieve them?” In these cases, leaders have unfortunately failed to fully engage them. I believe this “commitment gap” represents the largest source of untapped potential to create economic value in our society today.
How can leaders tap into this gap and raise the performance bar? This question matters more now than it ever has. As our world becomes more socially connected, more women progress into leadership roles, and millennials seek more meaning and purpose in their work than previous generations did, the leadership bar is rising. That’s why I believe the principles of servant leadership are becoming more relevant than ever before. Leaders can no longer assume that people will simply do what they are told, and treat them as though they should be happy to have a job.
Servant leaders are not “soft” as some might think. They have a very high performance bar. But they balance high expectations with caring leadership. They inspire the people they lead to raise the bar even higher and achieve extraordinary results by giving them the context and tools they need to drive transformational change. Servant leaders go beyond simply managing their people by focusing relentlessly on moving more of their workforce beyond engagement to having what I call “fire in the belly.” They lead by bringing out the best in others.
Tips to Improve Your Leadership Results
As you talk about these leadership ideas, some take longer than others to implement. Throughout your career, you’ve balanced the short-term goals with the long-term vision. How do leaders stay the course in the world of “immediate results or you’re out”?
Leading is getting harder and harder in every walk of life. Stakeholders demand improved performance and bottom line results faster than ever before. Leadership tenure is shrinking everywhere you look, from CEOs to head coaches to leaders of non-profit organizations, and even at some academic institutions. The pressure for performance continues to rise.
In response, some leaders try to pull the “easy lever” by surrounding themselves with people who agree with them and who always do what they are told. The temptation to fall into this trap is great given the increasing need for fast results, even when the leader knows better. In the heat of battle, while tackling urgent challenges and opportunities, execution is likely to be faster when direct reports fall in line with the wishes of the leader. In the short term, this is always going to be true. However, this can also become a trap which saps an organization of vibrant energy, innovation, commitment, and, ultimately, ownership of results over the longer term. If everyone is merely following and managing up, the leader’s bandwidth limits the entire organization’s ability to grow.
On the flip side, another tempting “easy lever” is to follow the guidance offered by one of the most “liked” calls to action on LinkedIn: “Hire great people and get out of their way.” I think many of the people who “like” this statement are just tired of being micro-managed. However, this is ultimately a dangerous leadership principle because it can translate to an abdication of responsibility. Leadership is a contact sport. Leaders should not be in the way, but they’d better be in the game, arm-in-arm and leading their team.
First and foremost, leaders must be clear that results matter most. But how results are achieved matters too. The balance and transparency in that equation is essential. Next, they must walk the talk in everything they do, showing that the difference between short and long-term results is often not a black or white choice, but a paradox that must be navigated skillfully. The two can live together prosperously, and long-term success does not have to be sacrificed for short-term gain. Of course, having alignment with key stakeholders and a Board of Directors who advocate the right balance is vital.
Over the course of my career, I’ve been an eager student of leadership, and I’ve been fortunate to work with some outstanding leaders. Based on what I have learned, I developed the following blueprint of nine proven leadership principles to strike the right balance and move the people you lead from satisfactorily disengaged to enthusiastically committed to making a difference and winning. You can find more details, tools, and tips about these principles in my book titled The Bridge to Growth: How Servant Leaders Achieve Better Results and Why It Matters Now More Than Ever.
- Grow leaders and difference-makers, not just followers.
- Build and orchestrate synergistic, high performance teams more powerful than the sum of their parts.
- Focus your organization on strategic priorities and simplify operations to accelerate progress.
- Champion the people who purchase and use your products and services.
- Cultivate a performance-based culture of innovation that unleashes the innate desire in the people you lead to solve, create, and contribute to winning.
- Communicate relentlessly to give your workforce the context they need to sign up for and truly commit to achieving company goals.
- See the world through the eyes of others, and your example will breed a healthier organization.
- Be the model you want emulated. Operate transparently, deliver on your promises, and remain steadfastly focused on doing the right things.
- Coach people to achieve more than they thought possible. They need a model of success more than they need a critic. Inspire your entire organization to step up by revealing what success looks like, catching people doing something well, and showing your gratitude publicly.