April 2002 — PRINT EDITION    
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A paradox illuminated

By Laurent Leduc and Peter Jackson

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy — Rabindranath Tagore

Geneviève CôtéThe paradoxical notion of "leader as servant" by US essayist and consultant Robert Greenleaf has been around 30 years and is based on the belief that service to others is essential to human nature. As Indian poet and Nobel laureate Tagore reminds us, we find the meaning of our lives in serving — family, community and those in our professional lives. People who embrace the centrality of service find they need to turn the accepted concept of leadership upside down. The leader no longer asks colleagues and employees, "How can I get you to do what I want?" Rather, the servant-leader asks, "What can I do to enable you to do what you need to do?" Such a shift in thinking has huge implications for relationships within organizations.

One of the great ironies of our age is that we have created organizations designed to constrain our "problematic human natures." Today's task is to save these organi-zations precisely by freeing the expansive and creative potential locked inside. In Canada, large bureaucracies typically have the most to gain by unleashing these creative energies.

Organizations, Greenleaf continually emphasized, are our means for getting things done.

The leadership task is to enable the creativity of our natural human capital within organizations to reveal, express and apply itself to the fulfillment of the organizational task. If we, through our organizations, can make gains both in effectiveness and profitability through the unleashing of human potential, we gain fulfillment. People like having their creative ideas heard, debated and used and will respond generously. That fulfillment sets the stage for the second round of creative expression, application and a self-reinforcing cycle of total value creation.

Servant-leaders can exist anywhere within organizations. The key is to exercise this different approach within your sphere of influence. Listening, empathizing and healing are three important characteristics of this approach.

Listening is important, but even more important is listening in a way that demonstrates you have understood and your new understanding makes a difference. How can a leader in a group or organization demonstrate openness to those who are in contact with product, customers, suppliers and other employees?

Ralph, the newly appointed CEO of Nash International Inc. (not its real name), wanted to institute a suggestion plan, but employees laughed. A few years earlier, a suggestion box had been introduced but employees found their suggestions would simply enter a void — no response, good or bad, was ever made. On investigating, Ralph learned some employees had used the box to vent frustration. Management eventually tired of the complaints and abandoned the plan. Everyone was disappointed and any creative ideas to improve processes and better serve clients were lost.

Ralph did three things.

First, he listened to the frustrations by engaging people in informal ways about their work, their challenges and their difficulties. Being new to the organization, he put himself in the position of a learner. His motto was simple: listen, learn, build. And he did not hesitate to remind others of this.

Second, he set up a separate system for concrete suggestions. Suggestions could be made by an individual or a group and would be acknowledged within 30 days. If a suggestion was made anonymously, it was acknowledged by a bulletin board posting. The acknowledgement would include plans for debating the merits of the suggestion and a date by which a decision was expected.

Third, and most important, Ralph paid attention to the inevitable gripes that found their way into the suggestion box. While the suggestions were not concrete, they were important data revealing obstacles to organizational effectiveness and, consequently, profitability. The frustrations were also posted on the bulletin board, inviting individuals or groups to help clarify the root of the frustration.  He invited those voices to translate their frustrations into concrete suggestions.

Through this process, the organization demonstrated it was serious about suggestions, understanding their merits and updating the person or group with respect to the suggestion. The process often included additional questions and the involvement of those offering the suggestion. Sometimes a suggestion would invite other, even opposing, opinions. If a suggestion was rejected, the reasons for the rejection were given.

The point is those putting ideas forward were respected for doing so. Their ideas were given consideration and this encouraged them to continue thinking creatively about how best to build products and serve clients.

A decade or so ago, there was an organizational movement called management by walking around, or MBWA. The idea was for the leader of an organization to show his or her face on the shop floor, the customer service area, the shipping dock or the accounting office and interact with employees. To some extent it was a feel good thing — employees liked the attention and the CEO showed concern about those things employees dealt with in their day-to-day work.

MBWA was an attempt to move beyond the self-imposed restrictions of the boss's corner office. It allowed the leader to encounter the complexity of the workplace. It was the beginning of empathy.

But MBWA too easily degenerates into glad-handing — the slap on the back, "attaboy/attagirl" award. Real empathy is walking in the shoes of the employees as they face the daily trials and challenges of their work.

Duca Enterprises Inc. (not its real name), an international company, asked its new training manager, Laurie, to institute a sales training program across its 10 Canadian branches and expand that program into its international offices. Laurie reviewed a broad range of proven sales courses but was not satisfied they met the requirements. Did she even know what the real requirements were?

The first task was to find out how the world looked from the perspective of the sales team. Laurie could have interviewed the sales team and collected some excellent data on its daily challenges but she took a more radical approach: she asked to work alongside the team for a month.

The first hurdle was to build trust. "Why are you here? What is your purpose?" salespeople asked. "My job is to make your job easier, less frustrating and more fun," Laurie told them. "I want to accompany you in your daily work, experience your challenges, and get a real sense of how the business works from your vantage point. I need you to tell me what you need in terms of professional development." Who could argue with that? But trust had to be earned and the best way to do that was to respect the distrust, rigorously guard confidentiality and engage in conversations initiated by naive questions.

Laurie's "work with" approach allowed a level of engagement not possible in a conventional needs analysis that relies on detached observation. She knew from experience that engagement enables insight. Her approach brought sales team issues into the forefront and brought into focus sales management issues that needed attention. Empathy allowed her to get at the heart of issues and bridge over to significant correlative issues. All things are connected and "work with" strategies bring those connections into bold relief allowing for a systems approach to organizational effectiveness.

In the end, the empathic work with approach resulted in a comprehensive sales training initiative that included executive development in sales and marketing. It also gave Laurie insights into the learning needs of Nash's product development and purchasing departments.

Healing is the process of making people whole. Healing recognizes that people's organizational lives are not isolated from their larger existence as members of families, groups and communities. Service appeals to people in their entirety. The desire to serve evokes their energies and capacities. If our capacity to serve is diminished in one realm of life, it will affect our ability to serve in the other realms — including the organizational realm.

StoneWorks Distribution Inc. (not its real name) runs a distribution centre where stock pickers fulfill client contractor orders as they wait. Speed and accuracy are critical. Petra, the new vice-president of operations, asked about the high number of complaints regarding contractors having to wait an unreasonable amount of time for their orders. They wanted to be on the job, not hanging around the warehouse. Also, absenteeism was higher than the company average. What Petra heard was stock pickers are run off their feet and experience high levels of stress.

After some discreet inquiries, Petra found that stock pickers' biggest complaint was the difficulty of attending to personal matters during work hours, because of inadequate phone access. When personal matters had to be attended to, they had a choice: sneak around to use the shipping office phone (which was against the rules) or take a day's sick leave. Those that broke the rule tied up the shipping office phone and left the contractor waiting. Others took the simple way out and called in sick.

Stock pickers are people too, reasoned Petra. Sometimes they have sick children, a mortgage to renew or dental appointments to make. They cannot be expected to ignore those responsibilities. By failing to provide access to a phone, StoneWorks had been setting in motion an interesting series of events that resulted in fearful employees, absenteeism, breach of rules and slow or inconsistent service.

The solution was simple: mount a telephone in a private yet visible location in the warehouse where employees can make important personal calls to fulfill their spectrum of service activities. Employees responded by giving more loyalty to the company, absenteeism dropped, customers were served and employees felt honoured and respected.

Petra's holistic approach recognized that employees are able to act as employees and do their tasks of serving clients by virtue of their larger connections with family and community and that these also require their attention. In most instances, such shared loyalties can be accommodated without one set of loyalties impinging on another. Indeed, the recognition of shared loyalties helped to reinforce loyalties in other domains of service.

The healing characteristic of servant-leadership recognizes that employees have multiple contexts in which they serve. As a servant-leader, Petra ensured that such multidimensional service opportunities were granted. By doing so, StoneWorks' employees felt they were respected, reinforcing their obligation to serve client contractors.

Servant-leader conversations
Other related characteristics of servant-leaders, besides listening, empathizing and healing, include the use of persuasion rather than coercion; awareness and self-awareness; foresight through systems thinking; the ability to dream big dreams; commitment to people's growth; stewardship and trusteeship; and community building.

While in the past few years organizations and their leaders have seen the benefits of treating employees well and attending to their needs, too often such employee-related programs and policies are an overlay on the existing hierarchical structure. They mask the actual structure of command and control deeply embedded in the organization. But no one is really fooled.

Servant-leadership shows us how to move beyond the concept of the organization as a command and control system. It starts with the idea that employees are complex human beings who want to serve in a meaningful way. They have hopes and dreams they want to realize through their natural desire to serve. And organizations can be designed and led in ways that allow employees to fulfill them through their service capacities.

Servant-leadership shifts the task of leaders. They now become responsible for inventing organizational forms that help people realize complex hopes and dreams in multiple ways and dimensions.

In summary, servant-leadership recognizes the best way to encourage people to give their utmost in organizations is to appear to care for them, and the best way to do that is to actually care. Through such demonstrations, servant-leadership is inspired, evoked and enacted across our organization and to the community beyond.

Laurent Leduc, director of programs, Leadership Horizons, established the Certificate in Social Responsibility in partnership with the Continuing Education Division, University of St. Michael's College and the Conference Board of Canada. He can be reached at .

Peter Jackson, CA, is an independent consultant in Toronto. He is also CAmagazine's Technical Editor for Control.