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More light on the paradox

By Laurent Leduc
Illustration: Susanna Denti


The paradoxical notion of "leader as servant" by US essayist and consultant Robert Greenleaf is based on the belief that service to others is essential to human nature. Servant-leaders exist anywhere in organizations. The key is to live this approach within your sphere of influence. In April 2002 ("A paradox illuminated"), we looked at the listening, empathy and healing characteristics of servant-leadership. Here we will examine three other characteristics: persuasion, awareness and foresight.

Heather was a new principal at Fern Valley School where the emphasis was on cleanliness. But, no matter how hard teachers tried, students would not follow instructions to pick up trash in the schoolyard. This failure to get students to comply challenged their authority. After listening to the teachers' complaints, Heather observed the situation and offered a solution. "Don't tell students to pick up garbage. Don't coerce them, threaten them or admonish them," she told teachers. "Simply pick up the garbage yourself and watch what happens." Some were not willing to do this; others were game. Heather made suggestions without pressure or expectation. But when she passed through the schoolyard, she'd pick up the trash — without saying a word.

The most powerful form of persuasion is through example. Don't tell others what you expect. Work toward what you'd like to see, or as Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." A leader steps out to show the way. That doesn't mean he or she doesn't talk about it. Yet, often such conversations follow the act of physically leading — in this case, stooping to pick up the garbage. If anyone asked Heather what she was doing or why, she was more than happy to tell them.

Heather avoided using her authority to bring cleanliness into the schoolyard. She understood coercion and manipulation, which may work to stop or destroy something, does not work to create something new and enduring. As a servant-leader she worked through influence, example and moral authority. Her way of persuading had become a consensus building with teachers and students making choices to co-create the school.

We can increase our awareness of the world through keeping our senses fine-tuned. Serving-leadership involves awareness of two realms: the external world and self-awareness. We are not always fully cognizant of our unawareness, in either realm.

George had been director of purchasing for Clayborn Ceramics International, a national distributor of floor tile, for the past eight years. The architectural sales group had been carping for a while about the fact their designer clients were screaming for colour in Clayborn's offering of stocked product. Traditionally, the company stocked conservative colours — grays, whites and beiges. Meeting after meeting, when purchasing introduced new products, sales reps would ask: "Why didn't you buy and stock the red or blue or green in this manufacturer's line? Why only boring colours?" George had a simple reply: "That's what the boss and I decided."

Although the reps repeatedly asked,  George didn't hear them. His purchasing decisions were determined by historic sales and grays, whites and beiges sold well in the past; strong colours did poorly. Why buy colours that do not sell? Why waste the warehouse space? George's world was sound, logical and impenetrable. But one day at lunch with the reps, George really heard what the reps were telling him: the strong colours were used as accent colours for borders and designs, which was less than 10% of the total floor area. However, if Clayborn didn't stock these colours, the designers would not buy any of the line. And that meant losing market share.

George believed he was limiting sales by stocking only the big mover colours, that there was a direct connection between strong colour availability and total product-line sales. Once he had made this connection, he was able to hear the sales department's refrain for strong colours.

Our perceptual capacity is opened when we allow our mental models to be vulnerable to questions and disconnects.

The ability to see what the future holds is easy to learn. It involves remembering the past, grounding in the reality of the present and an intuitive sense of the likely consequences of any given decision for the future. Foresight is the "lead" a leader has. It is more than guessing what will be.

As a professional engineer, Colin  had worked his way to the position of president at Dynaflow Corp., a firm that specialized in the manufacture and distribution of in-line flow meters. He was well liked by employees and customers, and he often accompanied the salespeople in a supportive technical role throughout his 15 years with the company.

The company's founder, Cecil, was an inventor who prided himself on building an organization of innovators who were close to their customers. Employees listened to their market and responded with enterprising solutions in a timely fashion. The sales team complimented Dynaflow's imaginative edge by providing excellent service — an emphasis modeled by Cecil when he was on the road.

The product development department designed a new flow meter that was taking the market by storm. Customers saw it as a breakthrough in engineering, overcoming many of the problems posed by traditional metering instruments. The company's sales soared and deliveries were stretched. Production was cranked up and sales did its best to respond to the increase in inquiries. As revenue shot up, profit followed and with it profit-sharing bonuses also rose. Things had never been this rosy.

However, Colin was uneasy. He was worried about the unprecedented growth: rapidly expanding manufacturing, increased supplier costs, ever-lengthening deliveries, reduced sales coverage and increased quality problems. There was a host of secondary challenges in training new people in areas that were already under stress. Also troubling was the fact that long-time loyal clients were not getting the usual sales coverage or the expected response to their needs. The development engineers were too busy sorting out the bottlenecks in manufacturing.

After much reflection on the reasons the company existed and the operating philosophy that made it a leader in its field, Colin decided on four things. First, he scaled back expansion plans; then he limited sales on the new meter through price increases and long deliveries; third, he refocused on their traditional customer base; and last, he instituted a quality improvement program in manufacturing. He called a meeting with employees, voicing his concerns. He restated the firm's purpose, mission and values and he asked for feedback from the employees.

Foresight allows a leader to make decisions when rational options are still available. Leaders operating with insufficient foresight are beyond those options. They are so far down the road to disaster that they can only choose from a range of bad options. Servant-leaders drawing on their capacity for foresight do not usually find themselves in a position where problems demand to be solved. Instead, they make the tough decisions while in a position where problems are dissolved. It's for this reason that their leadership often goes unnoticed.

Beyond the characteristics discussed here and the three illustrated previously, there are four characteristics completing the servant-leader profile: the ability to dream big dreams, commitment to people's growth, stewardship and community building. These will be addressed in a future article. Servant-leadership is an old idea born in the business mind of a reflective individual. Greenleaf's interest was in motives: why do people do as they do? Under what conditions does their spirit thrive? What organizational structures or processes interfere with their natural desire to serve?

If actions flow from self-appropriated motives, they are more likely to persist even when no one is looking. Behaviours that arise authentically and spontaneously from internally sponsored reasons, desires and commitments are more likely to be sustained than those exhibited in compliance to external expectations, whatever their source. And that's why servant-leadership works.

Laurent Leduc, PhD, is a Toronto-based consultant and interim executive director of Greenleaf Canada Institute

Technical Editor: Peter Jackson, CA, is a Toronto-based consultant

A paradox illuminated, by Laurent Leduc and Peter Jackson, CAmagazine, April 2002

Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership

Reflections on Robert K. Greenleaf and servant-leadership