Why Servant Leadership Requires Humility

Ken Blanchard is to leadership development as Bill Belichick is to football and as Oprah Winfrey is to media. He thinks big thoughts, innovates with big ideas, and does it all in a way that makes you say to yourself “Well, of course. That makes perfect sense.”

By any measure, Blanchard is one of the world’s most influential leadership experts. He’s co-author of the iconic bestseller The New One Minute Manager and more than five dozen other books that have been translated into 42 languages. In addition to heading his international training and consulting firm, Blanchard is co-founder of Lead Like Jesus, a global ministry dedicated to helping people become servant leaders.

Among Blanchard’s most recent books is Servant Leadership in Action, which he edited with his colleague Renee Broadwell. It’s a collection of insightful essays by thought leaders including Marshall Goldsmith, Brené Brown, Stephen M.R. Covey, Jim Kouzes, Simon Sinek, Cheryl Bachelder, and nearly 40 others.

I visited with Ken to explore his thinking on servant leadership.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Much of your work focuses on servant leadership. Some people misconstrue that to mean an abdication of responsibility. At its core, what does servant leadership really mean, and what are its benefits?

Ken Blanchard: The reason some people think servant leadership means an abdication of responsibility is that they don’t understand the two aspects of servant leadership: Vision/direction, which is the leadership aspect of servant leadership; and implementation, which is the servant aspect of servant leadership.

Leadership is about going somewhere. All good leadership starts with a visionary role—the leadership aspect of servant leadership. This includes setting goals and establishing a compelling vision, which gives people a sense of direction. Once people are clear on where they’re going, the leader’s role shifts to a service mindset for the task of implementation—the servant aspect of servant leadership. This is where leaders turn the hierarchical pyramid upside down to serve their people and help them live according to the vision and accomplish the established goals.

To me, servant leadership is the only way to guarantee both great relationships and great results.

Duncan: How can people with a “command and control” background be helped to catch the vision of servant leadership?

Ken Blanchard

Blanchard: When I ask people whether they’d like to be known as a servant leader or a self-serving leader, everyone says “servant leader.” Nobody wants to be known as a self-serving leader. Yet we observe self-serving leadership all the time. Why? The human ego.

Ego interferes with effective leadership in two ways: one is false pride—thinking more of yourself than you should. You push and shove for credit and spend a lot of time promoting yourself. The other way is self-doubt fear—thinking less of yourself than you should. You’re consumed with your own shortcomings and spend a lot of time protecting yourself. The foundation for both false pride and self-doubt is low self-esteem. The good news is that there’s an antidote!

The antidote for false pride is humility. People who are humble have solid self-esteem. It’s been said “they don’t think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less.” We have choices every day as we interact with other people. Humility tames our judgmental nature and motivates us to support and encourage others.

The antidote for self-doubt and fear is love. Do you have kids? Do you love them? Sure you do. Does this love depend on their success? Of course not—you love them unconditionally. What if you accepted that unconditional love for yourself? You can’t control enough, sell enough, make enough money, or have a high enough position to get any more love. You have all the love you need. All you have to do is open yourself to it.

Duncan: You have often written about the importance of feedback. What specific behaviors have you found helpful in creating relationships where feedback is offered candidly, accepted gratefully, and acted upon promptly and proactively?

Blanchard: The problem is that too many people want to confront before they connect. Years ago, I was teaching a course at a business school when a new dean arrived. He started making all kinds of top-down decisions without faculty participation. Some of the faculty leaders confronted him about his behavior, but none of them had any real connection with him. He essentially threw each of them out of his office in turn.

You need to have a relationship with a person if you want them to accept your feedback. Building a relationship is like putting money in the bank. When you give someone feedback, it draws something from your interpersonal bank account with them. I agreed with the direction the dean wanted to take the school but was concerned about his decision-making style. I decided since I didn’t have any position power with him, I’d better build up my bank account before talking with him about the negative impact his style was having.

One day when I saw him in the hallway, I mentioned I was working on a paper and asked if I could pick his brain for writing tips since he was a well-known author. He agreed. When we met, he had lots of helpful ideas. Toward the end of our second meeting, he said, “Ken, how do you think we should deal with some of the jerks in this school?” The key word in that sentence was “we.” Now I knew I had some money in my interpersonal bank account with the dean—personal power—so I felt free to suggest that a change in his style might help. I knew he’d listen without getting defensive.

Duncan: Managing time and focus is a challenge faced by every leader. What’s your advice on how to distinguish between “important” matters and “urgent” matters, and how to give appropriate attention to each?

Blanchard: Dr. Norman Vincent Peale taught me we all have two selves—one is external and task-oriented and the other is internal, thoughtful, and reflective. If you let your task-oriented self rule, you might accomplish a lot but you won’t lead a very fulfilling life. You’ll be so busy doing urgent but unimportant tasks, you won’t have time to think about your more important goals.

So how do you focus on things that are important to you, instead of rushing to do urgent but meaningless tasks? It begins with the way you start your day. I like to enter my day slowly and thoughtfully. If I know it might be a challenging day, I’ll read my personal mission statement and my values and then decide how I want to be that day. Do whatever works for you to reflect on your upcoming day. Some folks exercise, read, or meditate. It doesn’t need to take much time.

At the end of the day, I write in my journal. If you don’t want to do that, just think about your day for a few minutes. If you were consistent with who you want to be, give yourself a One Minute Praising. And if you got off track a little, give yourself a gentle One Minute Re-Direct. Soon you’ll spot your own positive and negative patterns and be able to move toward your long-term goals.

Spending time with my thoughtful self keeps me focused on the important people and things in my life. I urge you to give it a try.

Duncan: How can a leader help team members have clarity on expectations and accountability?

Blanchard: Open communication between leaders and direct reports is key. All good performance begins with clear goals—so start with clear expectations about exactly what people need to achieve, and by when. Create a crystal clear picture of what a good job looks like, and remember to check for understanding.

Helping people stay accountable is easy if you hold one-on-one meetings. We recommend you meet with each of your direct reports every two weeks for 15 to 30 minutes. You schedule the meeting but the direct report sets the agenda. One-on-ones give each person an opportunity to talk with you about anything they choose—work goals, family, performance issues, etc. It’s their meeting. One-on-ones create genuine relationships and build trust between you and each direct report—and where there’s trust, there’s accountability.

Duncan: The more attention paid to a behavior, the more it will be repeated. What are some good ways to increase productivity by accentuating the positive and redirecting the negative?

Blanchard: This is what the philosophy of The One Minute Manager® is all about. The First Secret of The One Minute Manager is One Minute Goals. Once people are clear on goals, an effective One Minute Manager wanders around trying to catch people doing things right so they can deliver a One Minute Praising—the Second Secret. If a person isn’t performing as well as agreed upon, a One Minute Re-Direct—the Third Secret—is appropriate to point them in the right direction. When effective One Minute Managers deliver praisings and re-directs, they are working for their people to help them win—accomplish their goals.

Duncan: You’ve said there’s nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals. What are the implications of that when a leader needs to coach people to adhere to a uniform set of performance standards?

Blanchard: Thanks for giving me credit for that quote, Rodger—but I believe Aristotle said that first. He was a few years before my time, but I agree with him!

We emphasize the need for leaders to not only use different strokes for different folks, but also use different strokes for the same folks on different tasks and goals. Let me explain.

Everyone is at different development levels on their various tasks and goals. Therefore, they need varying degrees of direction and support from their manager to be successful. For example, if a direct report is new to a task, they need to know exactly how to do it—which requires strong direction from their leader. When the same person is doing a task they know by heart, the leader can use a delegating style. If the person is somewhere in between on other tasks, the manager adjusts the mix of direction and support to match the person’s development level.

When a manager matches their leadership style to a person’s development level on a specific task, they can give that person the right amount of direction and support they need at any given time. This approach helps direct reports develop the skills they need to succeed while it increases productivity and brings results. It’s a win/win/win!

Duncan: As you well know, many organizations are lacking in good leadership training. Moreover, a surprising number of people get no leadership training (if at all) until long after they’ve been placed in leadership roles. If no training is made available by their organization, what can individual contributors do to help prepare themselves for future leadership opportunities?

Blanchard: If no training is available, new and aspiring managers should seek out a mentor—someone who has done the job before with success. Once you’ve identified a potential mentor, meet with that person. Find out if they’re a good match in values and personality so that your conversations will flow. Then agree on what it is you want to accomplish, how you want to achieve it, and when, where, and how often you’ll meet.

Most mentor-mentee relationships are win-win, with both parties gaining from the experience. It’s worth the time it takes—the right mentor may save you from making mistakes that could set your career back years.

This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor.

Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.
Rodger Dean Duncan

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