In the last post, we talked a little bit about what servant leadership looks like. Being others-focused is the most fundamental characteristic of servant leaders. Admittedly, this others-focused mentality is a little bit like motherhood and apple pie. I have yet to find anyone that argues that it is not right to be focused on others.
Most people accept that being others-focused is a superb ideal, but I often hear that the mindset does not work in the real world. Perhaps we have tacitly or even actively agreed that "It's a dog-eat-dog world." While servant leadership sounds good in theory, frankly, it is far more natural for us to look out for number one. After all, if we don't, who will?
While servant leadership has been gaining in acceptance and practice for the last three decades, it is still a relatively fringe approach to leading organizations in America. For the most part, leadership in our companies, ministries, cities, non-profits, and families is still based in the hierarchical structures of command and control. This top-down approach has worked for decades, right?
In his book "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't" author Jim Collins and his research team did a deep dive into what made organizations able to leap from being a solidly performing company to an industry leader over a sustained period. Collins and his team used a strict data-based approach, scouring the financial performance of the 1,435 companies that outperformed the general stock market price by at least 25% for at least 15 years. Those are the "Good" companies.
I will save the details here, but in essence, Collins continues to slice the data and narrow the field using not only stock price, but also rate of return to investors, an identifiable transition period, and finally, companies that were not merely the beneficiaries of high performing industries. Over the course of five years of research, Collins and his team identified 11 companies that they believed satisfied their rigorous criteria of moving from a "Good" to a "Great" company.
All of the "Great" companies outperformed the general stock market by a margin of at least 3 to 1 over the course of 15 years. On average, they beat the general stock market by a factor of almost 7 to 1. There is no question that the companies identified as "Great" were high-performing organizations.
So what does this have to do with servant leadership?
All 11 of the Great companies identified by Collins and his team were led by what they defined as "Level 5 Leaders." Collins reveals that he and his team considered using the term Servant Leaders for these impactful individuals. After considerable discussion, they were concerned that the using a term like "servant" might give people the wrong impression that these leaders were passive or weak. These leaders, the team surmised, had an "incurable need to produce results" and using a term like humble or servant may not capture that tenacity.
Many leaders possess this incredible focus on results. Results are required of Level 5 leaders, servant leaders, and self-focused leaders alike. How each goes about accomplishing those results is what either sustains or abbreviates the results over time.
While I appreciate Collins' concern that the term "Servant Leader" may prove a stumbling block for some, it is the very fact that it is so contrarian that our firm continues to press on with the term. Note that it was not that most of the "Great" companies had leaders that were humble, self-sacrificing, focused on their successors, modest, and possessed a tremendous blend of professional will and personal humility. Individuals cut from this cloth led all 11 of the Great companies.
So, for those of you that may be interested in the concepts of servant leadership but have yet to make the connection between being an others-focused leader and producing outstanding results - I hope that this helps to allay your fears. You can serve and lead at the same time. Your organization can have a culture that focuses intently on others rather than themselves while delivering outstanding results.
If you are not driven by stock returns or financial results, consider that just four private citizens have ever been granted the tribute of laying in honor at the United States Capitol: Officer Jacob Chestnut, Jr, Detective John Gibson (two Capitol Police officers killed in the line of duty), Rosa Parks, and Billy Graham. Each unquestionably a servant leader.
What these examples show us is that servant leaders are not succeeding in spite of their focus on others, it is because of their others-focused mentality that their organizations consistently and dramatically outperform the competition. We want to encourage you to take your servant leadership journey boldly, not apologetically. Never hesitate to contact us if you'd like a little help along the way.