Superhero or Servant leader – You chose!

Superhero or Servant Leader

Are you a servant leader or a superhero? A bit of both perhaps? If so, which gives you more fulfillment as a leader? And which role is better for the long term sustainability of your organisation?

I often come across senior executives frustrated by what they perceive to be a controlling CEO. At the same time, some of the business leaders I work with are reluctant to let go because they do not yet see the right “Strategic” talent, usually without considering whether they might be part of the problem.

The end of Superhero leadership

In “Good to Great” Jim Collins profiled “Level 5 leadership” which is characterised the absence of the trappings of status and power. In “The Misguided Mix-up of Celebrity and Leadership” he found to his surprise that there were more Level 5 leaders than he expected. They just didn’t often get to the top of the organisation. He observed: “Then it dawned on me: Our problem is not a shortage of Level 5 leaders. They exist all around us…

Our problem lies in the fact that our culture has fallen in love with the idea of the celebrity CEO.

He goes on to say “Our problem lies in the fact that our culture has fallen in love with the idea of the celebrity CEO. Charismatic egotists who swoop in to save companies grace the covers of major magazines because they are much more interesting to read and write about than people like Darwin Smith and David Maxwell. This fuels the mistaken belief held by many directors that a high-profile, larger-than-life leader is required to make a company great. We keep putting people into positions of power who lack the inclination to become Level 5 leaders, and that is one key reason why so few companies ever make a sustained and verifiable shift from good to great.”

This has been taken even further by The Shingo Institute, established to guide leaders in creating sustainable, principle based cultures of excellence. The Shingo Principles include two cultural enablers that provide the foundation for excellence, capturing the essence of a servant leader: “Lead with Humility” and “Respect every Individual”

One of TEC’s perennial speakers, Colin Chodos recently shared his thoughts around the Harvard Service Profit Chain model with one of my groups. Profits come from satisfied customers who get great service provided by engaged employees led by servant leaders. He challenged my members in how they engaged their teams. As I listened to this discussion I came to the same conclusion that Collins came to some 15 years ago. Level 5 leadership is within many of my members, but often they struggle with the challenges of the day to day to live this consistently.

The Myth of the Servant Leader

So why is it so hard to put Level 5 leadership, especially the concept of service, into practice? Certainly the people I work with have got beyond being status conscious, but still many struggle with how they need to change. As Marshall Goldsmith Says “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There”.

The very fact that they’ve been successful is at the core of this issue. Whether a successful entrepreneur or a professional and successful CEO there is usually a sub-conscious dependency culture, reinforced by suggestion.

Suggestion is addictive. You feel good, the other person feels good. The short term results are often better. But what of the long term?
This is even more acute when dealing with potential successors. Succession planning is one of the hardest issues any founder faces. As baby boomer entrepreneurs seek exits and handovers this is becoming an epidemic.

At the core of the issue is the belief by incumbents that a servant leader has to let everything go. This is a myth, its not an “either-or”.

Defining “Founders Purpose” or “the Legacy” and setting fundamental distinctive values remain the leader’s role. These are the “whys” of an organisation. It’s with the what’s and the how’s where the servant leader stands back. This is empowerment but not abdication.

Start the shift towards being a Servant Leader

1. Get honest feedback

A coach is good but peer groups such as TEC / Vistage CEO groups is even better. A recent book The Power of Peers describes this process. Use a 360 tool, with a focus on the conversations. I use a profiling tool called VoicePrint which analyses how you use conversations especially in 1on1 discussion. Practice asking questions, developing a more coaching style. Two great books are Susan Scott’s “Fierce Conversations” and Greg Bustin’s “That’s a Great Question

2. Be transparent

Use visual management tools. An empowered organisation has to be aligned and engaged. Visual management at all levels of the organisation enables both and creates the context for the conversations. Encourage accountability to all – not just upwards. Transparency promotes dialogue with all parts of the organisation.

3. Get out of your comfort zone by meeting your people

Management by Walking Around (MBWA) was popularized by Peters and Waterman – Kraig Kramers called it Walk the 4 Corners (W4C). In Lean it is Gemba Walks. All these are informal ways of engaging with people on the front line and middle management (don’t forget them Chodos reminded us). However, this is not a “Regal Tour” – conversations should be meaningful about the business not about the football results.

4. Lead by example

Lead with your vulnerability. That’s what we do in TEC. Uncomfortable, but incredibly powerful. This means asking for help, sharing the issue. Share with people around you that you are trying to change. It’s not a secret and people will notice the difference, so get them to give feedback on how you are doing. Share your values. Publicly. Discuss what they mean to you and explore what behaviours you would expect to see.

In a VUCA world no leader can be across everything. We need all the organisation aligned and engaged. A visionary but servant leader rewards both their organisation and themselves.


Jon LindsayTEC CEO mentor and coach Jon Lindsay