Friday, October 28, 2016

To lead is to serve the team

Does this make sense?

Is to lead to serve? That doesn't make any sense as those concepts are opposites... and what does the team stand in between leading and serving? This post title is very confusing, to say the least...
Well, let's start with leading. Probably you associate a leader with someone important, high in the hierarchy at the office and in society, someone with power and always on center stage with the spotlight on, right? Probably someone like your boss, someone who tells you what needs to be done and when it has to be done. Someone to whom you report and in return he/she reviews your performance each year.

On the opposite side there's serving and you can probably use a waiter as an analogy to serving. It's someone who is transparent (who ever remembers the face of a waiter?), low in the hierarchy with no power or little power at the very best. Those who serve are used to wait to being told what to do and when it needs to be done. Someone who has to report to his/her boss and whose performance is under scrutiny every year.
The two concepts are opposites if you attribute them these meanings so there's no way this sentence "to lead is to serve the team" makes any sense. In order for this sentence to make sense we have to attribute new meanings to lead and serve.

To lead

So what does it mean to lead? When is someone leading? The answer is much more complex than you might think at first and the answer varies according to context (industry, time, age, culture,…). All of the different contexts you can think of have 2 things in common: trust and vision.
Trust is necessary for anyone to lead for the simple reason that is someone is not trusted no one will even listen. And this is true for both “nice” and “evil” leaders. If the leader is not trusted, if people don’t believe him/her, no one will follow.
It’s also true for both “nice” and “evil” leaders that in order to lead they have to provide a vision. A vision is a purpose and a direction - it is not an objective. Some examples of statements that are not visions:

  • To win the Iron Man challenge in May 2017
  • To run 5 Km every day

Unlike an objective, a vision is something that is not likely to achieve. As Bruce Lee once said:
A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.
You just need to replace “goal” with “vision” to get the idea. Visions are about wishes, dreams, ideas, and aspirations and they’re better communicated as images or feelings. A classic example was provided in August 28th, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., by Martin Luther King, Jr.:
I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.
So this great man had a dream: not a plan, not a SMART objective - but a dream! And this is a vision.
And so to lead you need trust and vision and those don’t suggest bossing around or telling people what to do – like a boss does. What it requires from the leader is to provide a vision, a sense of direction, to share that vision, and make sure that every single person know where they’re headed all the time.

To serve

So what about serving? Is it still the opposite of leading even when we attribute new meaning to leading? I believe it’s rather different than that and that leading and serving are more like complements than opposites. I believe that serving starts out but by acknowledging a higher value than ourselves. And because there’s something bigger than ourselves, what we really, really want to do is to help others to get there too. Just like a father, a mother or a teacher, all you want is to serve your children and students to grow to their full potential.
This is radically different than shining shoes or waiting on others. This is hard valuable work. And unselfish. A father doesn’t take orders from his children exactly the same way that a teacher doesn’t tell their students the answers to the questions on their tests. They don’t do the work that the ones they serve don’t want to do. Instead they help them grow providing them with the knowledge and autonomy they require to get to the next step.
This means that on early stages of the process, a mother is obviously more directive with her young children than when her children are fully grown physically. If a mother commands her children to eat their vegetables, it is expected that the children do eat their vegetables. The same happens when the children start going outside their home by themselves. It is OK for the mother do ask how and where her children crossed this road they had to cross. When the children grow and go off to university, this is not expected – at all. The mother, intuitively, gives more and more autonomy until she is there as a support if needed.
This is not a semantics trick. We are used to this meaning of the word serve in some contexts. If you think of the servers in IT, the computers that run a central application such as your ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), these servers are those computers that are in fact in charge of the software or application – and they do serve a higher purpose too in the sense that the software is not there just for you to punch data in or whatever.
One other side of this serving perspective is something that is quite common under Agile methodologies and it is even set as one of the main functions of the Scrum Master in Scrum. Which is to protect the team – to remove obstacles and to deflect external interference to the Scrum Master himself/herself. In short, one of the main functions of the Scrum Master is to provide all the necessary conditions for the team to do their work. And this is also a way to serve the team.

Servant leadership

All that was said before is based upon Robert K. Greenleaf’s essay “The servant as leader”, published in 1970. The essay is a short 48 page, dense and deep text, that really needs a translation to plain English - and this is my attempt to do it. This is the first article of this series which, as far as I can see now, still needs 2 more articles during the following months.
So stay tuned and enjoy!


Ev Spencer said...

I appreciate the analysis of the Servant Leader by examples and analogies. It would appear that one of the key outcomes as mentioned in the parent analogy is the development of the team to a collective autonomous but connected (by the vision) state. I look forward to your next post. Spence

Ev Spencer said...

I appreciate the engaging discussion of Servant Leadership through parent example and analogies. It would appear that the development of the Team to an individually autonomous but connected state (the vision) through mentoring, coaching, guiding, correcting is predicated on translating the vision into goals. I look forward to your next article. Spence

Rochelle Rober said...

Great article!

Ah-Ha-Moments said...

Thank you so much for your feedback, Spence!
And you're absolutely right, that is the key message of this article.

Ah-Ha-Moments said...

Thank you, Rochelle! I'm happy you enjoyed it!