by Shabnam Banerjee-McFarland
As we reflect on the last few years, the scale of global injustice can sometimes feel overwhelming and even paralyzing. It’s clear that the world is in desperate need of a new leadership paradigm—a model that takes an inside-out approach, giving leaders tools to better understand themselves as leaders and to develop a higher capacity for supporting passion and purpose among those they lead.
We must now ask ourselves, what kind of leader does the world need? The answer: A servant.
Servant leadership is not a new concept, but it is nevertheless revolutionary, and perhaps more importantly, enduring. A common misconception about servant leadership is that only people in traditional leadership roles can practice it. This fundamental misunderstanding about the core principles of servant leadership distracts us from what it’s about — service. When acting in the service of others, we inspire a shift in perspective that puts everyone on the same playing field, with a shared vision.
The servant leadership model, rooted in the commitment of serving first, and leading second, is a proven and effective path for aspiring leaders to begin where they are. With this model, servant leaders can enable change in their organizations, and ultimately strengthen interpersonal relationships, teams, and the organizational culture so that people come first. Putting people first, building relationships built on mutual respect, and nurturing teams that have high levels of trust are all integral values of the servant leadership model that can offer pathways toward solutions to global problems.
Revolutionizing leadership toward a just end requires centering service, each of us empowering and supporting each other with a common vision to create a world that works for all. Servant leaders are tasked with setting this visionary direction, establishing the values to guide the path, and setting goals to serve as the milestones that measure impact. Then, as servant leadership expert Ken Blanchard puts it, they get out of the way. Their roles shift to supporting the execution of the vision, serving team members who are executing the vision, and allowing them to be accountable for their own success.
Though this is definitely easier said than done, identifying the two key principles of servant leadership, vision and action, is part and parcel to enacting change; they can’t exist without each other. However, through living the key principles of servant leadership, we can make a difference in the companies, organizations, and communities that we are all part of.
Setting the Vision
Ken Blanchard, bestselling author of Servant Leadership in Action and longtime evangelist of Servant Leadership, frames how to set the vision like this. He reflects, “I love the saying, ‘a river without banks is a large puddle.’ The banks permit the river to flow; they give direction to the river. Leadership is about going somewhere; it’s not about wandering around aimlessly. If people don’t have a compelling vision to serve, the only thing they have to serve is their self-interest.”
The most significant impact that we can make is within organizations that have a shared vision, that considers and supports members to be in community with one another. Aimlessness and serving self-interests leads to a community, and even a world, disconnected and divided. When the banks runneth over, the puddle can make us feel like we’re drowning without a purpose. Servant leaders not only act in the service of those they lead but also encourage people to contemplate their purpose, and manifest a vision around this purpose. Setting the vision is more than the performance goals or managing relationships, but is instead, about empowering team members to use their unique skills and talents to raise the tide for all boats.
Naming this shared vision that leverages our unique purposes and talents, can lead to a groundswell of systemic change. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, has openly and boisterously committed to leading by example to close the gender pay gap. What started with acknowledging some uncomfortable yet widespread truths about pay inequity, has transformed into including the voices of the women affected across the company and moving toward action. By building the banks around the river of change, Benioff and the culture of Salesforce, communicate that sharing a vision of equal pay can lead to a revolution.
Service in Action
Benioff and Salesforce aren’t alone in acknowledging that a shared vision of equality can lead to tangible change that serves everyone. Michael C. Bush, CEO of A Great Place to Work, the organization that puts together Fortune’s annual Great Place to Work list, highlights that the primary barriers to action, are when leaders fail to acknowledge, or even worse ignore or suppress, the differences in experiences in an organization. He writes in A Great Place to Work for All, “Employees are less likely to be fully engaged or productive if they perceive an unequal playing field, one where they are less welcome to play an important role.”
When Benioff was confronted with the reality, that across the board women were getting paid less, his initial response was disbelief. It was in this shift of perspective to listening to his employees and incorporating their talents and purposes, that they were able to move toward action and bring in team members that could mitigate the problem and develop an equitable plan. Action, when framed in terms of a vision set by the servant leader, is dynamic and forward facing. When leaders choose ignorance and instead lead with their own self-interests, organizations become stagnant, toxic, and unproductive places.
Service as the antidote to self-deception
The Arbinger Institute, a global consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations make changes in mindset to drive results, addresses what can happen when leaders get in their own way and inhibit equal treatment in any organization. Their seminal and bestselling book, Leadership and Self-Deception, outlines just how calamitous a deceptive leader can be, arguing, “of all the problems in organizations, self-deception is the most common and most damaging.” When leaders can’t acknowledge their own self-deception, let alone how they may be deceiving others, they stand in opposition to servant leadership that advocates for getting out of the way so that others can shine. More than that, they tend to lean into visions that are misguided and create plans around these visions that leave their employees and members of their community without a sense of purpose or empowerment.
Should Benioff have decided that the gender pay gap was not a problem for him, and, therefore, not a problem at all, he would have rejected servant leadership and perpetuated cycles of disengagement, lack of vision, and most egregiously, inequality. Companies have the power to change the world, but in order to do so, they need to change their approach to leadership. This isn’t just fodder or fluff, as Ken Blanchard points out, many of history’s greatest leaders – Lincoln, Mandela, and MLK – all “possessed tremendous strength along with a powerful capacity for caring.” Adopting the tried-and-true concepts of servant leadership, vision, and action can lead to a future in which we are all in a community with each other and serving one another.