Ever try summarizing Servant Leadership in just three words? It’s not easy. At least it did not come easily for me.
If you were to summarize Servant Leadership in three words, what words would you choose? Think about that for just a moment. If you’re struggling, perhaps it’s unfair to ask for an answer on the spot.
If you are a student of Servant Leadership, then you are probably familiar with the Ten Characteristics of Servant Leadership or perhaps The Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership by James Sipe and Donald Frick.
Why would anyone attempt to reduce Servant Leadership down to just three characteristics?
That’s a great question. It’s a task I recently assigned myself. Let me explain.
As I write this blog post, I’m somewhere over the Atlantic — at this exact moment, about 3,000 miles from my home near Atlanta, Georgia. I’m returning from a week in Oslo, Norway where I facilitated several sessions on Servant Leadership. A beautiful city, great audiences, and a country with a culture quite compatible with Servant Leadership.
The Background of the Challenge
One of those sessions was keynoting the annual conference for Project Management Institute (PMI) Norway. The conference was held at the Nasjonalmuseet (National Museum) — where the work of Edvard Munch is a centerpiece. Edvard Munch is arguably Norway’s most famous artist and the gallery is home to his most famous work, The Scream.
Back in October, Merete Munch Lange, President of PMI Norway extended me an invitation to keynote the conference and address the topic of Servant Leadership. I was honored.
A couple of days later, I recall taking an early morning walk and thought it would be clever to create a customized keynote that tied into the conference theme. PMI Norway had selected The Art of Management as their theme since we were meeting at the National Gallery. I selected, The Art of Servant Leadership.
Then in November, I had the privilege of spending the better part of a day in Nashville with one of my mentors, Erie Chapman. Naturally, we discussed Servant Leadership as that’s a passion for Erie and it’s how we originally met. You see, Erie is the author of several books. My personal favorite is Radical Loving Care. He’s recently release a bit of a sequel, The Seven Power of Radical Loving Leaders.
I thought I was meeting Erie at his office and that we would spend the day talking Servant Leadership amongst other topics. Well, his office turned out to be his studio. As for Erie, he’s a real renaissance man. In addition to being an author, CEO, and consultant, he is also a photographer, a screenwriter, and a filmmaker.
Our discussions of Servant Leadership were augmented with rich discussions about art.
The Evolution of an Idea
I’m a big fan of Evernote and use it for everything — especially my “noodling”. Noodling is my favorite word for describing that combination of reflection, pondering, and just letting an idea “marinate”.
I reviewed Evernote just now and discovered an entry on November 24 where I expanded my speech title to The Art and Artistry of Servant Leadership. I know this was influenced by my time with Erie as we discussed artistry as the skills of the art and how an artist masters their medium as well as the tools of the trade.
The Art and Artistry of Servant Leadership
Several weeks ago, I began pulling everything together to finalize my keynote for the PMI Norway event. It was then that the idea of finding a way to summarize Servant Leadership in three words — well, actually colors occurred.
If you’re familiar with the world of color, you know there are three primary colors. If you want to get technical, there are two sets of three and one set of four depending on which artistic medium you work in.
In the world of digital media, the primary colors are known as additive and consist of red, green, and blue, better known as RGB. If you work mostly in the print world, you use a subtractive process and the four primary colors as CMYK.
A little more research helped me discover that there’s also the RYB spectrum that paint artists use. And since we were meeting at the Norway National Gallery, I opted to use red, yellow, and blue.
Oh, and as a bonus, that’s how I met an amazing photographer (Libby Beaty) who, while born in the USA, now lives in Norway. I found a collection of Libby’s photos in the Your Shot gallery on NationalGeographic.com. She’s the photographer of that amazing image below. Here’s the link to her blog site where she has other amazing work displayed. [I told her she could say her work was shown at the National Gallery in Norway as I included three photos in my presentation.]
Now, if you recall my the opening question to this post, you know why, I assigned myself the task of summarizing Servant Leadership in three colors.
And in case you goofed off in art class like I did, here’s the important refresher. Every other color in the spectrum comes from some blend of the three primary colors of the artist’s palette.
I actually believe that’s a beautiful metaphor about life and leadership.
You may know that Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term ‘Servant Leadership’ in his seminal 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader. However, you may not realize that he never actually provided a succinct definition in any of his writings.
The Primary Colors of Servant Leadership
Before I embark on the three colors, let me share the definition of Servant Leadership I’ve landed on after years of study and attempts to practice Servant Leadership.
Servant Leadership is a people-centered approach to life and leadership, that puts other people at the center.
So, after a lot of thought and introspection, here are the three attributes I chose as the primary colors of Servant Leadership. Remember, I worked with the RYB palette.
Empathy: the Heart of Servant Leadership
It begins with red. One of the first thoughts I have when I think of red is the heart. When I think of the heart relative to Servant Leadership, I think of empathy. Empathy springs from our hearts.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Understanding that servant leadership is a people-centered approach to life and leadership that places people at the center. Then, empathy is essential to understanding their needs and desires. Empathy is our ability to understand, share, and respect the feelings of others.
Caution! Remember to Listen
Then there’s yellow. Universally, yellow is associated with caution or warning. I believe there’s one key attribute of Servant Leadership that most, if not all, of us can use frequent reminders about. Did you guess listening?
I figured you did. Listening isn’t an automatic response for many of us. Most leaders receive formal training in reading, writing, and public speaking. When I asked the 100+ people attending the PMI Norway event, it was close to unanimous those whom received training in those three.
When I asked how many had received any kind of formal training in listening — well, what would you think. It was three, well four if you include me.
I love what Larry King said, I remind myself every morning:
Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.
Listening is essential. The great servant leaders I know have helped me learn to listen first, talk later.
Authenticity: Being the Real Deal
Now, what about the blue?
Hmm. I had to noodle that a while. I finally landed on authenticity. You know, “true blue”. I believe the question, “Are you for real?” is on the minds of many followers. Especially, those whose leaders proclaim Servant Leadership.
Recalling the definition of Servant Leadership provided earlier, you may see why so many followers want to know if their leaders who aspire to be servant-leaders are for real. “You’re putting my needs, growth, and development ahead of your own? For real?”
How About That for a Job Title?
During the conference, before I spoke, Kate Henrikson, a participant sought me out at a break. She is the COO, of Miles AS, a consulting firm in Norway. She handed me her card, it reads, “COO/ Daglig tjener”. Isn’t that cool?
In case your Norwegian is no better than mine, that translates to daily servant. And I just discovered their CEO is referred to as group servant.
Now here’s what I love. And I’ve found this to be true in so many of my consulting encounters. This company was practicing Servant Leadership without the label or framework. It was outside consultants who were interested in their unique approach to company culture who helped them discover that Servant Leadership was the best label. Since then, they have wholeheartedly adopted it.
All the Colors of the Rainbow
The beautiful part of discovering that Servant Leadership is your approach to leadership, is that as a result of labeling it, you can practice Servant Leadership more consciously and consistently. And as you too, become a daily servant, you begin seeing all the colors of the rainbow manifesting around you.
For me, it begins with those primary colors — empathy, listening, and authenticity. What are the primary colors you are including in your leadership palette?
Graphics: Top photo – artist S.Silver via Dollar Photo Club. Bottom photo – artist Libby Beaty and used by permission.