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GET SMART: A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT H. THOMPSON (PART 4)

Posted by on June 28th, 2012 with 0 Comments

Robert Thompson is the author of The Offsite: A Leadership Challenge Fable (Jossey-Bass, 2008) and host of Robert Thompson’s Thought Grenades – a leadership podcast.  His website claims, “Robert’s fusion of real-life stories and conversational techniques connect with his audience at an intimate, intense and individual level” and I can assure you that the description is accurate.

Over four weeks, Robert and I will talk about how goals impact leadership and leadership impacts goals – particularly SMART goals (defined as Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound).

Read Part 1: Show UpPart2: Step Up, or Part3: Speak Up

Part 4: Serve Up

Glenn: Robert, over the last three weeks, we’ve discussed three of your Four Leadership Commitments: “Show Up”, “Step Up”, and “Speak Up”. What does it mean to ‘Serve Up’?

Robert: Serving Up is about engaging with the community, which can be defined broadly as anything from your family or neighborhood to your workplace and beyond. That engagement creates true camaraderie which allows for a deeper ownership of whatever results you’re looking to achieve. From the workplace perspective, it’s always best if everyone truly owns the result. That’s the culture you want to create, the culture of success.

Glenn: And what is the relationship between serving up and leadership?

Robert: All real leaders are in service of others. If you think leadership is about the corner office, red power ties, or menacing people with your authority…then you are like Joe in The Offsite, and don’t understand the meaning of leadership, as I see it. And people will flee from you when the coast is clear and they can find more solid ground.

I’m often asked, what’s a “real leader”? I believe that real leaders listen deeply and actively to others. They are respectful, even under difficult situations. And they honor others both individually and as a team. They understand their role as servant.

Glenn: I understand the metaphorical image of a servant leader. It’s an evolution of the inverted organizational pyramid. But how seriously can we take this metaphor? How literal do you want us to be with it?

Robert: I would like to see organizations literally show an org. chart in this upside down pyramid approach right in the entry way of their headquarters and certainly in the annual report. I wonder if PowerPoint allows for that. It might blow up…

Anyway, this would send the message that we are serious about being a real honest-to-goodness learning organization. It sends a message that we are closing the gap between our beliefs and our behaviors. That’s the way to create the reality from the metaphor. When you see an org. chart in the usual way, it shows everyone reporting to the titled leader…what does that say? It says it’s all about “the top dog.” And that’s nonsense. Who does the work? Who are we trying to inspire? Who are we hoping to engage? What about camaraderie? And with the usual org. chart, how the heck are we to encourage folks to become an “owner” of their results?

What’s the old reframe about sled dogs? The only dog with a great view is the lead dog. If that’s the way you want to run your company or organization, more power to you. It won’t result in a learning, growing company. In those organizations, no real leaders need apply; they only want those who can keep their noses firmly connected to the lead dog. Of course, rushing out and inverting the pyramid physically on the wall isn’t the answer…the answer is in the inverting the behaviors so they link up with the talk.

I’ve seen the org chart that your learning and development team posts, Glenn. Describe it.

Glenn: It’s a circle, where my leader – Brent – is on the diagram as an equal team member.

Robert: And does it really work that way?

Glenn: Yes. In fact, he refuses to be described as anything more than peer or teammate.

Robert: That’s what I’m talking about. When I was beginning my career, the org. chart (if I was allowed to see one) showed me I didn’t matter much. My job wasn’t even listed on it. Everything I was supposed to do was to support those on top of me and eventually the owner got richer. How inspiring is that? An inverted pyramid, illustrates that the formal leadership gets what real leadership is all about. Servant leaders are the ones ensuring that those doing the work have the necessary resources to get the job done. They don’t have to rush out to get the janitor coffee. However, that could come in handy someday when you have a janitorial emergency.

Glenn: Do you have an example of this ‘servant leader’?

Robert: Over the years I’ve had the privilege of sharing the concept with many folks from the C-suite to the entry-level learner. My first personal interaction with a servant leader came about early in my career. His name was Vern Manning. Some might now call his actions mentoring. He was way above me on the chart. I reported to people who reported to people who reported to people who reported to Vern. However, he saw something in me that I didn’t see or know was there. He made sure I had the resources to do my job and beyond. His encouragement and guidance was instrumental at a pivotal period in my life. He made a difference so large in my life that I think I’m still dealing with the ripples today.

Glenn: Is the goal of a Servant Leader to help others realize their goals?

Robert: Well, yes, of course. They’re there to assist but not to do for them. Real leaders get to know those who work with them and what their hopes might be.

Glenn: This is, of course, one of the limitations of the metaphor, because a servant is supposed to do the work for someone.

Robert: Being a servant leader doesn’t mean you are in servitude, it means you are “of service” to others.

Glenn: I see. But how might this idea of servant leadership conflict with realizing the goals of the leader or organization? Can one person serve two – or even three – masters?

Robert: Again, I’ll refer back to inverting the pyramid. During many of my presentations, I will share how being a real leader means you turn the organizational chart upside down. And that’s not just from the CEOs perspective, but from all team leaders as well. With an upside down pyramid, you can see how being a servant leader cannot possibly create conflict. Everything the leader at the bottom needs to do is designed to support and provide the necessary resources for those above them to do their job well. That creates success. This doesn’t mean that everyone delegates to the CEO or to their team leader, of course. It does mean that the CEO or the team leaders need to lead with credibility, action, vision and service. All of the components we’ve been talking about in this series.

Glenn: Let me play devil’s advocate and propose that it’s harder than it sounds, isn’t it? My boss can fire me or give me a raise. My employees can’t. It’s a pretty big leap of faith to ‘invert the pyramid’.

Robert: Again, being of service is different than being in servitude. However, when you really think about it, your employees can and do give you raises and/or fire you. They may not do it directly – although I think in some companies they can – but they definitely do it indirectly. Many managers lose their positions or find their career stalled when they lose the confidence of their staff. Happens all the time. And that is one of the big reasons that Joe, in my book, doesn’t get the CEO position that he craves. I’ve seen this scenario first hand. Some people just run roughshod over others and think there is no payback. Well, down the road they learn that payback is a bitch, as they say.

Glenn: I’d like to think that karma takes care of those folks. Speaking of karma, in a positive sense this time, one of the main themes of the book – reinforced by the cover image – is the idea that “to be a leader, you must grow a leader”. Elaborate on that.

Robert: As Sam, the guru gardener, might say… real leaders grow leaders. Right? A good opposite example of why that is so necessary springs from my work over the past several years with the executives from California state government. As hard as I worked and coached and coached, I’m sorry to say that the ranks are still filled with titled leaders who are retiring without filling the gap behind them with folks ready to take the reins. I really tried to put a “dent in that universe” because we’ve got big trouble in California when it comes to knowledge sharing and succession. It’s only going to get worse with the budget crisis. They simply can’t afford to bring someone like me back in to help. Their efforts are just not quick or substantial enough to really solve the problem.

Glenn: I’m guessing you would say that a ‘leader’ who does their job without an eye on the sustainability of the next generation is not really a leader?

Robert: No. That’s not effective leadership. On a more positive note, I think corporate firms are attempting to do the work to fill that gap. However, the gap is like the Grand Canyon. The Baby Boomers are retiring and will be leaving in droves over the next five years. Many are still working now only because of the Great Recession we’ve experienced since 2008. Without that, their retirement accounts would still be full and they would be running around the country disrupting RV parks with their rock ‘n roll. But, the need is more than just filling the gap from retirements.

To be a real leader, you must be constantly assisting others to grow in their work and in their overall outlook on life. Being a servant leader is a way of life, not a task to complete. This way of life is a conscious and constant choice. It means not using others as tools, not referring to them as “your people,” and not being the “boss” of them. This way of life mandates that you honor others and the choice they have made to work “with” you, not treat them as a mosh-pit of automatons ready to do your bidding.

Your purpose as a servant leader is to create a diversified cast of talented fellow leaders. You should hope they are, or can become, smarter than you. They should be able to stand ready to take the reins when you are ready to give them up. Servant leaders care about each individual and acknowledge everyone meaningfully. As a servant leader, your goal – as I’ve said before – is to help them create their masterpiece.

Glenn: Some executives might ask, isn’t it enough to hit our corporate objectives? Doesn’t the ability to do that make me a leader?

Robert: Absolutely not. It might make you a great manager, but if you’ve left bodies in your wake to hit those objectives…then a real leader you are not, as Yoda might have said. Always keep in mind my short definition of the difference between leadership and management: Leadership is about people, Management is about things. If you can keep that simple thought front of mind, you should stay on the right path to success.

Glenn: Okay. That seems believable, but what about time? Who’s got time to ‘be a leader’?

Robert: Being a leader isn’t an ‘extra activity’. Leadership is how you get the management done. If your readers just take my simple Sixteen Sources of Leadership (include suveymonkey link?) and put into practice one or two each day on purpose, they will find that their behavior (and other’s perception of them) will shift from “manager” to “leader” in roughly 30 days. They’ll see the results in the eyes of those who’ve been with them for a while. And they’ll also experience the new “recruits” who have joined them in their quest because they feel the magnetism of real leadership. It’s all about conscious practice of behaviors such as these. Experts say it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at something. If that’s true, and I believe it is, then all we have to do is learn the behaviors of great leaders; embrace and absorb them into our daily life; and practice, practice, practice.

That’s what the Sixteen Sources is all about…they’re the Cliff Notes of real leadership. They are simple to understand, practical and effective. Glenn, there is a spark of leadership in each and every moment. It’s important for all of us to find our passion, close the gap between our beliefs and behaviors, speak from our heart with a clear voice and always remember that our mind is our most important ally or our most ardent adversary. When we take charge of our mind, we begin to take charge of our life.

As Gordon says in The Offsite when speaking with Gwen, “leadership is a commitment. It is not one more thing to add to your to-do list. Leadership isn’t a structure you superimpose on top of your life in progress. It’s a complete way of life in and of itself.”

And Glenn, let me finish by reinforcing one key ingredient to all of this. Without commitment, nothing changes. Not you. Not them. Nothing. I urge your readers to choose wisely. And, lead smart.

Glenn: Thanks, Robert. Those are strong words.

Learn more about Robert and his work through the resources below:


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