Service Leader as Partner: Complete Bone Honesty

Great Service Leaders Partner

There is an adage that goes, “Authority is the last resort of the inept …and frustrated.”  Parents who have found themselves relying on “…Because I said so” to direct a reluctant child know the truth of the adage.  When rank becomes the primary means of insuring compliance, one has long lost the battle to effectively influence.

The art of influencing has challenged leaders for centuries.  In autocratic settings, influencing involves the simple act of giving an order.  Obedient followers comply with little resistance, at least until they revolt, use sick-outs, or go on strike.

In democratic settings, leaders resort to humanistic means.  Leaders influence by selling–outlining the benefits of pursuing a goal.  But, at the end of the act of selling is a follower who feels sold—“someone enticed me to embrace a position I would not left to my own volition.”  Colorful communication is another powerful tool for influencing.  Communication-dependent leaders rely on their charismatic style or their compelling message.  However, were charismatic communication a prerequisite for effective leadership, organizations would hire talented thespians.

Role modeling is another useful approach to influencing.  Leaders who “walk the talk” demonstrate that whatever they are walking should be emulated. Placing leaders on pedestals to be copied, however, does little to bolster the self-reliance of employees.  As long as followers pursue a “messiah-like” shepherd, they move further away from personal accountability.   Incentives are frequent tools for influencing.  Leaders incent the “good child” who acts in sync with the goal.  The parental overtones may seem subtle to the leaders but they are clearly felt by those who acquiesce for acceptance.

So, what does the leader have left as a tool for influencing?  If one ruled out selling, communication, role-modeling, and incentives what tool is left?  How do we get the horse to drink?  If we give the drinking horse more hay, or remind the horse of the long hot journey ahead, or sell the horse on the benefits of drinking, or drink beside the horse to encourage imitation, have we authentically influenced or selfishly conned?

Finding a new answer to an age-old question involves letting go of our traditional leadership notions about control and self-interest.  It entails choosing partnership over patriarchy.  If we approach our relationship with our followers as fellow travelers on the same train, we begin to acknowledge interdependence.

Service Leader as Partner:  Collective Creation of Purpose

The first component of “leader as partner” is the collective creation of purpose.  Peter Block in his book Stewardship states, “The traditional process is that management creates its vision and then the enrollment process begins….Enrollment is soft-core colonialism, a subtle form of control through participation.  Nothing has changed in the belief in control, consistency and predictability, only the packaging is different.”

It is challenging for leaders, affirmed for being visionary and charged with “charting the course,” to embrace the concept of a truly shared vision.  Shared vision typically implies “you share my vision as being your vision.”  A truly shared vision is one crafted collectively.  It entails creating contexts in which everyone enters the dialogue about direction.  It involves getting every person impacted by the vision to have an honest, non-pressured say in what it looks like.

Service Leader as Partner:  The Power of Shared Legacy

Helping people see how they contribute to the future is a vital part of the role of a great leader.   Helping them discover how they contribute to a rich history is also a part of that role.   A CEO addressed his managers during an off-site retreat at a crucial turning point in the company’s life.   “We stand today on the shoulders of the pioneering giants who came before us,” he told them.  “They made this company what it is today.  But, you are the people on whose shoulders others will stand in the future.  Let us all make sure the quality of our work insures those who stand upon us have a sound footing.”

Passion comes from the kind of belief in the future that gives us security.  It also emerges from a legacy of the past that arms us with substance.  Great leaders don’t let employees forget their corporate ancestry.  Not to perpetuate an ineffective “we’ve always done it that way,” but rather to honor the emotional ground on which the organization stands.

Service Leader as Partner:  Joint Accountability

Partnerships are first and foremost power-free relationships.  In some ways, partnerships are “marriages of equals” with a common vision, shared values, but with different talents.  This means that if there is accountability for results, it must be shared.  Leaders in such relationships must relinquish their caretaking role.  Everyone in the partnership is responsible for the results and the quality of cooperation.

In the late ‘80s, Fred Smith, CEO of Federal Express joined his senior officers in their efforts to win the coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.  Realizing senior management would need to work as a partnership; he selected twelve critical measures of quality, instead of the single “on-time deliveries.”  Twelve also was the number of senior managers on his top team.  He assigned each executive one of the measures to champion.  So even if you were the head of HR, you might be the Czar of “Number of Packages Pounded to Pulp.”  He also indicated that if they did not hit all twelve goals—one for each measure—none would get their bonus (which represented a significant percentage of their take-home pay).  The following year, they missed two of the twelve goals and every senior leader (including Smith) took home far less than they would have.  In 1990, they won the Baldrige Award.

Effective partnerships are coalitions laced in truth.  Honesty and candor are seen as tools for growth rather devices for disdain.  Partners serve each other straight talk mixed with compassion and care. The truth-seeking component of effective partnership is that which values candor and openness.  It is the dimension that honors authenticity and realness.

The path to honest relationships is replete with interpersonal risk taking and mutual critique.  It involves the courage to ask for feedback as well as the compassion to give feedback.  Truth may sometimes leave relationships temporarily uncomfortable and bruised, but truth always leaves partnerships hearty and healthy.  It is the quality that exterminates guilt and deceit.  Truth nurtures cleanness in associations.

Where does all this leave the partner in charge?  Certainly it does not mean organizations become entities lead by a committee.  People in the most senior role of leadership have a responsibility for insuring clarity, particularly regarding effective ways to be distinctive in the market place.   They also are charged with insuring power is shared, not horded.

Partnership is a commitment to a dialogue, not an act of surrendering.  It starts with asking for input rather than offering instruction.  It entails averting the trap of being the “answer person.”  It is operating with the faith that wisdom lies within us all and the effective leader opts for the inefficient fostering of discovery rather than the expeditious pronouncement of the solution.

Power is a seductive ingredient of leadership.  The closer one gets to the top of the hill the less one is able to keep the appeal of totalitarianism on a short leash.  Perhaps the greatest gift a partnership provides the partner in charge is a collection of relationships willing to tell the emperor he or she is without clothes.


About Chip&John

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of several best-selling books. Their newest book is "Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to do About it."
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