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Bill Shearer

A few nights ago I was meeting with a graduate class in Organizational Leadership and discussing the work of Robert K. Greenleaf, the retired AT&T executive who wrote a short essay entitled Servant Leadership, a work that has had a profound effect on leadership practices worldwide.

One of my students listened patiently as I enthusiastically extolled the virtues and benefits of this concept. I tend to get rather caught up in certain ideas I am passionate about and can readily become quite animated and vehement.

Finally, my student saw his opening and fired off several questions in rapid succession:

 "Yes, but does this really match the real world? Aren't many of the concepts of this class overly idealistic? Are we ever going to see Servant Leadership becoming a workable philosophy in today's highly competitive corporate culture?"

Excellent questions! Before I could answer he asked three more questions having to do with my own commitment to the concept of Servant Leadership. He asked:

 "Dr. Shearer, do you practice this yourself? If you do, was this always your management philosophy? When did you first accept Servant Leadership as the way you wanted to treat others?"

Again, really great questions! Perhaps it was retaliation for the midterm examination I had just given them. Now it was my student's turn to ask questions. Perhaps he wanted to see if I really lived in an ivory tower (some of us do in fact live there), far removed from workplace reality, or perhaps he just wanted to see if I really "walk what I talk."

His questions got me thinking, and that's always a good thing for a business school professor to do. The people most subject to faulty conclusions are the "experts," the people who already have all the answers. It's always good for us to stop and take a look at what we believe. What are our assumptions? How did we get there? Mental models, once we become aware of them, need to be rigorously examined and subject to change in the light of new evidence, experience, and dialogue with others.

So, why do I believe so strongly in Servant Leadership? Do I walk the talk? Is this just a belief on how things ought to be, or is it a belief rooted in personal experience and supported by solid evidence?

Actually, I did have something of an epiphany in regard to Servant Leadership long before I ever heard of Robert K. Greenleaf or his work. Something happened nearly 40 years ago that had a profound effect on my philosophy of leadership.

In September of 1965 Second Lieutenant Shearer reported for duty at Vandenberg Air Force Base. I was fresh from two years of high school teaching and had a brand new master's degree at a time when having a master's degree truly set you apart from the competition. I was hot stuff and bound to make a difference.

My assignment was to be the Base Training Officer. Reporting to me was an African-American Tech Sergeant named John Malachi, the noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC). Reporting to him in turn were 26 career noncommissioned officers (NCO's).

My job was to "manage" the 27 professionals (a contradiction not readily apparent to me at that time), and I was definitely ready to take charge. Even though I had never managed anything or anyone other than myself, I was chomping at the bit, eager to make changes. I was certain that with my fine education I couldn't miss doing an outstanding job and making a giant difference. These people definitely needed me and, I confess, I liked being in charge. My shiny new gold bars felt like general's stars, and I envisioned rapid career progression as I demonstrated what I felt was surely extraordinary knowledge and ability. Little did I realize, I would get my wish, but it would come in a most unexpected way.

Sergeant Malachi patiently listened to me as I outlined my plans for transforming the organization. As I finished, fully expecting that Sergeant Malachi would share my enthusiasm, a most unexpected thing happened and something that would influence my leadership style in all subsequent years.

Sergeant Malachi closed the office door and launched into a carefully worded reply:

"I hear what you are saying Lieutenant. Whatever you want us to do, we will carry out. We're all professionals here and we will do our best for you. However, there are some things you should know."

It was easy to see why Sergeant Malachi was the NCOIC. He was assertive and had no trouble speaking his mind. I was immediately intrigued, wondering what it was he had to tell me.

"Lieutenant, we've been operating without an officer for the past 11 months, and we've done just fine. We know our jobs and we're all professionals who care about doing the best job we're capable of doing. We know the work and we know what it needs. We constantly improve upon what we're doing because we're the kind of people who always want to do better. We enjoy what we do. We're highly motivated and work well as a team."

"Lieutenant, if you want to change what we are doing, we will support you and do our best. You might want to consider however, that we will do an even better job, and the best job we're capable of doing, if you step back and let us do what we know how to do, and what we want to do. 

We do need your help Lieutenant and you can help us best by running interference for us, keeping headquarters off our backs, getting us what we need to do our work, help get us advanced training, make sure that our achievements get recognized, and that we get help with promotions and career progression. You do that for us sir, and we will make you look great. We guarantee you that headquarters will think you're doing a terrific job, you will get top marks on the upcoming Inspector General's visit, and your own career will be enhanced."

"Or, we will do it your way, and whatever happens, happens! If you want to reinvent the wheel, we will support you because we are professionals and have to give it our best shot. You decide Lieutenant. It's up to you."

I thought it over and made my decision. My mother didn't raise any stupid children. Sergeant Malachi made sense. I resolved to not "reinvent the wheel." If it wasn't broken, I didn't need to fix it. If it could be improved, it could best be improved with change initiated and sustained by the people closest to the work, and most directly affected by the work. These people clearly valued excellence and high performance. They were doing better than ever without an officer. Micromanaging them or "taking charge" would most likely be demotivating.

What then would be my role? I was a clever guy with lots of good ideas. I couldn't imagine just doing nothing while my unit worked hard to make me look good. What was I going to do?

Sergeant Malachi had told me what was needed. My job was to make sure that everyone had what they needed in order to perform well. I needed to make sure that they have the tools and knowledge needed as the foundation for excellence. My job was also to act as a liaison with other parts of the organization, running interference as necessary. More importantly, my job was to take care of the people who worked for me. I needed to make sure they felt appreciated. I needed to help them see how their goals were integrally related to the larger organization and larger mission. Last but not least, I needed to help them feel that they had control over their work life.

It would be years before either Sergeant Malachi or myself heard of Robert K. Greenleaf and Servant Leadership. I wasn't conscious of implementing a new leadership philosophy. It just seemed like the practical thing to do. I wasn't aware that I was making a paradigm shift, moving from the mindset of "boss" to that of "Servant leader." It would be another 20 years before I actually heard the term "Servant Leader."

The outcome? Without being conscious of what was happening -- I was just "going with the flow" -- events were set in motion that profoundly changed my life.

My unit consistently drew high praise for their professionalism and solid results. I of course got much of the credit. Regularly I would hear comments from headquarters such as " I don't know what you're doing down there, but those guys are really fired up. You've got a great organization. Keep up the good work!"

Especially gratifying to me were comments from the General, our Wing Commander. He was most impressed by me and readily praised my performance to others. I could do no wrong!

The General was especially happy with me when the Inspector General's Team came to Vandenberg for their much dreaded periodic but unannounced visit. This rigorous week-long investigation looked at every aspect of the Wing's performance. It was the report card for the Wing and the Wing Commander. Within Strategic Air Command careers were often damaged or abruptly ended by low grades. Conversely, excellent grades meant major career advancement.

My unit received an A+. The General was ecstatic. My star was rising. In all fairness to my troops, I praised them in turn every chance that I got. When complemented on our performance, my usual response was "Thank you sir, but I couldn't have done it without my people, and I want to put in several of my Sergeants for awards and special recognition. Several of them are due for promotion and they deserve it!"

Of course the General just thought I was being modest. I still got the Lion's share of the credit. However, I didn't forget to pass on as much as I could. There were a lot of promotions, a lot of awards, and letters of commendation. Morale and cohesiveness couldn't have been higher. I was much respected. My workers were happy and felt appreciated. It was a total win-win for everyone involved.

I received an early promotion to First Lieutenant. Coasting on my success, I received a "below the zone" promotion to captain two years later. The momentum gained in the beginning of my career kept going until I retired as a Lieutenant Colonel many years later.

The die had been cast. I had unwittingly discovered a management style that has worked well in all subsequent years. It may have been just "dumb luck" and blind learning that got me into it, but the model has worked well in many other situations and with very diverse groups of people.

No, I'm not saying I discovered "Servant Leadership." Years later Robert K. Greenleaf would clearly conceptualize something that many have experienced before without knowing what to call it. I just stumbled on something that many successful leaders have realized for centuries. Leadership means getting things done through people, people who feel inspired and supported, people who are willing to follow wherever you lead.

I need to point out that Servant Leadership doesn't mean being nice at all costs. It doesn't mean abdication of making tough personnel decisions. It means sometimes being punitive, sometimes denying a promotion, sometimes demoting an individual or even ending a career. It doesn't mean that you stop being accountable.

What it does mean is that your mindset has shifted. You have redefined your role. You've taken off your "boss" hat. Being a Servant Leader means realizing that you can only get so far with a "command and control" mentality. You can coerce and control people to produce satisfactory results, but if you want extraordinary results, you have to do something else. If you want high motivation and high performance you have to help people feel deeply respected, appreciated, and empowered. You have to redefine your role as someone who facilitates high-performance through serving others. This is a very difficult shift for many traditional managers, but an essential skillset for a new century.

The concept of Servant Leadership has immense practicality in today's tough, competitive business environment. Satisfactory performance is no longer enough. Leadership requires moving beyond command and control to a full acceptance that extraordinary performance comes from people who choose to be extraordinary. Servant Leadership means accepting the role of facilitating -- not directing or micromanaging -- high performance. It means nurturing the growth of others and serving them in ways that support and empower their best efforts. It also mean being freed up to make the important transition from "manager" to leader.

Paraphrasing a famous philosopher, Servant Leadership is an idea whose time has come.

Your thoughts?

Dr. Bill

William C. Shearer
Ph.D., M.P.H., M.B.A.

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