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Needed: Servant-Leaders

July 1, 2005
by David Peete
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In senior housing, the goal is ultimately about "serving" our customers, whether through the CEO's responsive programming decisions or the executive director's management of a team faced with a myriad of individual customer requests on a daily basis. Another way we see "service" in senior housing is through CEOs' and executive directors' efforts to put the frontline staff's needs "first" so that they are highly motivated and better equipped to respond to customer expectations promptly and effectively.

Our research shows that whether it is the CEO motivating executive directors or the executive director motivating the frontline staff, a model of "servant-leadership" that embraces the primary focus of serving customers is particularly effective in our industry.

The concept of servant-leadership as a business model was first put forward by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 in an essay titled "The Servant as Leader." Greenleaf was a specialist in management research, development, and education at AT&T, during which time he formulated his thinking on servant-leadership. His ideas have influenced some of the most well-known management experts of the past few years, including Stephen R. Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), Ken Blanchard and Patricia Zigarmi (Leadership and the One Minute Manager), and Max DePree (Leadership Jazz).

An ever-increasing number of companies have adopted servant-leadership as part of their corporate philosophy, including Southwest Airlines, The Toro Company, The ServiceMaster Company, The Men's Wearhouse, and TDIndustries. TDIndustries, consistently voted among the top ten of Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For, adopted servant-leadership as a model in the early 1970s. Today, all new employees are given a copy of Greenleaf's book The Servant as Leader, and every supervisor is required to go through servant-leadership training.

So what is servant-leadership? In his book, Greenleaf says that "the first priority of any leader should be one of service and putting others first, including employees, customers, and the community." This represented a huge shift from the hierarchical "command and control" management models that dominated much of American business at the time.

Greenleaf believed that "the key difference between servant-leadership and other leadership models was found in the motivation of the leader." He maintained that the best leadership involves a dynamic commitment to serve others rather than the need to serve oneself.

As we look to the future of senior living, Greenleaf's perspective offers a clear path toward building organizations that truly focus on the customer by providing team members with the support, resources, and nurturing they need to succeed in an increasingly complex environment. Unlike during the Industrial Age, we can no longer afford to see staff as eminently replaceable "tools" or "cogs in the machine." To deliver exceptional service, our focus as leaders must be on developing leadership at each level of the organization-from the front line to the corporate offices.

How do you recognize a servant-leader? Larry Spears, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership, has identified these ten characteristics of servant-leaders:

1.Listens intently and receptively, seeking to clarify the group's will.

2.Exercises empathy through acceptance of each individual's unique contribution and assuming good intentions. If people fail, they are not personally rejected, even if their performance needs correction.

3.Nurtures healing and wholeness through encouragement of those who may have been hurt or damaged along the way.

4.Unflinchingly and consistently applies ethics and values to each situation.

5.Builds cooperation within the team through persuasion rather than relying on positional authority or coercion.

6."Dreams big dreams" by thinking not just about the day-to-day activities of the organization, but about its possibilities.

7.Exercises foresight by examining past and present results to predict the consequences of future decisions.

8.Understands service and stewardship as the first and foremost priority of leadership-applying this to staff, the stakeholders, and the community.

9.Nurtures the growth of employees as a continuous process.

10.Builds community within the organization, where everyone is encouraged to contribute to the greater whole.

Greenleaf writes about the development of the servant-leader: "It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then, conscious choice brings one to aspire to make sure that other people's highest-priority needs are being served.

"The best test is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"

The signs will be evident when you begin to practice servant-leadership. You'll find a shift from "It's not my job" to "Whatever it takes!" as your team's mantra. You'll see your maintenance staff helping a resident navigate the stairs. Your team will start suggesting creative and productive ways to do things better. When you see these signs, you're well on the way to becoming a servant-leader and, in the process, inspiring each team member to better serve each other, your customers, and your community.