My Interview with Kenneth R. Jennings and John Stahl-Wert, authors of the best-selling leadership classic The Serving Leader: Five Powerful Actions to Transform Your Team, Business and Community
I recently visited with the authors of this best-selling leadership classic which Ken Blanchard has called “the most practical guide available to implementing servant leadership in your life and work”. The book has just been released in a 10th Anniversary Edition, which includes a very helpful new chapter. The authors use a compelling and at times quite touching fictional story based on real characters to outline the basics of what they call “Serving Leadership”.
So many themes in the book resonated with me as I too have a passion for servant leadership, helping people find work that plays to their strengths, learning from failure, etc.
Coram Deo (CD): A theme that flows through the book is the paradoxical nature of the Serving Leader. Could you speak about that?
Paradox lies at the heart of a great deal of wise living. For example, a good parent must be both firm and warm with their child, hold strong standards and also bend to show care and empathy with a beloved child. In leadership, we noticed paradoxes throughout great leadership practice. For example, to reach many people with our leadership influence, we need to focus very carefully on how we influence those closest to us. Another example is that the best way to show care and respect for those “beneath” us is to help them stand taller, grow stronger, and gain capacities that we have.
CD: You use the active word “serving” leadership. What were your reasons for that, rather than the more commonly used servant leadership?
There has been a great deal of confusion for executives in the servant leadership space, and some of it has come from seeing servant leadership as a set of ideals or lofty principles. It is difficult to know what to do with an ideal, other than to admire it. We chose the language of “serving leadership” to make this work a verb, to focus on the actions, applications, behaviors, and disciplines that we see great leaders exhibit. As an active word, we can practice it, master it, measure it, and teach others to do the same. All our work is about the applicability of key leadership behaviors, and how the research correlates those behaviors to real results.
CD: The book states that the Serving Leader model works for a small team, a large business or a community of several million. I haven’t read as much about how leaders impact large communities. Could you comment on that?
Center for Serving Leadership gathers Serving Leader communities together in major cities and geographies for the purpose of embedding the practices of serving leadership into many companies as well as public sector and social sector agencies. We do this in Cohorts so that the leaders learn together as a cross-section of leaders in that area. For example, Rochester, New York, is building a Serving Leader Community around their work with Center for Serving Leadership, and is leveraging the teachings from the book to catalyze a Greater Rochester movement to transform the economic and social conditions of the region. Similar groups in Chicago, Indianapolis, West Palm Beach, and elsewhere are doing the very same this with us.
CD: In the book you use an upside down pyramid model for the Serving Leader. Could you talk about why you chose that model?
Leadership is exercised both from the top and from the bottom. Leaders hold their authority in championing vision, watching over values, and keeping a sharp eye on the disciplines needed for success. At the same time, in Upend the Pyramid, leaders go to the bottom, as it were, putting themselves at the service of helping grow, become more, gain what’s needed for success, etc. “How can I help you achieve your goals?” is a great question for a leader to ask followers. This is a “serving leader” question, to be sure, not a command-and-control question. And it really drives great results.
CD: The book at times touches on the faith of some of the characters. I enjoy helping people to integrate their faith and work. It would seem that a Serving Leader model would resonate with people of faith. Would you agree with that?
I do agree with that. I’m a person of faith, and have many clients who are, too. I also have many clients who are of differing faiths, or no faiths, and I am very committed to serve them well, help them get better, and share the principles that just plain work.
CD: One of the teaching points in the book is “To address your weaknesses, focus on your strengths”. That seems like one of those paradoxes we were talking about. How do you do this?
This is another paradox. We must fix certain weaknesses, such as always showing up late or having a tendency to stretch the truth. Such weaknesses can’t be ignored. But if we’re bad at spreadsheets and great in business development, our best contribution to the team is to do more business development and to partner with a colleague who is great with spreadsheets. There is no well-rounded leader; however, there are well-rounded leadership teams.
CD: I was interested in the discussion about Serving Leaders running to a great purpose. You write that this is the first action that marks the Serving Leader, the foundation that everything else follows. Can you tell us what you mean by the great purpose?
In the greatest companies on earth, leaders are helping their people understand the meaningfulness of daily labor. People do their best work when they understand how their tasks serve others, make the world better, and cause their work day to be worth it. Great Purpose, if it is to awaken great commitment and engagement within people, must speak to the question of how this job contributes to the valuable service of others. For example, Industrial Scientific Corporation manufactures gas detection devices worn by industrial workers. They read The Serving Leader, and fashioned this Great Purpose Statement, “The workers of Industrial Scientific are dedicating their careers to eliminating death on the job in this century.” This is the kind of Great Purpose statement that gets people excited about coming to work. They teach their people to ask, “Would the device I’m working on right now be acceptable to me if I knew that it was my dad’s life that depended on it working well?”
CD: I enjoyed the new chapter in this anniversary edition titled “Mike Wilson’s Updates”, which has Mike looking at lessons for personal growth and also lessons for organizational performance utilizing the framework of the Five Powerful Actions of Serving Leaders. One of the things I learned was how Serving Leadership can strengthen (and heal) family relationships. Can you talk about that?
We see Serving Leader work traveling home with our clients all the time. In our Cohort work at Center for Serving Leadership, when I’m talking to an executive who is on the fence about joining a Serving Leader Cohort, and when I know that their wife is friends with the wife of another company owner who previously was in a cohort, I ask the wives to talk to each other. The reason I do is that spouses and children see the difference, feel the difference that is created by this work. It works at work and it works at home.
CD: Another learning I noted was under “Blaze the Trail”, where Serving Leaders are encouraged to physically co-locate teams that will benefit from working closely together, or find innovative ways to effectively collaborate virtually. We are doing both in the organization that I work in. Are you seeing a lot of organizations adopt these best practices?
We are seeing this more and more, but there’s a long way to go here.
CD: You talk about failure being a gift. Is that another of those paradoxes? What do you mean by failure being a gift?
Great leaders have awareness both of self and of others. They pay attention to how they are impacting others, and what kind of a wake they are creating behind them. Failure helps us develop that capacity. Many leaders start out with a great deal of talent, drive, and confidence, which is wonderful and all. But it’s failure that helps them start to wonder how others are doing, what others are thinking, what they’re missing in their dash to their goals. I’ve never met a great leader that didn’t go to the school of failure, learn from it, and start to pay much, much more attention to what their teammates and colleagues see, think, know, are concerned about, etc. Failure (and the pain of it) CAN make us better. Some leaders respond to failure by doubling down on protecting themselves from having to feel anything, but that’s not a path to lasting results.
CD: In discussing “Building on Strengths”, you mention strengths assessments. Do you have any favorite assessment tools?
I use many, including StrengthsFinder, System for Investigating Motivated Ability (SIMA), StandOut, DiSC, Predictive Index, and Kolbe.
CD: Mike mentions that he will be writing “How the Serving Leader Grows”. Might this be a future book?
This book is done in its first draft. Perhaps a 2017 publication.
CD: I really enjoyed this updated edition of The Serving Leader, and hope that many take advantage of this new release. Do you have any closing thoughts?
Big, big, big appreciation to you, and my apology for such a late response. I was traveling early to late all week, and couldn’t keep my eyes open at night. I hope this is still useful to you. Blessings!
CD: Thanks so much for your time. Best wishes with the new edition of the book.
EXCERPT FROM THE SERVING LEADER
Kenneth R. Jennings is a best-selling author, speaker, and active consultant in organizational leadership, serving as Chairman of Third River Partners. John Stahl-Wert is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and expert in growing great leaders, serving as Director of the Center for Serving Leadership. Together they co-authored The Serving Leader – now revised and updated for the 10th Anniversary Edition and available on Amazon.
The following is excerpted from their book, The Serving Leader. In this excerpt, Mike (who has been called to help his dying father’s leadership project) and his father are using their last days together to repair their relationship. Together they are exploring the concept of servant leadership. Here they discuss the spiritual aspect of servant leadership.
The Spiritual Part
“Can I ask you both a question?” I continued. “While we’re dealing with missing pieces?”
“Ask,” Dad responded.
“How does the spiritual part work? Or more precisely, is the spiritual part required for Serving Leadership to work? You both carry around Bibles.”
“It’s important to me, Mike,” Dad said, his voice quavering with emotion. “My faith is important to me because it keeps me in mind of the fact that my life doesn’t belong to me. My living needs to serve something bigger than myself.”
“I know that’s true of you, Dad,” I answered, wondering why he was explaining this to me. I knew it full well.
“I want it to be true of you, too, Mike,” Dad continued, his face now full of feeling.
“It is true of me,” I answered strongly, now understanding how he had taken my question. He thought I was back to my personal ruminations, which at this moment I wasn’t. “It’s becoming true of me, I should say. If you’re troubled about my part in this, you can put your mind at ease. I’m on the way.” I walked over to where my dad was sitting and gave him a hug. I really appreciated how much he cared for me, for the whole of me.
“You were really asking two questions, weren’t you, Mike?” Rock said. “One of a personal nature and one more professional.”
“Thank you, Rock, for saying that so well,” I answered, glad for the graceful transition he offered. “I work with a lot of clients, and I need to provide business value regardless of a client’s spiritual orientation or nonorientation. I want to promote principles and actions that can be applied in many different settings and that work for many different kinds of people. Some of them are spiritually inclined, to be sure. And some have deeply humane principles that aren’t religiously motivated. And some are driven to build great and profitable companies. So, yes, my question is, does Serving Leadership just plain work?”
“It just plain works,” Dad answered. Rock nodded. “Many of our friends are from different faiths,” Dad continued, “and many of the firms that use our principles have no faith agenda.”
“We have colleagues in government,” Rock added, “who are reporting great benefit from Serving Leadership. I use these principles right here in my Navy post.”
“I guess I loaded up your schedule with a lot of the more faith-oriented colleagues, Mike,” my dad then said, a grin of confession on his face. “A father’s prerogative.”
“But here’s the point,” Rock continued. “Bring great purpose to the table, turn your leadership into service to your workers, hold high expectations, make sure your team has what it needs in training and resources and clear running ground, and maximize the strengths you have. Take these actions, and you’ll get real acceleration and impact. We believe it’s how we’ve been designed to function best.
“Faith or no faith,” Dad added.
“Whether working with a small team, working with an entire corporation, or working with all the sectors of a great city,” Rock said.
“Live it out very personally, or set the principles in motion at a large corporate level. Let it bring deep private meaning to your life and to your family, or let it produce great public value,” Dad added. “Better yet, do both.”
Both men paused.
“But please don’t steer clear of God in your own life, Mike,” Dad continued. “Your father speaking here. Serving Leadership requires a deep humility and a willingness to pour yourself into the good of others. I pray that you let yourself be nurtured for this by something larger than yourself.”
I picked up my notebook, which was an almost unreadable scribble of notes, filled with whole sections of Rock’s remarks that I tried to capture word for word, as well as sidebar notations. I knew I was going to have my hands full getting it down more clearly later. Not to mention the job of actually living it out. That’s going to make the job of writing it all down a cinch in comparison.
I looked over at my dad, who had not yet gotten out of his seat. He looked back at me with eyes that were suddenly very tired. And very content.