Jun 152017

Don’t Confuse Sucking Down with Servant Leadership

I love the concept of Servant Leadership.  From the source, the definition is:

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

This is a very broad societal definition, but it’s fairly easy to apply to a more narrow corporate, or even startup environment.  Are you as a CEO oriented primarily towards your people, or towards other stakeholders like customers or shareholders?  By the way, trying to do right by all three stakeholders is NOT a problem in a world of being oriented towards one.  It’s just a philosophy around which comes first, and why.  Our People First philosophy at Return Path is fair clear that at the end of the day, all three stakeholders win IF you do right by employees, so they do the best possible work for customers, so you build a healthy and profitable and growing business.

CEOs who practice Servant Leadership aren’t necessarily focused on power dynamics, or on helping those least privileged in society (at least not as part of their job)…but they are focused on making sure that their employees most important needs are met — both in the moment, as in making sure employees are empowered and not blocked or bottlenecked, and over the long haul, as in making sure employees have opportunities to learn, grow, advance their careers, make an impact, and have the ability to live a well balanced life.

I was in a meeting a couple weeks back with another leader and a few people on his team.  He *seemed* to practice Servant Leadership the way he was speaking to his team members.  But he wasn’t, really.  He was doing something I refer to as Sucking Down.  He was telling them things they clearly wanted to hear.  He was lavishing praise on them for minor accomplishments.  He was smiling and saying yes, when what he really meant was no.  He was practicing the art of Sucking Up, only to people on his team, not to a boss.  I got a sense that something wasn’t right during the meeting, and then post meeting, he actually fessed up to me — even bragged about it — that he was being disingenuous to get what he wanted out of his people.

There’s a clear difference between Servant Leadership and Sucking Down in the long run.  The danger comes in the moment.  Just as managers need to build good detection skills to sniff out evidence of someone on their team Sucking Up, employees need to be able to understand that clear difference in their managers’ behavior as they think about how to manage their careers, and even where to work.

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