Developing a Servant Leadership Mindset to transform your organisation

Servant Leadership is beginning to re-emerge across industry as a philosophy that favours cultural transformation. There are many offshoots of Leadership styles that have been birthed over time, including great leadership thinkers and experts such as James MacGregor Burns’ philosophy on Transformational Leadership, or Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Theory, and Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Waner Klemp’s concept of Conscious Leadership. However, having the privilege of speaking to hundreds of business owners and executives throughout my executive career at Vative, as well as witnessing many successful culture and operational transformations, it is apparent that Servant Leadership is the key ingredient to a successful change management strategy.

At Vative, we are fortunate to work and partner with MarkTwo Consulting, whose purpose is to help leaders turn disengaged and unproductive staff into high performing teams. I had the honour of having a fireside chat with the Mark Oliver, CEO of MarkTwo Consulting, and the author of his published book called Motivational Leadership – 10 Myths Managers must debunk to avoid disengaged, dissatisfied or unproductive workers. In this discussion, I spoke with Mark about the importance of embodying a Servant Leadership style to truly transform your organisation, and this is what he had to say from his 30 years’ experience, engaging leaders across the globe.

Mark, let’s begin with giving the audience an understanding of the philosophy of Servant Leadership, and why executives and why managers should embrace this style.

Perhaps if I first give a holistic comment on leadership. People must be led according to their needs, and because people are different, it is not surprising that there are several ways to lead (by “lead” I mean something different to “manage”). In the military it has been well established that we must lead by “example”, and our extensive research and modeling shows that there are actually four (and only four) ways to lead, to: serve, save, coach or inspire. As a young officer in the British Army, I learnt my craft at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where all British Army officers are trained and widely recognised as a premier officer training establishment globally. It has just one motto since World War II: “Serve to lead”. It means to put others before oneself. It requires humility and caring for those you lead. When we do that, people’s extraordinary capability shows through. As Colin Powell said: “leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management thinks possible.” When people are led, they become more engaged, and this produces tangible benefits to organisations, such as: 

1) 18% higher productivity 

2) Twice the net profit (100% increase) 

3) 12% higher customer advocacy 

4) 62% less accidents 

5) Two and a half times the revenue growth 

Servant Leadership started to enter the civilian domain, after Robert Greenleaf in 1970 popularized the phrase in his essay “The Servant as Leader”

As we both know, there is an art to successful change management. When leading an organisation through a Continuous Improvement strategy, why would you ensure your Executive Leadership and Management Team adopt a mindset of Servant Leadership?

One of the reasons people are often uncomfortable with change is because there is a risk to it. The risk, is going from good performance to poor performance, and with that, all the potential consequences that can have. This can put people into a fear state, and when we are anxious we become more stupid, and our performance becomes worse. As mentioned earlier, the key essence of the mindset of Servant Leadership is care. When people feel cared for, or even the stronger emotion of ‘loved’ by their managers/ seniors, they feel less anxious are prepared to take more risk, and therefore tend to perform better. Jan Carlzon, CEO Scandinavian Airlines System, at a very difficult time (losing $17m per year and ranked 14 out of 17 European airlines), turned it around and became Airline of the Year in 1984 (3 years after he took over as CEO). He said: “In my experience there are two great motivators in life. One is fear the other is love. You can manage an organization by fear, but if you do you will ensure that people don’t perform up to their real capabilities. A person who is afraid doesn’t dare perform to the limits of his or her capabilities …because people will not take risks when they feel afraid… But if you manage people by love… they start to perform up to their real capabilities”.

We’ve seen over time that EQ (Emotional Intelligence) serves far greater as a measure of leadership success as opposed to IQ – Problem Solving Intelligence. How does this explain the Peter principle – that people are promoted to their level of incompetence?

There is a lot of research showing that EQ correlates with leadership capability much more than IQ. In fact, IQ correlates negatively with leadership. If this wasn’t bad enough – there is good evidence that IQ and EQ are inversely correlated. In other words, the higher your IQ then the lower your EQ tends to be. This explains a large part of the Peter principle. IQ predicts technical ability and so high IQ people tend to do well in technical roles and get promoted. However, if this promotion is from a technical role to a leadership or supervisory role, then we too often see a high performer become a low performer, because a low EQ means the individual is likely to lead poorly, and therefore their team members perform poorly. In fact, the research is damning – only 15% of your high performers are your high potentials. What this means is that only 15% of people who are doing well in the current role, will do well when promoted.

In 2016, our executive team at Vative conducted a study across 47 organisations deploying a Continuous Improvement strategy. We measured their success and ROI across 9 variables – Industry, Budget/Spend, Duration of Engagement, Size of the Business, Leadership Mindset, Culture, Strategic Approach, Facilitator Experience and Credentials and Deployment Method. The greatest influence for success, by an overwhelming regard, was the Mindset of Leadership. From your experience, why do you think this is the major factor?

It sounds like you did a high-quality study because there’s lots of other studies finding a very similar result. In fact, mindset is not just critical for leadership, but I would put to you that it is a determinant of success and happiness in our lives generally. I believe mindset is important because this is what drives our behaviour and of course our behaviour has direct consequences on our performance, and therefore success. That said, we can get too focused on behaviour, because it is a symptom of other things that drive our behaviour. Some of these are external and outside our control, but the key internal driver is our intention and that is a critical part of our mindset. When I ask audiences which is more important, behaviour or intention? In modern countries, most people identify behaviour, and it’s not hard to show that this is wrong! It is intention (or mindset) and this is the simple reason for why mindset is the major factor.

A high performing culture is directly linked to the leadership engagement in an organisation. How do you see Servant Leadership influencing culture and are there any great examples you can share?

This is a great question. While culture is quite stable in terms of it taking time to change, an organisational culture in many ways, is an aggregate of the individuals in that culture. As I mentioned earlier, Servant Leadership has two key characteristics – humility and care or love. Here love refers to maternal or paternal love. As a Leader, I am not suggesting we should romantically love our staff, that is something else! There are many leadership books out there, some good some bad, but one of the best in my opinion, is GOOD TO GREAT by Jim Collins. In this, he gives 11 great examples. People often think that Servant Leadership is a “soft” leadership and therefore gets little results. But the 11 leaders Collins identifies, not only showed great humanity as well as being humble and determined, but their companies massively outperformed the rest of the Fortune 500 companies in financial terms, including the ones promoted in MBA schools, such as GE.

When considering Executives and Managers that you have engaged over time, do you find Leaders serving their subordinates more often than the traditional Leadership style of a top-down approach?

I’ve worked with 60 different nationalities across 20 countries and numerous industries, and I have found a vast range of leadership styles, but consistently, the ones I find who lead better, are those who adopt a Servant Leadership, coaching leadership, or inspirational approach.