Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) is generally associated with the concept of servant leadership. Here is a brief excerpt from one of his essays, first published in 1970: “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.”
In TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments (2011), a book co-authored with Mette Norgaard, Doug Conant shares valuable insights on effective servant leadership in the workplace. He observes that “each day is an elaborate sequence of TouchPoints: interactions with one other person, a couple of people, or a group that can last a couple of minutes, a couple of hours, or a couple of days. Those TouchPoints can be planned or spontaneous, casual or carefully choreographed. They take place in hallways, on factory floors, in conference rooms, on the phone, and via e-mail or instant messaging. Some deal with straightforward, relatively minor issues, while others involve complex challenges with wide-ranging effects.
“Sadly, leaders often see these interactions as distractions that get in the way of their real work: the important work of strategizing, planning, and prioritizing. Only, these touch points are the real work. They are the moments that bring your strategies and priorities to life, the interactions that translate your ideas into new and better behaviors. How do you do that? By infusing each TouchPoint, no matter how brief, with greater clarity and genuine commitment.”
He also stresses the importance of being a good listener. “Listening is one of the most amazingly efficient things you can do as a leader. But listening can be very hard to do. One reason is that most leaders have a bias for action, and when they are listening, it does not feel like they are doing anything. Listening is even more difficult in today’s interruption age, where we have become so accustomed to the constant stimulation that many of us have developed ADT (attention deficit traits). Consequently, after trying to pay attention for a couple of minutes, your mind starts drifting, your fingers start twitching, and you reach for your PDA. But, in a TouchPoint, listening with your head and with your heart is critical if you are to get a good understanding of the issue. Without that understanding, you can easily waste everyone’s time by solving the wrong problem or by merely addressing a symptom, not the underlying disease.”
Doug Conant does not limit his attention to residents of the E-suite. He insists that all organizations need effective leadership — servant leadership — at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Only then will they have a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive.