Building Awareness of the Need for Servant Leadership

I was fortunate to work on the senior team of an airline president who epitomized servant leadership.   If he was carrying a pen with the corporate logo on it and an employee complimented it, he gave it as a present. He would lend his car to those of us who commuted by subway when we needed to get around the New York City metro area. He was invariably the first in the office and usually the last to leave. When we were at a company-sponsored event, he never ate until everyone had their food. And he absolutely never missed a company orientation for new hires.  Perhaps the most telling thing about him was his lack of pretention in any situation. He helped to clean airplanes when we arrived at destination, and I recall dozens of times when vans would pick us up and he would sit in the “way back” with the luggage because the vehicle was too full.

Most importantly, he was always “present” in the moment when he was talking with you.   He wasn’t looking beyond you to see who might be walking by; he was engaged in you as a person and you never had any question that his focus and interest was on you. He modeled a behavior I always wanted to emulate and still do today.

Juxtapose that with another senior airline manager I observed and with whom I worked.   While ostensibly a kind and decent man, his actions were virtually opposite that of the other leader I described.   When you travelled with him on an airplane, you would sit down next to him and ask how his family was. He would respond and ask about yours, and then he would open up the Wall Street Journal or New York Times and ignore you for the duration of the flight. He was not “present”, and did not show interest in you as a person.   When food was served at a meeting, he did not wait for the others in the room to eat first. And, in the midst of darkening economic storm clouds at the company, I can still distinctly remember him selecting a foreign luxury car as his company vehicle, as he disliked driving a domestic one. I recall him seeming to revel in selecting the model and color.

Such actions can make or break a leader. In this case, his action with the company car was a precursor to other actions after involving a bonus paid to executives, which inevitably resulted in the removal of him and his entire team.

Can Executive Coaching change such behaviors?   The answer is not easy, as so many of our actions are driven by our innate styles and beliefs. But it is likely that the second company manager never stopped to realize how others perceived him. He had such confidence in his own abilities that he may not have realized that the perceptions of others can make or break a leader.   Focused executive coaching can facilitate tools for 360 evaluations and follow-up interviews, educating clients about who they are. The emperor was never told he had no clothes, and so it is with many executives, who rise to positions of prominence and, in their mind, well-deserved importance, without realizing that they need to stay grounded and never stop being servants to their people.

David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue and himself a servant leader, often said regarding pilots, support staff and other “behind the scenes” people at the company, “We serve them, so they can serve our customers.”   Neeleman understood that the essence of “Servant Leadership” is about service to everyone in our companies, and most especially those who pay our salaries by purchasing our goods and services.

A critical part of coaching is a relationship of trust where you can learn about yourself through a number of tools and then to explore them in a confidential setting.   Awareness of who you are and an understanding of how you want to change is a first step, followed by action planning and execution related to your own behaviors and style.   That’s a critical part of the value of coaching.