(This post was first published here on May 29, 2017.)

Last week I shared some observations I’ve noticed over many years of studying leaders regarding what gives some of them an unfair advantage over others. Here’s a reminder of what I shared:

  • These leaders don’t worry about who gets credit for significant accomplishments.
  • These leaders think about other people’s needs and desires before they think of their own.
  • These leaders work hard to get to know their customers and team really well.
  • These leaders  go out of their way to do something nice for their customers and their team—helped by the fact that they have a deeper knowledge of them.
  • These leaders really believe they are there to serve their customers and team’s needs rather than their own.

Maybe these could all be described by the term “servant leadership.” Whether that term captures it or not, I’m convinced you and I can have a lot more influence with others if we lead from this posture.

So why don’t more leaders do this?

The culture in the United States (and many other countries) rewards individual accomplishments more highly than it rewards helping others accomplish great things. This largely unspoken cultural norm seeps into us through our families, our schools, our extra curricular activities, and even through our religious organizations.

As such, most of us become naturally focused on accomplishing great things by and for ourselves. We are happy to help others accomplish good things, but only after our own accomplishment needs are met. Few leaders focus on others equally or more than themselves.

I think West Michigan is different than other places I’ve experienced. I’ve worked for many great West Michigan leaders who teach and model servant leadership. It’s not that other regions in the nation don’t have leaders like this—I just believe that servant leaders aren’t as prevalent in other places as in West Michigan.

An interesting outcome of this others-focused approach is that a leader who focuses more on other people’s results (and worries less about their own personal results) usually ends up receiving greater personal accolades than leaders who push for their own results.

Of course these kinds of leaders also need to be driven to achieve the purpose of their organization, whatever that may be. But they are driven to achieve this purpose by helping others make the biggest impact, not by accomplishing it themselves.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, identified these kinds traits when his team discovered a unique kind of leader, which they named “Level 5 Leaders”—those who have a strong will for the purpose, but have a humble approach toward others.

I was exposed to this kind of thinking around 25 years ago, well before Collins’s amazing book, when I heard another leadership author (maybe Dennis Waitley or Ken Blanchard) share that you can’t give more than you receive! Let me say that again. You can try to give unto others with no strings attached, but somehow the world always pays you back in a way that makes you feel like you received more than you gave.

When I heard this, I immediately suspected that it could be true.

For the past 25 years I have been paying attention to it to see if it holds true over time. I am as convinced as ever that the more you try to give and the more you try to serve, the more you will be rewarded, especially if being rewarded was not part of your motive for doing it. The rewards won’t necessarily be in the same currency as the original gift, but the giver will almost always feel that she got more out of the giving than the receivers did.

A Little Personal Side note:

As a tennis player who has always loved serving and volleying much more that receiving the serve, I especially resonate with the thought that “it’s better to serve than to receive.” You all probably know I have a playful mind when it comes to words, and as such, the legal name of my company is Ad Out, LLC (though I’m now doing business as Leading by DESIGN). “Ad out” in tennis, means, “my serve, your advantage.” I like that playful connection and desire to live it out in life. Okay, enough of that. Let’s get back to the main point.

So why don’t most leaders choose to lead in this way?

  1. I suspect they just want to get ahead. Who doesn’t?
  2. I suspect they have never explored the expression, “You can try, but you’ll find you can’t give more than you receive.” Or maybe they have heard it, but they don’t believe it’s true.
  3. Either way, they are working to get ahead of others by thinking about their own wants and needs first before working to serve others.

Meredith, Jeff, Gerald, and I are committed to serving all of you. Of course, we don’t always do this perfectly, but we are working to give each other feedback in a way that will propel each of us to grow into this posture. In doing so, we believe you also will chose to focus on serving your customers and team first. This, in turn, will slowly work to make West Michigan the Silicon Valley of leadership.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for allowing me ruminate with you on this important belief.

Serve well this week!

Image by Stuart Grout. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.