Leadership lessons from the superstorm

imo-blogLeadership is about eliciting the best in others. In order for an organization to truly excel, a culture of bringing out the best in people must permeate it. Leadership expert Michael Beck explains why a culture that embraces a servant leader philosophy accomplishes just that.

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11.09.12 Blog SandyThe recent superstorm on the East Coast disrupted transportation, closed thousands of businesses, and caused millions to lose power. In the midst of handling state of emergency, President Obama did something notable.  What he did revealed who he is as a leader (regardless of which presidential candidate you supported) and set an example each of us as leaders ought to pay attention to and emulate.

Obama told the governors of the affected states to “call him directly if they hit a single bureaucratic snag.” He didn’t say, “Call my office.”  He didn’t say, “Report back to me and keep me updated daily.”  What he said in essence was, “Call me personally if you have the slightest bottleneck due to anything in my control, and I will make it go away”.

His statement reflects what I consider to be a servant leadership mentality and philosophy, which in my opinion, is one of the strongest, most effective styles of leadership.  Let me share why I feel this way.

Leadership is about eliciting the best in others.  In order for an organization to truly excel, a culture of bringing out the best in people must permeate it.  A culture which embraces a servant leader philosophy accomplishes just that.  Asking and answering three simple questions puts this in perspective and illustrates why having a servant mentality works so well.

The first question that needs to be asked is, “Who is the most important person to your company?”  (Notice I didn’t ask “in” your company, but rather “to” your company.)  The answer, of course, is the customer.  No Customers = No Company.

A follow-up question is, “Who then is the most important person to your customers within your company?”  Clearly the answer is not “the CEO”.  No, the most important person to a customer is the person they come in contact with – the “front line”.

The third and final question is the one that really drives the leadership point home.  “What then is the job of the manager of those front line people?”  The job of that manager is to bring out the best in the people he or she leads.  The manager must ensure that his team has the training and knowledge they need.  She needs to provide the support and environment to allow them to be their best.  The whole goal is to make their work as enjoyable, productive, and as rewarding as possible.

If you apply this reasoning to the next level up of management, and the level above that, and so on and so forth, it results in an organizational chart that resembles an inverted pyramid.  It’s an organization that acknowledges the importance of the front line and reflects a philosophy of service throughout.

This isn’t simply a theory or a type of feel-good culture that compromises profit and performance.  Far from it.  It is a practical, proven, and extremely effective approach to conducting business.  There are a number of real-world examples of businesses that have embraced a servant leader philosophy and generated strong results.
One example is Frontier Airlines.  In an industry plagued by stagnant growth and evaporating profits, this company has adopted a servant leader approach to business.  By way of example, when the office closes for a holiday, many of the office staff will go into the field to help the front line folks with the heavy holiday workload.  Servant leaders abound within the organization.
Another example is Nucor Steel, which shot to the top of the U.S. steel industry by adopting a servant leader, almost egalitarian, business model.  The leadership of the company minimized the perceived differences between the front line and the management/executive team and recognized the importance each person plays in the success of the organization.  Their corporate goal, and one that is embraced by their 20,000 employees, is to “Take Care of Our Customers.”
Adopting a servant leader philosophy can make a tremendous difference in the productivity, growth and profitability of an organization.  It advances the people doing their best, it advances you as a leader, and it advances the company.  This is a smart and savvy approach to business that should be adopted and implemented in any company, no matter what industry or size.  Eliciting excellence is the essence of effective leadership.

mbeck-smallMichael Beck is a Portland-based executive strategist and specializes in business strategy, executive development, and leadership effectiveness. Connect on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/mjbeck, or visit michaeljbeck.com to learn more. 

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