Here we are at the cusp of 2022, a point in time where many of us might have been inclined to believe that we’d be looking back at the year about to end—the past two years in fact—in reflection of another year dominated by a pandemic winding down and about to gradually end. Unfortunately, we are still not at that point in time neither now, nor is it likely we will be very soon. And for some of us, that has been so disconcerting as to resort to drastic measures out of depression and over the thought that this pandemic way of life is going to be with us for a lot longer or forever. My viewpoint on the pandemic is that we mortals have been dealt a serious global health crisis that is testing both our collective willpower, self-discipline, and determination to address and cope with, while the scientific community and infectious disease experts scramble to quickly develop vaccines that outpace the viral variants and guide us along the path of recovery with effective ways of protecting people—ourselves, our families, or friends, and our fellow human beings.
Having a customer-centric mindset, as those of us within the Customer Experience profession tend to have, I’m particularly concerned about how we respond to those recommended measures intended to help mitigate viral transmissions—physical distancing, masks, sanitizers, vaccinations, etc. I’ll avoid the political aspects of this since, as someone educated in the sciences, I have learned to base what I accept as fact to be evidence-based as compared to opinion. Viruses know neither a particular political affiliation nor an ethnic boundary. They are humanistic equalizers in that respect. So, this now brings me to the concept of servant leadership as a highly potential and appropriate humanistic response to a pandemic that arrived through origins and forces still unclear.
Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy built on the belief that the most effective leaders strive to serve others, rather than through power and control. Those others can include customers, partners, fellow employees, and the community at large. Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, build better organizations, and create a more just and caring world.
While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:
“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.
“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as people? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived? “
So, how can we personally and effectively apply the concept of servant leadership in response to the pandemic and potentially living under pandemic conditions for times uncertain? Consider the following.
Based on Greenleaf’s writings, other management experts created a list of attributes a servant leader must possess. Larry Spears, president, and CEO of the Larry C. Spears Center for Servant Leadership Inc. and former president and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership described ten characteristics “central to the development” of servant leaders. As you read these, try to see whether and how these characteristics might manifest themselves in your work with customers, fellow employees, friends and neighbors, and fellow humans in general especially considering the times we are in and the ways that we treat and respond to life under pandemic conditions.
- Listening: While all leaders must possess superior communication and decision-making skills, the servant leader also must be willing to listen intently to others, Spears wrote. “The servant-leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps to clarify that will.”
- Empathy: A servant leader “assumes the good intentions of co-workers and does not reject them as people, even if [he or she] finds it necessary to refuse to accept their behavior or performance.”
- Healing: Servant leaders understand part of their leadership responsibility is to “help make whole” employees whose sense of self is precarious or impaired. According to Greenleaf, able leaders convey the “search for wholeness is something they share” with those they serve.
- Awareness: Greenleaf observed awareness “is not a giver of solace — it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply aware and reasonably disturbed,” he said, but are steadied by “their own inner serenity.”
- Persuasion: Servant leaders rely on persuasion, not positional authority, or coercion, to convince others. “This particular element offers one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian model and that of servant leadership,” Spears said.
- Conceptualization: Seeing a problem from a “conceptualizing perspective” requires an ability to “think beyond day-to-day realities,” Spears said. Servant leaders must balance between thinking big and managing everyday reality.
- Foresight: According to Spears, foresight is a “largely unexplored area in leadership studies.” In servant leaders, the ability to understand the past and see the present clearly to predict how the future will unfold is a key attribute.
- Stewardship: Stewardship reflects Greenleaf’s view that CEOs, staff, and trustees all have a responsibility to hold the institution “in trust” for the greater good of society.
- Commitment to the growth of people: Believing in the intrinsic value of people, servant leaders feel a responsibility to nurture the growth of employees.
- Building community: Greenleaf believed the shift from local communities to large institutions was the “primary shaper of human lives,” diminishing the sense of community people once had, Spears said. The awareness of this loss propels servant leaders to find ways to build a community within their institutions.
There’s a lot to consider here when you think about these ten characteristics and how they might help us and one another not only during these pandemic times but in general as leaders within our chosen profession. I wear a face mask in both public and private gatherings not only as a self-protective measure but because I am aware that I may be an inadvertent carrier that could harm others. As a trusting believer in the health sciences, I accept that my being vaccinated against the virus and its variants is a civic duty and obligation to both myself and society at large and a patriotic act. Having a capacity for exhibiting empathy and listening skills is vital to the success of the CX professional. Being persuasive in your leadership approach rather than coercive will surely win more acceptance of your ideas and abilities.
The one characteristic that resonates particularly with me at this moment in time and in reflection of the past year is the one around building community. Having just decided to move away from a city to a rural town has enlightened me to the community and culture around me where neighbors are welcoming and helpful to one another and where my artistic passions may just have found renewal. As far as building community within institutions goes, this year’s highlight was the small group community that a diverse cohort of passionate CX individuals within the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) formed on March 18, 2021, and since that time has met weekly (over Zoom of course) for 90 minutes and that has created an inseparable bond based on all 10 servant leadership characteristics. Here’s a challenge for 2022. Take each of the 10 characteristics beginning in January 2022 and focus on that one for the entire month. Drill into each one of them further and see what new behaviors you can adopt that will bring you closer to becoming a better leader—a servant leader—and a more adept community builder.
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Karl Sharicz – Founder, CEO – HorizonCX, LLC. | December 2021