Servant Leadership: Now in 3-D

A salty tear rolled past the border of my digital 3-D glasses.”It’s a cartoon, dad!” said my incredulous 11-year-old, “why are you CRYING?” The Saturday matinée was a cove of contrast: 400 giggling, wiggling kids: 150 weeping parents, each experiencing Toy Story 3 through the lenses of their lives. Through my foggy specs, I clearly saw the towering power of the servant leader.

A few days later, I was talking with a new friend, Trey Pennington, who had written an amazing post about how every business needs a “Woody.” I mentioned that I saw Woody as a “servant leader.” Trey, rich with the inspiration that characterizes his work, encouraged me to expound upon the vision.


In the business world, the notion of Servant leadership is attributed to writings of Robert Greenleaf. One of Greenleaf’s stellar passages asserts that a servant leader takes great care to ensure that the “highest priority needs of others” have been met. Because I aspire toward servant leadership in my profession, I couldn’t help but notice how clearly Woody modeled this archetype in Toy Story 3.

Woody had it made. His future was secure. He alone would be heading to college with Andy: onward and upward. But he couldn’t ignore the despair of those he’d led for so long. His team was crushed by the incorrect assumption that Andy no longer cared for them. So Woody left his secure position in Andy’s luggage, risking his own future so that he could educate and encourage those he cared about.

Later in the film, Woody was welcomed into a bright new home, safe in a delightful room among young Bonnie’s friendly toys. And yet, upon learning that his friends were suffering and oppressed, Woody once again left his secure position. Disregarding his own comfort, Woody returned to Sunnyside to lead them through danger to safety. For the second time, Woody demonstrated his servant leadership, placing himself in harm’s way for the good of his friends.

In the corporate world, the servant leader is willing to sacrifice time and energy, in order to ensure that the team is informed and inspired. The servant leader is willing take necessary political risks, in order to defend the team from false accusations. The professional servant leader finds purpose and fulfillment in denying self for the well-being of the team.

In the past, it was rare to see servant leadership emphasized as a crucial corporate value. In the future, servant leadership will be a prime predictor of long-term success. So as you ponder servant leadership in your business, don’t ask how you can become more effective. Ask, instead, how you can become more empathetic. Effectiveness rises and falls with empathy. They are inextricably linked.

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15 Responses to “Servant Leadership: Now in 3-D”

  1. Thank you for the shout out.

    You definitely dig down deeper and get to the heart of the matter I only alluded to. Thank you for putting the thought into the post and sharing it.

    Thank you especially for concluding with empathy. Empathy is a trait that is expressly, specifically targeted by some popular sales training courses as something to be avoided. One instructor said, “Empathy or sympathy, either way, if you’ve got it, you’re dead.” He continued with that classic non-truth, “The ABCs of selling? Always be closing!” Bottom line, he pushed the salesman’s agenda as priority.

    You’re advocating empathy and you’re defining success in terms of others’ needs. There’s gold there.

    • Thank you Trey. I’m alarmed to learn that said trainers advocate squelching empathy. When those without conscience attain positions of influence, the suffering is exponential. I believe that we are entering an “age of accountability.” The increased power of the customer to express and expose, due to social channels, will root out those who are only in business to take from others. The businesses willing to give, partner and collaborate are those that will thrive. Personally, I’m delighted to work at a such a company, one that defends, serves and protects. I find incredible purpose in being a part of it. Thanks for everything. I appreciate all you do!

  2. Love this post….. I read R. Greanleaf’s book on servant leadership and was truly moved by it. The great leaders are not those that simply create the most results, but empower those they work with to thrive to the greatest of their abilities (personally and professionally) so results can be met – both financial and community/culturally within the organization. This is a concept that is really lacking in a lot of organizations….

    Thanks for the post.

    AZ Mom of Many Hats
    Angie

  3. Great article!

    I’m still working this out in my mind, but there’s definitely a connection between this idea of leader-as-servant and the points you’ve made earlier about technical communicators serving their customers. An excellent leader helps team members maximize their potential, and an excellent technical communicator helps customers use a product to its full potential.

    BTW, I loved the part in the movie when the bookworm retrieved Buzz’s user manual so they could switch him to demo mode. I now have a new visual image for the role of content curator.

    • You’re spot on, Larry. I’m truly trying to tell the same story in two ways. A technical communicator is a leader, one who leads the customer to the knowledge they need. And the motivation is to serve, to diffuse frustration and enable progress in that moment of need. I believe a technical communicator can find motivation in knowing that, as they write, they are in the process of resolving another person’s future crisis. When I create quality #techcomm, I’m planting seeds of progress that my customer will harvest.

  4. Tristan,
    Thanks for sharing. I’ve seen the best leadership from people with the qualities you’ve described. I’d even take it a step further and add that if you also extend the “highest priority needs of others” philosophy to your customers, you’ll build a fantastic business as well.

    • I absolutely agree. Servant leadership is a quality without boundaries. It begins with your team, flows through to your customers and benefits your shareholders as well. I’m actually working on a post about that (the win-win-win of it all). I appreciate your input, Mark.

  5. Hey Tristan,
    Just discovered your blog posting. For me, the servant leader is the only truly effective leader and it’s what I aspire to be, although I’m well aware that I always fall short. I haven’t read R. Greanleaf’s work (I’ll have to now!), but I highly recommend Laurie Beth Jones, Jesus, CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership.

    I enjoy reading your thoughtful and inspirational postings. You’re helping us remember what is truly important.
    Ben

    • Thank you, Ben! I’ll take a look at the Jones book, and I appreciate the recommendation! And thanks for the reminder that my writings are hitting their target. I’m grateful.

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  1. Servant Leadership: Now in 3-D « KnowledgeBishop’s Mission « My Thoughts Enclosed… - July 27, 2010

    [...] Servant Leadership: Now in 3-D « KnowledgeBishop’s Mission Jump to Comments n the corporate world, the servant leader is willing to sacrifice time and energy, in order to ensure that the team is informed and inspired. The servant leader is willing take necessary political risks, in order to defend the team from false accusations. The professional servant leader finds purpose and fulfillment in denying self for the well-being of the team. via knowledgebishop.wordpress.com [...]

  2. Servant Leadership: Now in 3-D « KnowledgeBishop’s Mission « My Thoughts Enclosed… - July 27, 2010

    [...] Servant Leadership: Now in 3-D « KnowledgeBishop’s Mission Jump to Comments n the corporate world, the servant leader is willing to sacrifice time and energy, in order to ensure that the team is informed and inspired. The servant leader is willing take necessary political risks, in order to defend the team from false accusations. The professional servant leader finds purpose and fulfillment in denying self for the well-being of the team. via knowledgebishop.wordpress.com [...]

  3. Tweets that mention Servant Leadership: Now in 3-D « KnowledgeBishop's Mission -- Topsy.com - July 30, 2010

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Fidelman and Robert Lavigne, Robert Lavigne. Robert Lavigne said: RT @MarkFidelman: Servant Leadership: Now in 3-D http://ht.ly/2iTiV + Must read post & follow him [...]

  4. Servant Leadership: Now in 3D | Lead Change Group - August 12, 2010

    [...] post originally appeared (July 27, 2010) on Tristan’s blog, KnowledgeBishop’s Mission. // Related posts:6 Facets of the Servant Leadership [...]

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