Leadership Starts with Serving

December 21, 2015

Guest Blog by Bill Fitzgerald, Founder/Managing Partner of Exec Careers DC, Associate Member of Maryland Nonprofits

Read the original blog here.


With everything we know about leadership, why are we so seemingly disappointed in our leaders?

The market is flooded with books about leadership. There are endless theories and models and more workshops and seminars on leadership than you can count. And yet, how often are the disappointments we experience in the workplace, in politics, and in our personal lives attributed to a failure of leadership? Far too often it seems.

There is one aspect of leadership that may seem unnatural in our culture but if taken to heart, could dramatically change our experience.

 Leaders we consider great, earn that distinction because at their core, they care more about the well-being and success of the people they lead, than their own.  They take great joy in seeing the people around them develop, be successful and advance.  At a very deep level, they understand the great irony of effective leadership –being a leader is more about serving.  We follow the leaders we most admire because the experience makes us better.

As part of this desire to serve, effective leaders are willing to ask their teams, their colleagues and their customers how they are doing. Why? Because they genuinely want to know if what they do and say is helpful to those around them. Great leaders are much more “other” centered than “self” centered and it shows in the way they interact with people each and every day. While they certainly provide direction, set expectations and hold people accountable, they operate from the perspective of helping.

To be a great leader, requires a willingness and desire to understand how your behavior impacts those around you. The research conducted by Zenger and Folkman demonstrates very clearly that our very best leaders regularly ask others for feedback. They do this to be sure they are building capability and to ensure the people around them are experiencing value from the relationship.  

Sadly, research by Kouzes and Posner also demonstrates that most leaders would rather not ask for feedback nor do they like to give it. Feedback has taken on such a negative connotation that we avoid it like the dentist. We’ve forgotten that very likely, 80% of what we will hear will be positive and affirming. Even that makes us uncomfortable! How often do you see people push away compliments? The other 20% represents a blind spot that can prevent us from becoming an amazing leader.

So where does that leave us? With lots of weak leaders who probably love the title, the recognition, and the increased compensation but in reality, are very insecure and care more about their own success and survival, than the people they lead. They are less focused on becoming a better leader and more focused on how the role can advance their own agenda.  

I’ve always thought of leadership as an “other” focused activity. It’s not about me, it’s about the success of those around me, the people who look to me for direction, coaching and support. It’s what you do as a leader to make those around you more successful, more competent and more confident. It’s about helping others achieve their goals, their dreams. As a leader, my reward and success is based on what others are able to accomplish, not on my next promotion.

Great leaders understand the paradox associated with being an amazing leader. They are willing to be bold and vulnerable; decisive and sensitive; demanding and responsive. They know how to leverage their strengths while acknowledging how they can be more effective. Not for selfish reasons, but to better support the people they serve.

As we enter into this holiday season, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all find ways to be better leaders in our homes, our communities, and our organizations.

It can start by asking the people we serve how we are doing in a way that makes them feel safe and valued. That’s a great example of thinking about others first. What a powerful first step!

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

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