Traits of Servant Leaders: Foresight
For the next several weeks I will be blogging about the essential traits of servant leaders. The framework for the conversation comes from a book called Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership by James W. Sipe and Don M. Frick. For those of you who think the term “servant leader” is a tired, old idea, this conversation may change your mind. First, the authors present the business case for servant leadership with a long term look at the financial performance of companies who operate with a servant leadership culture. These companies outperform the S&P 500 by a wide margin. So if you want competitive advantage, if you want to “win”, you need to find out what servant leaders do that leads to industry leading results. Today’s essential trait: Foresight.
A leader’s goal is not to see but to envision.
Enough said. Many books have been written on the importance of the leader’s vision for the long term performance of the enterprise. A well-known example: CEO Jack Welch decided that GE will be in the number one or number two position in every business category where they compete. The destination is clear. It is easy to decide what businesses to keep or sell. It is easy to measure success. And yes, Welch is famous for leading a sustained strong performance results during his tenure at GE.
Head + Heart + Gut
Foresight has these three components, and all three are essential:
- Head: Foresight requires rigorous analytical review of the past performance drivers and the current business realities. Foresight identifies potential destinations from the lessons of the past and a sound understanding of the present. However, too many leaders stop with this step.
- Heart: Foresight requires listening carefully to the many experienced and concerned people involved in the business. Listening to your team and stakeholders is the best way to demonstrate you care about them and value their input. The people are also the best source of ideas on what destinations should be explored. When it comes time to start moving towards the destination, more people will follow the leader if their input has been given and valued.
- Gut: Foresight requires leaders to draw on their experience, intuition and courage to call out the destination. To lead, you are expected to foresee the unforeseeable. You are expected to think about possibilities no one else has considered and then have the guts to tell the team, “We are going where no man (or woman) has gone before.” This is the scary, fun, and most distinctive quality of great leaders. They have the courage of their convictions and they are willing to take the personal risk to lead the team towards the vision. They defend the vision when it comes under predictable attack from those skeptics and naysayers. They inspire the people to go forward.
Failure to Foresee is Unethical
Sipe and Frick claim foresight is one of the seven essential traits of a servant leader because failure to foresee is unethical leadership. This thought stems straight from the original proponent of servant leadership, Robert Greenleaf, who said:
The failure (or refusal) of a leader to foresee may be viewed as an ethical failure.
Greenleaf explains it in this way … If the leader fails to foresee the right destination for the enterprise or workgroup, it causes great harm. Missing goals is miserable for the people involved. Lack of a destination with a plan to get there results in harm: stalled careers, bad morale, missed bonus checks, and lost jobs. Leaders, by position, are the stewards of people and resources. If they lead the team to poor performance, they have contributed harm. Harm to the people, when it can be avoided, is unethical behavior.
The second reason foresight is an ethical matter is simple. It is the leader’s job. Leaders who fail to give the organization a destination are essentially guilty of malpractice. Nonetheless, we see leaders routinely fail to call out a clear destination. The organization moves forward in a chaotic, directionless state. People chose the wrong activities because there is no filter to discern the vital few activities that would have the best chance of success. The stumbling, unguided team loses capability and confidence to perform. The results disappoint.
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
Transforming yourself from ordinary leader to servant leader requires this mindset shift. All leaders must have a smart vision for the business to achieve results. The servant leader must also view foresight as their ethical responsibility; to choose a destination that serves the people well by delivering long term performance results. They consider themselves stewards of the people and the resources entrusted to them. It would go against their belief system to lead a team to poor performance and all the negative consequences that implies. And thus, the results of the servant leader are extraordinary.
Lead. Serve. Succeed.