Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Servant Leadership and the Real World

I believe in Servant Leadership's efficacy in the real world. After our discussion of servant leadership, I felt that the topic deserved some further investigation. There exists in Indiana the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, which was originally founded by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1964. I decided to blog about this Center because I think the Center's existence, and more importantly the significance of its supporters show that the philosophy of Servant Leadership has a real presence in many the world's top organizations.

To begin with, the Center's President, Kent M. Keith, lists the following as key practices of servant leaders. These points helped me to view servant leadership in a more practical light: Self-Awareness, Listening, Changing the Pyramid (that is, the traditional hierarchical "boss" structure), Developing Colleagues, Coaching - Not Controlling, Unleashing the Energy and Intelligence of Others, and Foresight.

The Center's Board of Directors includes business and education leaders from around the world. I was most struck by the first person mentioned: Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks North America and Starbucks International. Behar joined Starbucks in 1989 and became president of Starbucks International in 1995 before retiring as Starbucks North America in 2003. Behar champions Servant Leadership. In a forward to James Autry's The Servant Leader, Behar describes how the philosophy of Servant Leadership rejuvenated Starbucks, and in his own book, It's Not About the Coffee, Behar writes that "the person who is a servant of all is the most capable leader," before referring to Greenleaf's The Servant as Leader.

Behar brought the ideas of Servant Leadership to Starbucks because there was something missing in the corporate culture. Rather than working as a cohesive team, Starbucks was a collection of individuals. I think that the fact that Starbucks was led by such a significant proponent of Servant Leadership during the company's most successful period shows that there is something to be said for the practical aspect of Servant Leadership.

Leadership Through Advocacy: A Form of Servant Leadership?

Seeing as October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought it fitting to blog about Nancy G. Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Brinker started the organization in 1982 after her sister, Susan G. Komen, passed away from breast cancer. What began as Brinker’s vision and promise to her sister to help educate others about breast cancer has now evolved into the “world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all, and energize science to find the cures” (http://ww5.komen.org/default.aspx) (Sashkin, 1989)(Sendjaya, 2002).

As I was researching Brinker, I began to think about her in the context of a servant leader. I believe that Brinker’s emergence as a servant leader resonates with Selznick’s idea that servant leadership is a choice because her desire to serve the community through breast cancer awareness arose as a result of her sister’s death (Selznick, 1975). She was a servant first, founding the organization as a service to her sister, and a leader second as her cause began to grow in popularity (Greenleaf, 1991).
Through innovation and creativity (Race for the Cure, Pink Ribbon Store, Partnerships, etc.), Brinker advocates for the cause by envisioning a cure for breast cancer, empowering others to join the movement towards educating people about breast cancer and finding a cure, and empathizing with those who have encountered the illness in some way or another (Sendjaya, 2002)(Choi, 2006). She exemplifies courage by sharing her sister’s story in hopes to inspire others and authenticity of leadership by approaching her cause from the socialized perspective (Sashkin, 1989)(Burns, 1978).

Brinker is a transformational leader who works to develop her followers and help them grow more autonomous in order to increase the likelihood that they will ultimately become servant leaders themselves (Greenleaf, 1991). Brinker’s charismatic style of leadership also enables her to motivate others to support the cause through donations and/or volunteering their time (Choi, 2006). Brinker’s initial vision has ultimately become a successful, consistent reality, and she is a quintessential fulfillment of Greenleaf’s statement, “I am a leader. Therefore I serve” (Sashkin, 1989)(Greenleaf, 1991).

However, as I began to look more closely at Brinker as a servant leader and how much Susan G. Komen for the Cure has grown as an organization, I started to wonder what exactly measures a servant leader’s success? Sure the organization has been active in educating women about breast cancer awareness and raising money for breast cancer research for some 25+ years, but there is still no cure for breast cancer. Is success measured in terms of the amount of money generated for research or by the number of activists who have joined the cause? Can you actually set criteria to measure the success of servant leadership? Or, is that, in fact, the rub—that servant leadership does not necessarily lead to a particular means end as long as the leader is working to develop his or her followers to likely become servants themselves?

Just Doing It

An organizational culture can be formed and shaped through the founder’s vision and actions taken. Phil Knight, founder of Nike and marketing guru, has transformed the sports industry through his innovative sports merchandise. His strategy of recruiting top athletes such as Michael Jordan to wear his brand has put him on top of his competitors, Adidas and Reebok. Continuing innovation in sports apparel and equipment technology has kept Nike at the forefront within the industry. Through this vision, Knight has created a distinct organizational culture.

Yet trying to understand Phil Knight’s success as a leader is not easily done. A reclusive figure who guards his reputation and privacy, Knight started his business by selling shoes, that he bought in Japan, from the trunk of his car. With the help of his former track coach at the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman,  Knight made adjustments to the shoes by adding “waffle soles.”  This and other innovations helped them launch an empire in sports commerce.

      In his role as the CEO, Knight has often let his employees take the lead on getting things done, choosing not to wield total control.  How has Nike been successful in achieving a company with revenue of $16.8 billion through Knight’s leadership? Knight strategically tries to employ the best talent possible by recruiting former professional and college athletes to work for his company. These former athletes, like Knight, know what it takes to play and work like a champion. Knight chose men and women that shared his same work enthusiasm which is a trait of leadership proposed by Harold Geneen (Geneen 9). He knows their passion and commitment to sports will continue to propel Nike forward.  Also, the management structure that he adopted constantly moves people around in leadership roles. Leaders become followers and vice versa. Knight seems to engage his employees in the paradigm set forth by Joseph Rost that both leaders and followers are engaged in the process of leadership (Rost 192). By allowing his followers to adopt different leader and follower roles, he is cultivating an engaged followership.

 In his research on organizational cultures, Robert Schein learned that founders often start with a theory of how to succeed and incorporate their own cultural paradigm within their businesses (Schein14). Phil Knight has achieved this with Nike. He incorporated his own assumptions on how Nike should be run through delegation of leadership positions and strategic talent management. Nike’s mission is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world which has helped them remain the top sports retailer.

In 2004, Phil Knight resigned his position as CEO of Nike but chose to remain on the board of directors. An outsider to the organization, William Perez, was chosen to be the next CEO. Perez only lasted thirteen months before he left the organization after clashing with Knight over the direction of the company. Knight said that Perez “was unable to wrap his arms around the place” and truly realize the culture of the organization. “It is more about Phil Knight's ego than Perez's performance. It is a question about identity. Some people won’t relinquish until they die." said Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, an associate dean at the Yale School of Management (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/24/business/24nike.html). This brings up the question of why an empire that strives on innovation is unwilling to adopt this same strategy with their leadership? While Knight has created a successful business, he has also fostered an insider culture that does not seem open to outside influence. This is similar to Schein’s research on company founders that seek to employ family and primarily promote them over outsiders. It seems Knight believes that those “on the inside” of Nike or the Nike family are best for the organization. Will Knight be able accept the new CEO, Mark Parker and his new principles or is Sonnenfeld right that some won’t give up until they die? Do cutting edge innovators over time become dinosaurs in their field?