A Third, Much Greater Thing

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

I used this title, a phrase from author Tom McGuane, in my old book-length Masters thesis. Back then, I used it to encapsulate what happens when 1 + 1 = 3, and it fits in a discussion of leadership as well. When you and a group of people unite around a vision to build something, what you create stands the chance of being something larger than yourselves. Internalizing that as a leader of such a mission, puts you in a unique situation: you are not the axis around which the company revolves. You help grow what everyone in the organization is growing. This is being a leader of a different kind: a servant leader.

Today’s podcast guest speaks well to this notion. “To produce a truly valuable business it can’t solely rely on just me,” says Patrick Campbell, CEO of Price Intelligently. “I have found there’s a lot more power in ‘our’ rather than ‘mine’.”

As startup leaders, it’s easy to say “we’re all in this together” and paint the facade that your culture, your company is different in the way the team works, the values you have, etc., because “having a cool culture” is one page from the startup playbook. In many ways teams are “all in this together” at least in the sense that they are all in the same building together. That facade gets shaky in the lived experience of so many organizations, especially since much of what happens within the organization hinges on the leader, “the one in charge” at the top of the organizational pyramid. The leader sets the tone for the whole organization. Does everyone in the company feel supported in a way that they fully embody “we’re all in this together”?

Servant leadership gives us a different model, one that can greatly serve companies building out a vision for the long haul. Robert K. Greenleaf, the steward of the servant leadership model, wrote in his infamous essay that: “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

This isn’t the image of a CEO interested in solely in growing a company for his equity stake, payouts from the latest round of funding, or notoriety in the glossy life of startupville. This is the image of a leader who is dedicated to the success of everyone involved in making the company/vision/product/mission come to fruition. Are you leading to serve on behalf of something larger than yourself and all the folks who are working on behalf of that, or do you have a bunch of people who work for you?

“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 persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” writes Greenleaf.

Creating a third much greater thing is creating the ‘us,’ that piece that’s larger than just you and your team. It may seem a bit old fashioned, but this is a long term company view in which you are building a company and brand that outlasts you, the leader. Even more so, as servant leader, you’re making sure everyone has what they need to succeed and to grow – personally, professionally and, for the company, profitably.

At Reboot, we often tout that the three jobs of a CEO are 1.) Hold the vision of the company and make certain it’s well understood, 2.) Build and manage a great team and make sure each person understands their job, 3.) Ensure everyone has the resources–the people, the money, the clarity–they need to succeed. Making sure that everyone has what they need to succeed is the position of the servant leader, and her favorite question is “What do you need?” (Aside: This phrase is a great re-lyriczing of Beiber’s latest hit ‘What Do You Mean?’)

Consider this post by Joel Spolsky on the notion of the Upside-down Pyramid. In it, he notes that the top-down pyramid is seductive and obvious since it’s part of the image of the leader we’re all familiar with. But, as he sketches out, this doesn’t bode well:

“Turns out, it’s positively de-motivating to work for a company where your job is just to shut up and take orders. In tech startup land, we all understand instinctively that we have to hire super smart people, but we forget that we then have to organize the workforce so that those people can use their brains 24/7.

“Thus, the upside-down pyramid. Stop thinking of the management team at the top of the organization. Start thinking of the software developers, the designers, the product managers, and the front line salespeople as the top of the organization.

“The “management team” isn’t the “decision making” team. It’s a support function. You may want to call them administration instead of management, which will keep them from getting too big for their britches.”

What does this mean for a servant leader entering into a relationship with his team, all in service of the larger ‘us’ that unites ‘all of them in this together’? His commitments must be to those he is uniting with, as if he takes a vow of leadership that honors his people. Try this Leadership Vow, by Terrance Seamon on for size. It reads like A Leader’s Manifesto:

“I your leader, vow to honor you. I vow to listen to you at all times, to hear your concerns, your ideas, to learn from you. I will listen to you even when my mind is made up. I vow to empower you, to provide the support you need to be successful in the tasks you have been assigned to perform. I will recognize and appreciate your strengths and values. I will trust you and respect you for the contributions you make to our organization and our customers. I vow to be there for you, when the going gets tough, when we are all under pressure. I vow to back you up when you make a decision, to stand by you when the heat is on. I will not let you down. I vow to lift you up in praise as often as possible so that you know how important you are! I vow to hold you in the highest esteem because I know that I cannot do it alone.”

I have a secret wish that all startup leaders would read this before they take their seats in their roles. If they did, each heart in their organizations would begin to feel something they could really, wholly get behind. And I wish that each individual united in the cause could feel the potency of becoming a Third, Much Greater Thing.