When it comes to choosing a leadership philosophy that will turn employees into loyal and committed high-performers, who will then win over loyal and committed customers time and time again, you can't beat Servant Leadership.
In fact, the research and case studies are overwhelmingly in its favor. But to call it by what legendary leadership expert Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager and a gazillion other books, once called it may be a stretch for some. In a wide ranging conversation with Colleen Barrett, President Emeritus of Southwest Airlines (a proven servant-leader), Blanchard defined it in six words:
Servant Leadership is love in action.
At the risk of having just lost half my readership, Blanchard's case for convincing logical minds that leading with love is the most powerful way to lead is also backed by examples of some of the world's top CEOs from companies like UPS, Nordstrom, The Container Store, WD-40 Company, and SAS.
Love in the business sense.
So what does "love" really mean in the organizational or business context? And how do you make it work? Well, there's no magic pill or flip-of-the-switch solution. And it doesn't come from a to-do list or "employee engagement strategy."
As with any virtuous behavior espoused by people with character and moral authority, it's a mindset. (but everyone is capable of developing such a mindset.)
Crossing over from a traditional management mindset of power and control over others to a servant leadership mindset of love requires full admission that you are there to meet the needs of others before your own; it requires the lucid understanding on a visceral level that your role is to grow people and set them up for success. That's love.
The starting point? You can't get to that level of actionable love without first having the capacity to develop strong relationships. Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and one of the biggest proponents of Servant Leadership once said, "I must know you to grow you."
Leadership love expressed through empathy and compassion.
In any healthy and selfless relationship where a leader pours into and cares for other people, when suffering and hardship occurs, it is met by the capacity to respond with empathy and compassion. Both are clearcut winners and learnable behaviors for every leader. Allow me to expand further with convincing evidence.
Development Dimensions International (DDI), a leading global leadership development company, conducted a compelling study with over 15,000 leaders from more than 300 organizations to determine which leadership conversational skills have the highest impact on overall performance. Guess what rose to the top? Empathy was the No.1 most critical driver of overall performance. Specifically, the leadership ability to listen and respond with empathy.
But here's where it gets really interesting. As we recover from a brutal year of sexual harassment scandals and the proliferation of greed, power, and a continuing gender pay gap across industries, the virtuous behavior of compassion is hardly witnessed or practiced interpersonally or organizationally.
All of that may soon change.
Compassion has just been extensively documented and verified as a leadership force of nature in the prolific new The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science.
This is a first of its kind handbook dedicated to the rapidly growing, evidence-based literature on compassion, altruism, and empathy, and contributed by an all-star cast of scholars and experts in positive psychology and the like. It would be fair to say I was positively star struck.
So what makes compassion so appealing, even more so than empathy, that a whole 550 pages of research was dedicated to it?
In empathy, like the DDI research discovered, feeling what another person feels brings both leader and follower closer and trust develops for competitive advantage. On the other hand, compassion is more objectively defined as "walking a mile in another person's shoes." One recent student of "compassionate management" is none other than one of my favorite global leaders -- Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn. I'll let him explain further:
If you are walking along a trail and come along a person who is being crushed by a boulder, an empathetic reaction would result in you feeling the same sense of crushing suffocation and render you unable to help. The compassionate reaction would put you in the sufferer's shoes, thinking this person must be experiencing horrible pain so you're going to do everything in your power to remove the boulder and alleviate their suffering. Put another way, compassion is a more objective form of empathy. This idea of seeing things clearly through another person's perspective can be invaluable when it comes to relating with others, particularly in tense work situations.
Weiner nails it and now we have the research to back it up. The compassionate response of every leader should be to do everything in their power to remove the pain and alleviate the suffering of employees.
Because last time I checked, there's a lot of suffering going on at work: We suffer from malicious gossip circles, politics, incivility, dishonesty, overwork, conflict, overbearing and controlling bosses, and the attached stress and health issues that come with it. We then bring that home to our families and they suffer along with us.
At other times, we suffer from stress and trauma from tragedies in our personal lives, and when we come to work, it affects our performance. Leaders with a compassionate mindset are positioned to model a compassionate response by alleviating an employees' pain, like, for example, rallying co-workers to raise money for a family that lost their home due to a fire.
Leaders of the future invested in relationships and putting their employees first understand that virtuous behaviors like empathy and compassion can have a drastic difference in how work is conducted. For skeptics whom may think virtuousness is too soft and mushy, one study (Bright, Cameron, Caza, 2006) documented in the Oxford Handbook clearly states the evidence:
Organizations characterized by higher levels of compassion and forgiveness were much less likely to experience [negative attributes] associated with downsizing than were other firms. These results also confirmed that when virtuousness exists in organizations, organizational performance increases. Innovation, customer retention, profitability, quality, and less employee turnover were all positively associated with virtuousness.
I bolded profitability to drive one final point, but it will make Wall Street cringe. Professor Kim S. Cameron, one of the study's co-authors, told The Washington Post that the pay off for things like compassion, kindness and empathy is in the neighborhood of a 15 percent increase in shareholder value. Take that to the bank.