#020 - Serving Others Better - three key words reminding us that no matter how well we do something, no matter how good we are at leading others, whatever it is that we do, we can ALWAYS do BETTER.
Hello there, and welcome to Keys for New Leaders, a podcast just for you – a new or newer leader who leads by serving others. This is your host, Dr. Charles Boyer, but my friends call me Charlie, and that’s YOU, my friend. I’m so glad you are tuning in for this episode, because it’s all for YOU. If you haven’t already done so, please take a minute to subscribe to this podcast on your favorite audio platform. If you are already a subscriber, thank you so much! I continue to be amazed at the numbers of downloads I see every time I check the “stats” for the show. Thank you ALL! As we’ve done in previous sessions, I’ll ask you three open-ended questions toward the end of the episode, and I’ll also include a Special Key, just for you! So here we go.
This is Episode #20, and it’s called SERVING OTHERS BETTER. Does that sound like an unusual title to you – Serving Others Better? If it does, hang on with me for a few minutes, because I want to give us ALL some things to think about as we set out to lead others. And by “we” and “us” I include myself in that group right along with YOU.
First of all, serving others are two of the key words here. We lead best when we view the role of leader as one who serves. And the other key word is better. No matter how well we do something, no matter how good we are at leading others, whatever it is that we do, we can always do better.
Part of being better, of making a commitment to being better, is recognizing and accepting that we never truly reach perfection. We can be excellent, even outstanding, superior, stupendous, supercallifrag – whatever Mary Poppins said – but there is always room for some improvement. ALWAYS! You may remember an example from a previous episode about the world-famous cellist, Pablo Casals. In his 90s, he continued to practice playing the cello every day. When someone asked him why, Casals said that he thought he noticed some improvement. Now that’s a commitment to BETTER if I ever heard one!
That example of Casals continuing to practice every day illustrates so beautifully his commitment to BETTER. Some refer to this as a process of continuous improvement, a key element in becoming a better leader. Notice the words here – ”becoming a better leader.” It takes a commitment to becoming, rather than just being. Top athletes, top musicians, top leaders ALL practice EVERY DAY to become better.
James Hunt, author of the book “The Servant,” suggested a statement to help us practice continuous improvement: “I am not where I need to be, but I’m better than I used to be.” We should all post that in a prominent place and read it out loud to ourselves every day.
The Casals example also demonstrates another key concept of serving others better, and that’s Humility. Casals, great musician that he was, also was humble enough to recognize that he wasn’t perfect, and humble enough to want to continue to play better, even though he was one of the world’s greatest cellists.
Now, Humility doesn’t mean mushmouth, wimpy, apologetic behavior. It means, among other things, accepting the truth that you are not perfect and that there is always more you can learn. It means, among other things, that you, as a servant leader, acknowledge others’ strengths and contributions. It means, among other things, collaboration rather than coercion. And, humility requires great discipline and foresight. It takes practice, every day, just as top athletes, top musicians, top leaders continue to practice every day.
Another side of Humility has been described as the “confidence that comes from humility.” I had to think about that concept for awhile, and I like very much what it says. Yes, there is a kind of confidence that isn’t the chest-beating, shout-it-from-the-rooftops type of confidence. It’s that quiet, assured confidence that you have when you know something or know how to do something well, yet you don’t have to show off your expertise to anyone. I call that being “comfortably confident,” so to speak. For example, I think back to my years as a teacher. I didn’t try to impress my students by trying to tell them everything, rather I prompted and encouraged them to find the answer or solve the problem themselves. I knew the answer, but it was more important for them to find it than for me to tell it to them. There’s an old joke about that. It says, “Never tell anyone all you know. It will take too short a time.” Comfortably Confident – think of your own leadership experiences here, and ask yourself, “How comfortably confident am I?”
Another of the most important parts of learning to be a better leader is Listening. Take a good look at lists of “must-haves” for becoming a better leader, and you’ll likely find Listening as one of the most important qualities. And listening – really listening well to others – is one of the most difficult leadership skills to master. It takes lots of practice and a strong commitment from you to honor another person by listening – really listening – to them. Yes, I said honor another person. You honor someone when you give them your undivided attention and listen closely and attentively to what they are saying, without distracted thoughts or your own filters or jumping in with your interpretation of what you thought they said. You need to keep your mouth closed and your ears open. I’m still working on that one!
Following closely after listening is taking some appropriate action to show that you Care, that you truly heard and understood and that you will actually do something to help. Empathy. Walking a mile in the other person’s shoes. Compassion. Whatever you call it. The point is to listen intently and seek to understand fully the other person. Some have suggested showing that you care by asking “How can I help?” I would encourage you to ask a question like that without the “I” in it. When you say “I” you are focusing on yourself. You are volunteering to step in and take over. Be careful – you are inviting the other person to dump the problem on you. Asking a question like “What help do you need?” puts the emphasis on them, not you. You are helping them solve the problem. Also, you are indicating that you have heard them, you understand, and you are willing to help them. You aren’t stepping in to solve the problem for them.
Building Relationships is yet another essential element in becoming a better leader. It seems a bit strange to me that building relationships is highlighted as being one of the top elements, because as leaders, we interact all the time with people. It ought to be self-evident that this is so important, but the reason it gets such attention here is that the importance of relationships is so often overlooked. We don’t interact with machines as servant leaders, we interact with people. We listen, we care, we communicate, we build trust with people.
In a 2020 Harvard Business Review article, Monique Valcour wrote, “To lead, you must be able to connect, motivate, and inspire…” and, I would add, you can’t inspire a machine to do anything. Think about leaders in any field that you admire, and then ask yourself how these leaders connect, motivate and inspire other people. We need to change our focus here – you don’t lead a company, a division, or a department. You lead people. Building positive, healthy relationships with and among your people is an absolute necessity.
One of the barriers to leading better that most people encounter is the problem of dealing with people. People are complex. One size does NOT fit all. Building relationships is sometimes difficult. But who said that this leading better thing was going to be easy? Not me!
Then, there’s the issue of Character, perhaps the toughest one of all to develop – because it’s all about YOU. It IS you! Character is having the will to do the right thing, no matter what. It takes your courage, commitment, confidence, and sometimes a big dose of chutzpah to develop and exercise your character, but it’s one of the hallmarks of a better leader.
Jim Collins, author of the landmark book, Good to Great, identified two qualities in all great leaders. One is Humility, and the second one is Character. Collins wrote that “…leadership has little to do with your style (or personality) and everything to do with your substance (or character). He further defined “character” as “…that person you are in the dark when nobody is looking.” To put it another way, who you are is much more important than what you do.
So, there you have it, all wrapped up in a neat little package in one short episode called Serving Others Better. Five steps to Serving Others. Six Tips for Better Leadership. Seven Ways to Be a Better Leader. Be Better. Continuous Improvement. Be Humble. Be a Good Listener. Have Empathy. Build Relationships. Have Good Character. That’s all there is to becoming a better leader, right?
WRONG!!! These are not things on your to-do list that you can check off, these are mountains you must climb and oceans you must cross. These characteristics, qualities, skills, if you will, take much, much preparation, practice and commitment from you and from those you serve as leader. We’ve only scratched the surface here. Serving Others Better is a process of becoming, not a destination. I wish you a lifetime of becoming, my friend.
And now, here are three questions to challenge you to think a bit more about some of the things we talked about in this episode. No, this isn’t a test, and your answers are just for you.
1. What are three ways that you lead by serving others?
2. Which one of those three ways do you believe you do your best right now?
3. Which one of your strengths will you call upon to help you make that “best” way even BETTER?
And that Special Key for you is the Key of B – for BECOMING a leader who serves others Better. Darwin Smith, former CEO of the Kimberly Clark company, was asked about his success as a leader, and he replied, “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.” Wow! What a statement of Becoming! Becoming means to keep practicing for Better each day, and keep looking for those signs of improvement. I know you’ll find them!
Thanks for being here for this episode. I sure do hope that it has and will continue to be as helpful to you as it has been for me. Here’s something you can practice. Say this out loud to yourself every day:
“I am not where I need to be, but I’m better than I used to be.”
I’m still practicing Serving Others Better, and you’re invited along for the ride!
In the next episode, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite subjects, and that’s “Imagineering.” It’s a wonderful, creative way to tackle just about anything that seems impossible. Think of Imagineering as putting your creative energy to work, but at warp speed. Author Indra Nooyi wrote, “Your job as leader is to look past the possible, past the constraints and barriers, to create a vision of what things could be.” That’s Imagineering! Put on your “Imagineering” hat and join me for the next episode, coming soon. Until then, please stay safe and well, my friend. I’m really looking forward to visiting with you again!