Servant Leadership For Today’s Mindful Leaders

12/29/2016 10:10 am ET

Co –authored by Betsy Parayil-Pezard

Betsy coaches executives and teams who are open to exploring a deeper dimension of their potential. She is an American leadership coach based in Paris, France. She is the founder of Connection Leadership, and organizes leadership labs and mindful leadership workshops on both continents.

Applying Wisdom in Today’s Workplace

One of the biggest weaknesses of many leaders is a self-centered, ego-based approach that is promoted by the values our society. The way our culture recognizes success, by trying to isolate the individual from the circumstances and teams that created the conditions for that success, contributes greatly to the situation.

This way of presenting reality, pushing leaders to assume that they can be successful as an individual, forgetting the rest of the world around them, is hardly sustainable. Individualism has clearly proven to be an overly shortsighted approach. We are all part of a global ecosystem, and we can only cultivate long-term sustainability through close collaboration of all its individual components.

As a corporate executive and Tibetan Buddhist practitioner seeking to apply wisdom in the demanding environment of international business (Federico), and a leadership coach and mindfulness meditation practitioner accompanying top executives on the path to a more deeply connected form of leadership (Betsy), we have engaged in many reflective conversations on this subject over the last two years.

We’ve noticed that many leaders have been exposed to alternative leadership thought, and are developing a contemplative practice such as meditation, but struggle to apply what they are learning to the reality of their professional environment. When they try to shine a light on the collective or inner aspect of their work, they feel fearful or awkward.

The Mindful Way of Servant Leadership

“Servant and leader – can these two roles be fused into one real person, in all levels of status or calling? If so, can that person live and be productive in the real world of the present?” These questions from Robert K. Greenleaf’s work on Servant Leadership (1970) have been around for a while, but they still resonate with our long-running conversation about what mindful leadership could be in today’s world.

The inspiration for Greenleaf’s writings comes from the character of Leo in Hermann Hesse’s “Journey to the East.” In the story, Leo appears as a servant accompanying a group of brilliant and truth-seeking leaders, members of a fictional religious sect called “The League,” on an important voyage. When Leo disappears, the group disintegrates and begins fighting. At the end of the story, the narrator discovers that the humble servant Leo is actually the president of The League. As a servant, Leo had created the cohesion needed to help the group carry out their mission.

Today’s Servant Leader chooses Leo’s service-first approach. In ways that many times go unnoticed, servant leaders transform their status of leader into a mission of social engagement, centering their work on the highest level of service to the common good, and creating conditions in which people can continue to learn, while doing their best and most meaningful work. The practice of mindfulness and meditation fully supports this endeavor, allowing for the level of attunement and awareness needed to navigate challenges with deep insight.

We may imagine that embracing Servant Leadership will make us weak. But the ego-based leadership that we practice habitually surrounds us with passive “yes-men” that accept the high-stress conditions we provide for as long as they can, never revealing their creative potential. This keeps us from attaining the levels of cooperation and innovation needed to truly serve our mission.

These two words, “servant” and “leader” – juxtaposed – challenge our cultural definition of leadership and create fertile ground for questioning our common conceptions of leadership.

Here are five ways of developing Servant Leadership in the workplace, directly from our reflection and experience:

1) Fluidify the decision-making process. Start meetings by reminding people that nothing is set in stone. Tell your team that you are counting on them to look at things from different angles, so that decisions will be enriched by the entire team’s experiences and competencies.

2) Listen more deeply. Make more room for people to express themselves by refraining from interrupting and rebounding too quickly. Silence your own voice of inner judgment and keep the person’s wellbeing in mind in your interactions.

3) Create a trusting, low-stress environment. Through your example, teach your team not to censor each other’s ideas by making fun or rejecting things that sound odd. Be aware of stress levels and help people to overcome conflict and connect with each other. Offer support.

4) Abandon your vision. Be aware of your own tendency to do things the same way. Detect ego-based elements in your solutions. Connect to highest level of service in your field and place it at the center of your organization. Intermingle the collective intelligence of your team with your own introspection in order to allow your vision to emerge.

5) Coach. Find the right balance between offering ideas and helping others to find their own answers to questions. Challenge people to dig deeper. Help people to connect with the wisest part of themselves.

Servant Leadership is a powerful approach for the mindful leader seeking a pertinent line of reflection for today’s world, not because it cleanly resolves our problems, but because it helps us to question ourselves. By deepening awareness of our ego-based tendencies, we can develop the humility needed to adapt our leadership to the complexity of today’s workplace.

Federico Foli, Betsy Parayil-Pezard©

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