Servants and visionaries

I think servants and visionaries both have good eyes. It takes someone special to see an opportunity that everyone else has missed… and get there first.

The key to a great visionary is that everyone else asks themselves why they didn’t think of that. Somehow, in the context everyone was looking at, no one else saw the opportunity or was positioned to take advantage. I was reminded recently that a number of the companies that took our economy down last year were founded during the Great Depression. They were founded by visionaries who found a way to do things differently when everyone else was stuck in the decline. Unfortunately, the companies they started weren’t able to sustain that heritage… or held onto their heritage. A topic for another day, I suppose.

Likewise, servants have good eyes. Think about every period movie about British high society you’ve ever seen. Someone pointed out to me that the key to being a good servant was to watch their master’s hands. A good servant could anticipate the need of their master by watching body language and meet the need before it was expressed. I see the same quality in people who serve in my church today. There’s an ability to notice something that’s not being done and jump in before the need is even expressed. When you run an event, you want to stock your team with that type of person.

Leaders today need good eyes. They need to be visionary, and they need to be servants — people with the agility and flexibility to see a need and respond. So, where do we find those qualities in the next generation? As Steve Moore and Tim Elmore remind us, we can look for people who are already serving somewhere. We can look for people who look at challenges and see opportunity. We can look for initiative.

As I mentioned before, we can also look for people who are others-focused, who “watch the hands” of both their managers and their direct reports. They look for opportunities to empower and develop others. They give assignments and then invert the hierarchical pyramid to support their staff in the job they’ve been asked to do. They are quick to give credit to their staff or team for the success they might enjoy.

If you’re looking for servant leaders, start with character. Promote from among your servants.

Reluctant leadership seeds

Drs. Anthony and Crystal Gambino, in their essay on reluctant leadership, look for the following traits:

  • servanthood
  • teachability
  • initiative
  • passion
  • encouragement

Some of these characteristics are more fundamental to and may be observed even earlier in the process than Tim Elway’s suggestions. While initiative and passion are somewhat predictable — they’re often the points where we often first notice someone — the others are less obvious.

An interest in being others-focused is an excellent starting point. A willingness to serve and the companion part of it — noticing needs around them — are the foundation of leaders of integrity who support their direct reports. Likewise for a desire to encourage and lift up people around them.

I totally agree with teachability as an early sign of leadership. I’ve heard it said several times that leaders show insatiable curiosity and ask lots of questions. A desire to learn and grow eventually shapes a leader who is a developer of others. Teachability is a trait that can be spotted early and should be part of a leader until the day he dies.

The thorn in your side

How do you recognize leadership gifts in someone? You may have read John Maxwell’s scale of leadership. I’m not sure how much I agree with the concept or his analysis of the scale, but it’s a useful device to make an observation from my own experience. If you’re a 7 on the leadership scale and you have an 8 working under you, they will likely be a thorn in your side.

How exactly will that manifest itself? They might be the one who critiques everything you do. They might take initiative on projects you didn’t want them working on. They might be the one who takes the inch and turns it into a mile. They might go around the system instead of working within the boundaries. There are leadership traits on display in every one of those abuses of the supervisory relationship.

There are three choices for the manager, then.

  1. You can either call it leadership and give them opportunities to grow their abilities in a healthy setting.
  2. You can liberate them so they can move on to a job where they can better utilize their “gifts.”
  3. Or you can suppress their initiative.

The third leads to broken trust, continued pain and crushed spirits. I’ve been in that position, and I suggest that there are really only two choices for a person like this.

Let me suggest one possible conclusion: look at them as a chance to work yourself out of a job. Grit your teeth and pour into this emerging leader for a year or two, refine their rough edges and then liberate them by stepping aside. After all, if you’re truly a 7 on the scale, the best thing you can do is recognize the time to step aside and let them shine. If you do it right, you can count their future success as your success.