The Servant Leader’s Focus

What distinguishes true servant leaders and makes them so precious to us is not that they do things for us (although they do). Rather, we’re grateful to them and want to follow them because we know that they see and value us.

By : Jim Ferrell, Managing Partner and Author, the Arbinger Institute | October 23, 2019

This post was originally published as a post in Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results.

I dislike the word “service.”

There, I said it. And I believe it needs to be said in a book about servant leadership. As odd as it might sound, I believe that a focus on service is incompatible with servant leadership. True servant leaders don’t focus on service; they focus on something else entirely. In this blog, I will explore the kind of non-service focus that forms the foundation of servant leadership.

Two Tones or Mindsets

Years ago, I recorded a podcast for The Arbinger Institute in which I drew an analogy between tonal spoken languages like Chinese and life itself.

When speaking Chinese, the speaker’s intonation determines the meaning of every word and phrase. There are nine different tonal variations in Chinese. Two of these are too subtle for Westerners, so foreigners usually learn seven intonations when learning the language. These intonations begin with three variations in the initial pitch the speaker uses when uttering a word. Those three pitches are: low, mid, and high. There are additional variations within each pitch level: The low pitch can stay steady, rise, or fall; the mid-level pitch can stay steady or rise; and the high-level pitch can stay steady or fall. The meaning of every Chinese utterance depends on these tones. For example, consider the following Chinese sentence: “Go go go go go go go go go go.” Its meaning, when uttered with different tones? “That tall man over there is taller than his older brother.” No joke. The speaker’s tone determines the meaning of everything!

Without realizing it, we, too, are living in the middle of a tonal language—a tonal system that determines the meaning of everything we do and say. One of the insights contained within Arbinger’s work is that we can see other people either as people who matter like we ourselves matter or as objects. We call these two different ways of seeing an outward mindset, on the one hand, inward mindset on the other.

Mindset and Impact

These different mindsets operate the way the different tones operate in Chinese—they change the meaning of everything we say. For example, I might tell a colleague, “I appreciate the effort you put into your presentation.” If I am seeing that colleague as a person when I say this, she will likely interpret my comment as a kind compliment regarding her effort. However, consider how she might experience the comment differently—and attach entirely different meaning to it—if she feels like I have an inward mindset and am seeing her as an object. In that case, the same words to her might sound like this: “It’s about time you put effort into something around here!” Although I may utter the same words, my underlying mindset—my tone—changes the very meaning of what I have said.

Which brings me to what I think is troubling about the word service. What is true about the meaning and impact of our words is equally true of the meaning and impact of our actions—even our acts of service. We can perform almost any action with an inward or an outward mindset. When our mindsets are outward, we are serving others. When our mindsets are inward, on the other hand, we are serving , and this inward orientation corrupts everything—our self-understanding, our views of others, our intentions, and even our “service.” Which means that the foundation of servant leadership can never be a focus on mere actions—even on actions that may seem, on their face, to be for the benefit of others. True servant leaders focus on something else.

The Servant Leader’s Focus

What do servant leaders focus on? I’ll answer that question by returning to the story of the podcast. In that presentation, I invited people not to speak about Arbinger with others but rather to put more effort into simply living in the right tone, which I called speaking Arbinger. My invitation was to focus less on talking about Arbinger concepts and more on living the tonal language of seeing people as people.

After the podcast, a robust discussion broke out about it on social media channels. People generally were complimentary of the ideas I shared, but then one gentleman completely shattered my whole argument.

The man said that after listening to the podcast, he resolved to apply what he had learned in his interactions with his wife. Instead of speaking about Arbinger concepts with her, he resolved to focus on simply speaking Arbinger with her—that is, on simply seeing her as a person. However, he said that this new approach wasn’t yielding any better results than before. Then he shared an epiphany—an insight that completely changed the nature of his interactions and relationship with his wife. He said, “I realized that instead of focusing on speaking Arbinger, I needed to focus instead on speaking Becky.”

If you think about those in your life whom you would call servant leaders, you will see the truth in this gentleman’s insight. What distinguishes true servant leaders and makes them so precious to us is not that they do things for us (although they do). No, we are grateful to them and want to follow them because we know that they see and value us. We are, as it were, Becky, and the servant leaders in our lives have cared enough about us to learn to speak our language.

The Example of My Garbage Man

Let me share an example of one such person in my life: the man who collects the trash in our neighborhood every week—the inspiring servant leader who is my garbage man.

Our trash is collected on Friday mornings. I am the one in our home primarily responsible for making sure that our trash bins get out to the street in time. However, one Friday morning, as I heard the truck pull into our cul-de-sac, I realized that I had forgotten to take the bins out. Panicked, I hurriedly threw on some clothes and hustled down the stairs. However, before I reached the front door, I heard the garbage truck pull away. A week with no room in our garbage bins! I grimaced, feeling frustrated. Forlornly, I glanced out the front window as the truck was pulling out of our street. There in front of our house were our two bins—empty! My frustration washed away in an instant. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for our amazing neighbors.

A few weeks later, I was conversing with two of those neighbors—David (whose home is directly across from our cul-de-sac) and Randy (who lives around the corner). David was telling a story. He said that on a Friday morning about a month earlier, he noticed the garbage truck parked in front of his house. Curious, he walked to his living room window. From there, he witnessed the garbage man out of his truck, gathering up trash that was strewn all over the street. When David saw this, he remembered that he had over packed his bins the night before. He reasoned that a windstorm had kicked up overnight, or perhaps that an animal had gotten into his bins. Either way, here was the garbage truck driver picking up a mess that David had caused. When finished, the man climbed back into his truck, emptied the bins, and drove away.

As David watched him go, he realized that he had never even acknowledged the man—not even just then—and he suddenly felt ashamed about this. It was the holidays, and he resolved to give the driver a gift, and his thanks, the next week.

The following Friday, the truck pulled into the neighborhood earlier than David had expected. As he heard the truck glide to a stop in front of his home, he hurriedly put on some clothes and rushed to the front door with his gift. But he was too late. Before he could get to the door, the truck had pulled away. David grabbed his winter coat and ran out into the snow to catch the truck. He rounded the corner where Randy lives. As he did so, he saw the truck parked in front of Randy’s house. Then he saw the garbage man wheeling Randy’s two garbage bins down from the side of his house.

“Wait!” Randy interjected. “That was the garbage man who did that? I remember that morning. I thought the neighbors had helped us out.” He fell silent for a moment, before repeating, “It was the garbage man?”

And of course, I had the same reaction.

It was our garbage man who had helped me with my own bins. Our neighbors are great, but it was my garbage man who had helped me.

Now, you might think that David, Randy, and I, and the others in our neighborhood had it made at this point. After all, we don’t even have to take our trash out to the street anymore; the garbage man would do it for us. But that isn’t at all how we responded. On the contrary, suddenly I felt very motivated to make our driver’s life as easy as possible. I never wanted to forget to take my bins to the street again—not just because I didn’t want to have to go another week without room for our trash, but also because I didn’t want to make things harder for our driver. In fact, until that moment, I had never cared a lick about making sure to leave ample room—five feet or so—between bins, which I had heard we were to do. But from the moment David shared his story, I began pacing off space between my bins every Thursday evening so that our driver wouldn’t have any trouble emptying them.

In a way, our garbage man trained an entire neighborhood to make his life easier. How did he do this? By making our lives easier, which is the essence of what servant leaders do. And they don’t tire of doing it, as they would if they just focused on all the tasks they must perform for others. What a drag it is to do things for those we view as mere objects! And yet how invigorating it is to do the same things for those we see and value as people.

Counterfeit Service versus the Real Thing

At times, we might be tempted to congratulate ourselves for all the good we do for others—for all the service we render. Perhaps, like me, you have too often been this counterfeit kind of servant leader—the person who wants to be noticed, seen, appreciated, and thanked. This is why it is almost an overpowering experience to be in the presence of someone who is devoid of such self-concern, and whose efforts truly are for the good of others. What a blessing it is to know them, and to be known by them.

My mother was this kind of person. She passed away from brain cancer fourteen years ago. A few years before she passed, when life was good and there was yet no hint of the trial she would face, she sat down at the piano in our home. Earlier she had spoken with one of our young children, Jacob, about his favorite children’s songs. He named twenty-four of them. My mother sat down at the piano to record herself playing and singing all twenty-four of her grandson’s favorite numbers. She recorded those songs on side A of the cassette tape she was using. When she had finished, she turned the tape over and recorded the same twenty-four songs on side B—just so that Jacob wouldn’t have to rewind the tape in order to listen to the songs again.

I still have that tape. It is a reminder of what true service looks like. And what does it look like? It looks like the face of a child who motivates you to action, or the needs of a partner that you finally try to see, or the invitation of a full trash bin still sitting at the side of a customer’s house.

For a servant leader, their service is not the point. Their actions are merely the behavioral extensions of their caring. They have learned to speak Becky and Jacob and David and Randy—and to speak those languages with an outward mindset.

It is worth asking: If we would serve, whose languages do we still need to learn?