Jesus: The Serving Leader Model for Pastors

Mike McCormick discusses how he sees his work as a pastor intersecting with his role as a consultant with ThirdRiver on Serving Leadership. 

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Does Servant Leadership Exist in Politics?

Can Servant Leaders be found in politics? What would it take to create a culture where servant leadership is the norm? 

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Coaching Change Management from a Serving Leader Perspective

Effectiveness in leadership has a nexus between serving and change leadership approaches. An effective leader continually drives strategic and valuable change while simultaneously responding to the ever evolving business environment and fulfilling the mission of the organization and its employees. In essence, the one style of leadership increases the efficacy of the other. For example, driving meaningful enterprise wide change requires a leader to actively sponsor the change. This is the change leader’s opportunity to “Upend the Pyramid.” A truly active sponsor leads by not only words but by example, modeling the change for their team, finding ways to make acceptance easier by removing operational and political barriers and rewarding for new behaviors through attention and gratitude.

Likewise, the effective change leader continually “Runs to the Great Purpose.” Through difficult times of disruptive change, a change leader serves both the organization and the individual through defining the change in the framework of a greater goal. The leader articulates the individual’s sacrifice to the benefit of the goal. The change leader enables the employee to find value and purpose in their daily efforts and accomplishments so that motivations, efforts and results are aligned with the great purpose of the strategic change.

From a standpoint of leadership development, it is then imperative to teach and coach the model of change management with a serving leader perspective. To accomplish this, the two approaches should not be considered as simply similar and potentially complementary but rather integral, specifically considering the following when teaching and coaching a change management methodology:

  1. Create an appreciation for each approach as an enhancer of the other. In any credible change management methodology, active sponsorship by multiple layers of leadership is the single most influential aspect in managing disruptive organizational wide change. Active sponsorship of a change becomes powerful and more influential when the leader upends the pyramid - removing barriers that inhibit the employee, prioritizing the individual’s objectives according to the greater goal, and specifically working towards making it easier for the individual to change their behaviors.
  2. Offer serving leader tactics that operate within the framework of the change management model. Serving leaders build on the strengths of those around them and thereby create a more engaged, productive and content team. Too often when faced with disruptive inevitable change, leaders may respond to employee resistance as lack of will. However, lack of ability is a common cause of employee resistance to change. The serving change leader approaches resistance with more than one good faith attempt to provide information, alleviate fears, prioritize training and reward for positive new behaviors.
  3. Work within the cultural boundaries of the organization. The most productive, sustainable and least disruptive way to change an organizational culture is to change individual behaviors. In large complex organizations, changing behaviors on an individual level requires the patience, concern and dedication of a serving change leader. Behaviors are personal. Changing behaviors requires the leader to acknowledge the current culture while raising the bar for the individual. The leader sets a new expectation, demonstrates its importance and finds impactful manners by which to reward the individual. 

In general, today’s organizational leaders see a connection between leading change and the serving leader. However, to reap the benefits of the two in practice simultaneously, the coach, mentor or trainer should serve their coachee first by identifying the synergy between change management and serving leader.

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Learning to Lead by Stepping Back

Last week I read The Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf as part of the Greenleaf Center’s Foundations Certification course, which I’m taking with my friends at Third River Partners.  In the essay, Greenleaf proposes how one can test his or her effectiveness as a servant leader with reflection upon the “Best Test."  When you are serving another person or group of people, ask yourself,

"Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”  - Robert Greenleaf

Hearing this test of servant leadership abilities was particularly poignant for me in my role as mother.  My little guy is a joy and a blessing that I thank God for every morning.  Even so, when he wakes in the middle of the night it’s easy to lose sight of coherent thoughts and the greater goal of how to best lead my son.

At about 2 months old, my baby started sleeping from 10pm - 6am most nights.  We were overjoyed and thankful.  On the nights he didn’t sleep peacefully though, my patience quickly wore thin.  (Who said sleeping like a baby was a good thing!)  At about 4 months old I would wake to the sound of cooing, talking, or crying.  Once I determined he wasn’t hungry I would let it go for a while knowing that I should let him work it out on his own…especially if he was just talking to himself.  After a while, I wanted to go back to sleep, but I can’t sleep with the baby being awake!  So I’d get up, go in his room, put the pacifier back in his mouth, and go back to bed trying to sleep as quickly as possible.  This scene would end up repeating itself 3-4 times from 3-6am.  So I wasn’t getting restful sleep and not helping my baby develop good sleep habits either.  Over days and weeks, things were not getting better.  They were getting worse!  My eyes were more bloodshot each morning as the days and weeks wore on. 
In my short time as a parent I’m finding this a constant battle.  The good things are hard to do, and most of the time it isn’t what you want to do.  (This is actually true with anything, e.g. exercise, eating healthy, saving for retirement.)  This is where the "Best Test” illuminates. 

As I pondered my serving leadership role in my family, I knew that my short term “fix” was not only not working, it was hindering us.  As the weekend approached, my husband and I decided it was time to let him figure it out.  No more pacifier rescue.  My husband would keep me strong (and out of the nursery).  That night (early morning) was rough.  He woke around 5am.  He needed to make it to 7am, his normal wakeup time.  We braced ourselves (and closed our door).  It was hard.  He cried until about 6:45am (with a couple of calming reassurances by Dad), when he finally wore out and went to sleep.  It was really hard.  When I went in to wake him for the day, he opened his eyes and gave me a huge smile!  My thought was, “How can he be smiling?!?!"  The next night was so much better…we all slept straight through until 8am.  Glorious! 

Not every night is great even now, but I am learning to rehearse the "Best Test” goal in those moments.  I want him to learn to be freer and more autonomous, eventually learning to serve others too.  Right now that means learning to calm down and sleep on his own.  I know this test will only become harder as the parenting choices get harder.  I pray for the strength to be a servant leader, one who serves another without reservation to help them "become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants.”

Greenleaf’s Best Test takes on a different view than what naturally comes to mind when the term “servant leader” is mentioned. Most of us think being a servant means you have to be a doormat, giving everything without the expectation of return. It sounds exhausting, and it is!  This is not a serving leader.  We need to step back to see the greater goal, where we want to be, and continually make steps (and sometimes re-step) forward toward it.  Leading by stepping back.  How terrifying and empowering to the servant leader and the person being served!  Do you remember when someone believed you could do something and stepped back to allow you to struggle through it?  Was it a high power presentation, a field assignment, or riding your bike?

There are those around you who need you to lead them by stepping back.  Are you willing to sacrifice today for the sake of reaching the greater goal in the future?


*This blog post orginially appeared on June 16, 2016 on Amanda's blog eNthusaProve

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Inspiring Leadership: My Dad

In honor of Father’s Day I decided to do some reflection on my own father, Bob Phelps. My father has always been an example to me of what a leader should be. He encourages others, loves new ideas, and creates systems that work by removing obstacles in the way. In many ways he has been practicing serving leadership for years, although he may not have called it that.

As I have gotten older, I have seen first-hand the transformation of some of the organizations he worked for. Watching as he took struggling work environments and turned them into thriving places, alive with energy and excitement. One of the ways he did this was by identifying a greater goal that everyone in the organization could get behind.

One organization he worked, Pittsburgh Urban Christian School (PUCS), for had the greater goal of “preparing children for a lifetime of learning” by providing excellent education regardless of the race or economic status of the family. As a part of fulfilling PUCS’s greater goal, my dad had the idea to create outdoor spaces for students to learn and have fun in. This came in two parts, the first was to create an outdoor classroom and curriculum for students of all ages to study nature. The second was to get a new playground for the students.

It just so happened that the school used a public playground that was rundown and dangerous for students and neighborhood kids to play on. My dad and his team applied for a grant to build a new playground for the neighborhood. He appealed to the school’s greater goal of teaching children to learn to get the organization behind the idea.

In the process my dad teamed up with a non-profit that specifically works to help design and build new playgrounds for children. The real excitement came when 200 volunteers were so excited about the greater goal that they participated in building the new playground. Many of the volunteers came from PUCS because they saw how this project fit into the school’s greater goal of expanding education for students and neighborhood kids alike. Today the playground is used by about 500 kids from the school, neighborhood, and local organizations.

My dad strove to do something that not only benefited his own workplace, but also the community. His greater goal helped inspire his organization and neighborhood to dream big and create something greater than themselves. I am inspired daily by my father’s example to run towards a greater goal--one that furthers our organization’s mission and strengthens the community around us.

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Becoming the Best

At the top of the page there is a quote from my colleague Ken Jennings's book, The Serving Leader"You can't become the best unless others do, too." I want to offer some reflections, coming from a sport that is both individually and team oriented, on teamwork and becoming the best. I have been better than other people at a number of things, but for me becoming the best relates to a competition with myself. The best matters most if I am doing my best.

I swam competitively in high school. In addition to my school’s team, I swam year-round on a club team, which meant that during swim season I did two practices a day. The first was with my school team from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm. At 5:00, I and the other four swimmer from my club team would dry off and go to practice number two. We would "fuel up" on the way over because 5:30 was when the real workout started.

Two hours of sprints and drills with long swims and land workouts interspersed. Not that our first practice did not also have drills, sprints, and long swims worked into them too. No, the reason why our workouts at the second practices were so much more challenging was twofold. One we had an excellent leader and coach.

Coach Hosea Holder, or "Coach," held us to a high standard. He expected the best from us and told us regularly. Already in his seventies, Coach had been a long time swimmer himself before starting his decades long career of coaching. Coach could encourage us with stories of former swimmers, and in the next moment admonish us for horsing around in the lanes. He pushed us to do our best.

So we did. Which is the second reason why the club practices were much more challenging. We were competing, everyday with the competition from other schools. Each lane had anywhere from 2-4 schools represented. We trained 2 hours a day, six days a week, year-round with the very people we wanted to beat. As a result we all got better. What started off as just swimming, led to weight lifting, which led to running, and even sprinting on land to cross train our lungs and muscles. Each day was a race.

On my club team, I was painfully slow. Having started as a sophomore in high school, years after many of my teammates had started, I was often placed in a lane with swimmers half my size. Both my sisters started swimming before I did and were much better. So while they swam in lanes with all my friends, I tried to keep up with everyone's younger siblings.

But when I got to my school team, I was a rock star. Well, not quite--there were still some swimmers from my club team that could crush me hands down in a race. The rest of the team school, however, consisted mostly of people who only swam during the season and maybe in the summer.

And while I swam at school practices, rarely did I push myself. In the lane to my right were the fast swimmers, all from my club team. To my left were swimmers who were new, out of shape, or preferred to goof off during practice. But even if I was better technically at swimming or even faster than the people to my left, I hardly showed it during school practices. No one else was trying hard, so even if I put in a good workout there was no one I was actively trying to "beat."

If I would have just swam on my school's team I would have never known how good I could be at swimming. I was never the best compared to others by any means, but I was able to get to my best by surrounding myself by others who were working to become their best. In The Serving Leader the main character, Mike, asks how “being tough on people [helps] them.” The answer that he gets is one that my swimming experience resonates with. “We try to live up to what others expect of us … Expect a little, and we live up to a little. Expect a lot, and we stretch and grow to meet that expectation.” Living up to the expectations of Coach and my club teammates not only made our team better, but it made me better. At school I was given low expectations and I chose not to grow or stretch myself.

As leaders, whether at work, home, in the community, or on a team, we grow when we surround ourselves with others who are also growing and raising the bar. Mike from The Serving Leader sees this principle enacted at the company BioWorks. The leaders there have high expectations for their students and workers. As a result the people who work there begin to actively start changing not just the company, but their own lives. Swimming taught me how others’ expectations for me and for my team could either keep me stunted or push me into greater growth.

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Serving Leaders


Just serve them!

That’s how Serving Leaders help their people achieve greatness. And that matters because it takes great people to make an organization great.

While some may consider this ‘serving’ approach paradoxical, it was the exact approach Jesus taught his disciples.

He said to them, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.”

And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers.  But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:23-28, NASB

For many years, I have enjoyed a ringside seat observing particularly effective set of leaders. Building upon servant leadership foundations, I see a movement among leaders who put the principles of servant leadership into very practical and effective action.

I call them “Serving Leaders,” and I have studied their day-to-day, practical actions for building a talented workforce and achieving extraordinary results.

Serving Leaders make productive use of what has been learned through extensive organizational behavior research in expectancy theory, goal setting, and participatory management (Lawler, Locke and others). Research embedded in The Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, and Jim Collins’ Good to Great, confirms that companies with Serving Leader-led cultures enjoy market returns well above their peers.

Shifting to a Serving Leader model can enable organizations to improve in critical metrics, as seen at The Cleveland Clinic, where employee engagement and patient satisfaction measures rose from a lower quartile baseline to exemplary levels following implementation of Serving Leadership.

Here are the five behaviors that define a Serving Leader:

1. Serving Leaders build on strength by arranging each person in the team, the business or the community to contribute what he or she is best at. This improves everyone’s performance and solidifies terms by aligning the strengths of many people.

2. Serving Leaders blaze the trail by teaching serving leader principles and practices and by removing obstacles to performance. These actions multiply the serving leader’s impact by educating and activating tier after tier of leadership.

3. Serving Leaders raise the bar of expectations by being highly selective in the choice of team leaders and by establishing high standards of performance. These actions build a culture of performance through out the team, business or community.

4. Serving Leaders upend the pyramid of conventional management thinking. They put themselves at the bottom of the pyramid and unleash the energy, excitement, and talents of the team, the business, and community.

5. Serving Leaders run to purpose by holding out in front of their team, business or community a ‘reason why’ that is so big that it requires and motives everybody’s very best effort.

What type of leader are you?


*This blog post first appeared on February 8, 2016 on the Christian Leadership Alliance blog. 

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