Clay Phillips

An Upside Down Look at Leadership

Organizations that have grown a culture based on servant leadership almost certainly did not achieve that ideal overnight.  Much work, dedication, patience and perseverance is necessary to cast the vision, cultivate the organization, select those committed to the philosophy, and create an environment where people can serve and lead more effectively at all levels.

Serving at all levels is absolutely paramount to any service organization, not to simply state the obvious. It is equally beneficial to realize that a healthy, servant leadership organization creates leaders at all levels.  In fact, in an effective servant leadership organization it can sometimes become difficult to distinguish which is the cart or the horse, or the chicken or the egg, when examining which comes first, serving while leading……or is it leading while serving.  While in most circumstances you really do need to know which is the cart and which is the horse, in this instance when serving and leading become synergistic and inseparable, everyone wins, most importantly, those we serve.

Those with positional leadership within an organization who are attempting to create and grow a servant leader culture must endorse the ideal that everyone serves and everyone leads regardless of title.  In fact, leaders should create an organizational expectation that nothing less is acceptable.  Failing to do so at the outset of the journey towards a servant leadership culture will hinder the effort at best, and derail it altogether, at worst.

When I recognize that I am responsible for leading and providing for those that “work for me,” then it is not a huge leap to understand that I actually work as much or more for them than they do for me.  Others cannot possibly succeed if I fail to do my part.  It becomes much more of a two-way responsibility.  Everyone holds some accountability for the entire effort.

So, from a practical, visual perspective, how can this type of organization be illustrated?  Surely by now we have all seen the inverted organization chart in some leadership class, conference setting or other leadership program that inverts the classic organization chart shape from untitled to untitled1.  Doing so visually illustrates that everything rests on the leader’s shoulders.  The leader’s role is to help cast vision, get the right people in the right seat, set the goals, develop the work plans, secure funding and support, set necessary parameters and then get out of the way so others can perform and deliver stellar service in a far more effective and efficient way than the leader could alone.  While there is nothing necessarily groundbreaking in this idea, it remains a concept not understood or practiced by many organizations today.

The real magic happens when you marry the inverted organization chart and all it communicates with the belief that people lead and serve from every level.  When the culture is really, really healthy, everyone understands that the inverted organization chart applies to everyone regardless of position or title.  When examining the larger organization, it is obvious that there are many organization charts that represent various department and work groups within the whole.

When all are inverted as described it looks something like this:

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In addition to the recognized formal leader of an organization, impact of the inverted organization chart applies to leaders of others within the organization including departments, divisions, work teams, crews, and other work units.  More interesting is the idea that even those that do not supervise others directly lead and are responsible for outcomes when carrying out a singular task – they lead in that very moment by serving, providing assistance, delivering a program to all of those that rely on them to do so.

Perhaps the best thing about this model is the picture it paints regarding the positioning of first line team members.  The inverted organization chart puts the front line directly in contact with those the organization is meant to serve directly.  This organizational view actually illustrates the organization as it is more often experienced by those we serve as it recognizes the level in the organization that has more actual customer contact each day.

This organizational view should inspire at every level of the organization as each member of the organization understands that the role they play is vital to the entire mission.  Simultaneously it is evident that the organization is built to support them as they perform.  So while one is serving others they are simultaneously being served by others in the larger organization ensuring they have everything they need to succeed.

The inverted view provides a sobering reminder to all those that lead as the success of the entire organization rests upon their shoulders.  Rather than being viewed as being at the pinnacle, leaders recognize that their role is to form the foundation for the overall success of their work group, department, and the organization as a whole.  Simultaneously, inverted shape can be a precarious thing given that the base of the entire organization and each team within it appears to be narrow, thus the need for ideal team players at every level.  It is the ideal team player who will help assist others when they need help.  Doing so provides support at every level, from every level.

Leaders who embrace the notion that humility is practiced when we use our position, influence, resources and power on behalf of others first have a far better chance of creating a servant leader culture.  It does require the setting aside of ego to some degree and it is somewhat counter to much of the prevailing leadership ideas of the past century.  Moreover, in a truly healthy organization there should even be times when it is difficult to distinguish exactly who the leaders and followers are as visionary leaders who believe the servant leadership culture is the correct culture are not bound by title, formality, credit and notoriety.  They are more than happy to allow the “right person in the right seat” to lead and perform.  It is doubtful that anyone believing otherwise would even be interested in this model of leadership.  It is equally doubtful that anyone who does subscribe to the notion would be satisfied with anything less.

So why does all of this matter?  I am glad you asked!  Without humble leaders, leadership will fail.  Without ideal team players, the organization will fail.  When the organization fails, customer service suffers.  When customer service suffers, the community loses.

So take heart.  Lead well.  Serve well.  Don’t let something like a title, or lack thereof, prevent you from serving and leading from wherever you are within an organization.  Conversely, don’t think for a minute that a “more important title” exempts you from serving those within your organization and the larger community that depend upon you every day for vision, support, resources, and the creation and maintenance of a safe organizational culture in which everyone can freely perform.

I hope each of you has a very happy holiday season.  Thanks for all you do……talk to you soon!