The Servant Leader

Looking at the state of our industry with an eye toward improving what we do and how we do it, I believe we are suffering from a deficit of effective leadership and have been for a long time. I see it at all levels of the industry, from dealers to manufacturers and our trade associations, far too many of our organizations are overmanaged and not effectively led.

From my perspective, the void is most evident in the lack of positive direction and focus as to how we promote our products to the consumer. As I’ve pressed, preached and pleaded in print and in presentations at industry events, we need to find ways to highlight the wonderful experiences aquatic environments provide instead of focusing on nuts-and-bolts issues.

I’m so passionate about that concept because I believe with all my heart if we can forge a more positive association between our products and the consumer experience, we will find a future overflowing with potential realized. As it is, we unfortunately continue to languish in a morass of mixed messages lacking any clear direction.

Based on my nearly 50 years in this industry, I’ve come to also firmly believe the way we change this is through thinking differently about leadership. In general, what I see are managers who, although effective in many respects, fail to understand that human beings do not like to be managed, but instead excel when they are led by way of inspiration and the belief that they play significant roles in the grand scheme of things.

In essence, I’m talking about seeing leadership through the lens of “service” to those we seek to lead. That concept might seem odd at first. After all, the idea of service is often mistaken for subservience, but they are not the same thing. In fact, they’re actually exact opposites. The servant leader is still very much an authority figure, but one who uses his or her position to inspire and motivate everyone within their respective organizations. He or she does not manage people (you manage inventory, production and distribution, not human beings) but instead sets the table for individual and collective success within an organizational structure and culture.

The servant leader understands that when people are emotionally and intellectually vested in success, they will take actions that result in positive outcomes. They will take it upon themselves to consistently do the right thing and, in many situations, offer suggestions for improvement in processes and products. They are far more apt support one another.

Nothing about this approach to leadership is new. The word “samurai,” for example, literally translates as “serve” — to serve through wisdom, compassion, clarity of purpose, moral fortitude, mutual respect and most important, trust. The servant leader embraces those concepts and applies them so those being led feel supported, empowered, appreciated and safe within their respective roles.

One of the most important elements of servant leadership is to communicate a crystal clear message that is consistent across all levels of the organization. Way back when I started in this industry in 1966, I worked for the legendary Howard Arneson, selling automatic pool cleaners, or so I thought. One day, Arneson asked me, “What do you think we’re selling?” When I replied with what I considered the obvious answer, Pool Sweep, he said, “We’re not selling pool cleaners — we’re selling a clean pool.”

That critical distinction stuck in my mind and in one way or another, everything I’ve done and accomplished in this industry has been based on that kind of transformative concept. Although I didn’t exactly realize it at the time, Arneson was saying that by understanding the essence of what we’re selling, we’re better able to serve the needs of our customers.

The exact same principle holds true when leading people within an organization. The servant leader doesn’t tell people what they need to do, but instead inspires them to apply their skills and talents to the very best of their abilities as part of a collective effort to achieve shared goals. The servant leader makes it clear that every person in the organization is viewed as a critical part of the team and encourages them to see it that way, too.

When people feel they are appreciated and recognized for their best efforts, they become more effective, more efficient and more mindful of the tasks at hand. They become better team players and more respectful of the efforts of their co-workers. Most important, they become happier and more secure in their jobs. I’ve seen this work for everyone from vice presidents to the guy sweeping the floors. Through servant leadership there is no such thing as menial work. A job well done is honored and supported because ultimately having clean floors is viewed as just as important as making the so-called big decisions in the boardroom.

In fact, a huge part of this style of leadership means the people who are the most impacted by change directly participate in making the most important decisions. Throughout my career, the majority of the decisions I personally made were by way of identifying the individuals or groups who should make the actual hands-on decisions.

No one leader can ever be an expert on everything that goes on within an organization, whether he or she realizes it or not. The servant leader recognizes that when the people doing the work make decisions, the quality of decisions dramatically improves and those people feel empowered and motivated to implement change to maximum positive effect.

By contrast, when the guys and gals with the big offices and fancy leather chairs make all the decisions within an organization, oftentimes those decisions seem capricious and dictatorial. Disconnecting people from decisions that impact them generates resentment and at times, paranoia. That’s when you start to see the corrosive effects of second-guessing and distrust throughout the organization. The simple truth is, you really cannot count on success when people feel disenfranchised at work. That’s just basic human nature.

That’s why success is ultimately a byproduct of trust. Trust is both the lubricant for effective operations and also the glue that holds an organization together. Where there is trust, your chances of success expand exponentially. Where there is a lack of trust, the exact opposite is true. I’ve always found that when you trust the people you lead, the vast majority will make sure they’re worthy of that confidence. Far more often than not, they will deliver on that trust and even exceed expectations.

I’ve always found that achievement fueled by trust inevitably becomes contagious. People look forward to coming to work because they see their efforts as something more than simply what they do to earn a paycheck. They feel a part of something bigger than themselves. I believe that’s why religion and large social movements are often so galvanizing. When you study the efforts of our world’s most powerful and influential leaders, from Jesus Christ to Mahatma Gandhi to Winston Churchill, you always see a profound ability to instill the belief in all who follow that they are key players in their own destiny.

And that is what I believe our industry needs most – servant leaders who understand that only through clarity of purpose, personal empowerment and genuine trust can we begin to realize our full potential.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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