Tag Archives: servant leadership

Alpha Dogs and Leadership


dogs-1231010_1280Because this blog was on hiatus all summer, I didn’t comment on the political stalemates and morasses during those months. And I’m not going to comment directly on the ongoing issues today. But what I saw over the summer—and what I continue to see this fall—reminds me of a situation I encountered many years ago involving “alpha dogs” in a corporate setting.

My work group attended a gender diversity program sometime in the mid-1990s. I was not in management at the time; I was one of several individual contributors who ranged widely in seniority. I was in the middle of the pack at the time.

One of the comments about gender differences that the facilitator made during this gender diversity session was that men often try to be the “alpha dog” in a meeting by one-upping the other men in the room. Women, on the other hand, care less if they are seen as the highest power in the room. (Keep in mind that this program took place decades before Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy became vogue.)

I might have forgotten this “alpha dog” comment, except that a few days after the diversity program, I was talking about it with a male colleague, one of the more senior employees in our group. He freely admitted, “That’s why I have problems with [our male boss]. He and I both want to be the alpha dog.”

I thought about it. He was right—these two men did both try to be top dog. And trying to be the alpha dog wasn’t working for my colleague, because he didn’t have the corporate authority to pull it off. He wasn’t the boss, but he often tried to be.

I made a deliberate decision. As a fairly young and introverted female, seeking to be the alpha dog wasn’t going to work for me either. Therefore, I would consciously act like I was NOT the alpha dog. I would not overtly try to one-up other people I encountered in the workplace. I would defer to others intentionally. I would seek to provide good service to my colleagues and clients, rather than to command them. That didn’t mean letting others step all over me, but it did mean not being arrogant or seeking top billing on projects.

I’ve written before about “servant leadership,” a philosophy that advocates leading by serving others. I didn’t hear of that concept until ten or more years after the 1990s gender diversity program, but it resonated with me when I learned about it.

How did servant leadership work for me?

Generally, it worked well, at least through the middle years in my career. Over time, there were more and more times when I had to take command and make decisions. And occasionally, I didn’t get as much credit for my work as I thought I should have. But those times were less frequent than one might expect.

However, there were times after I moved into senior corporate roles when more of a command approach might have worked better. There were definitely people—mostly men, but a few women—who took advantage of my understated approach or who thought me weak. I could usually deflect them by being the best prepared person in the room, but there were a few jerks who only understood power, who only thought highly of other “alpha dogs” and sought to be the “alpha dog” with everyone except the CEO. They were never my favorite people, but sometimes I did have to flex my style to deal with them effectively.

dogs-1231008_640Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders—particularly the partisans on both sides of the aisle in Washington—seem to be of the “alpha dog” mentality. One-up-man-ship is all they understand. And so our nation has become increasingly polarized. If more of them would exercise servant leadership, we would all be better off.

What leadership style have you generally used? When have you had to flex your style?

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Filed under Diversity, Leadership, Management, Philosophy, Politics, Workplace

We Are Formed By Those We Serve


Servant-as-Leader-600-x-600-e1417632687696-mnm4xm6n1cq5sae1iq6ntpk08do5anyw3katv3xjaoAn acquaintance recently quoted something he’d been told in a leadership development program: “You will be formed by the people you serve.” The program was for leaders in non-profit institutions, and so the service element made particular sense. But I have been pondering that statement for its relevance in all leadership contexts—no matter what organization you are a part of, you serve someone, and you are in fact formed by the people you serve.

I’ve mentioned “servant leadership” before, a philosophy named by Robert K. Greenleaf.  My point in my earlier post was that leaders who engage in systematic neglect—who focus on what they think is important and ignore other issues—must accept the consequences of not doing what they neglect. This post examines the root of servant leadership.

In the introduction to The Servant as Leader, Mr. Greenleaf stated

“ A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.”

He describes the servant-leader as follows:

“The servant-leader is servant first . . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve — after leadership is established. . . .
“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?”

This is a high standard—to want to serve first, to meet others’ highest priority needs first, to help those served grow as persons. But think of what it means to one’s own development to aspire to this standard. If I aspire to serve, will I not in fact be formed by my attempts to serve?

If I seek to meet others’ needs, then I will become more discerning of what those needs are. If I seek to aid in others’ development, to make them healthier, wiser, and more autonomous, I will certainly become wiser myself and less autocratic. If I seek to benefit—or at least avoid depriving—the less fortunate, I must first become more humane and empathetic.

I think back on my own career. I admit freely that servant-leadership was often no more than an aspiration, and even more often not even on my radar screen. I fell far short of achieving any type of servant status.

Yet the people who reported to me formed me. Some brought substantive expertise to our department that I did not have, and they taught me. Some had far more emotional intelligence than I have, and they saw issues I glossed over. Some pushed at me when I didn’t want to be pushed, and made me a better and more articulate manager than I otherwise would have been.

Even before we are leaders in an organization, we serve. We have bosses. We have clients. These individuals form us also. So even before I was a manager, I was being formed by those individuals I served. Most of my bosses taught me both about our substantive areas of expertise and about corporate politics. Some of my bosses taught me positively by their examples, and others demonstrated behaviors I didn’t want to develop. My clients pushed me and pulled me to get their questions answered and their needs met. They shaped the expertise I developed.

In every case, I was formed by those I served.

When were you formed by who you served?

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Systematic Neglect: Choose Your Priorities and Accept the Consequences


Like Every Function, To Be Strategic, HR Must Bring Expertise to the TableDuring the years I spent in leadership roles, two concepts became critical to my attempts to manage my time: discretionary time and systematic neglect.

I’ve written before about discretionary time—the time we can all carve out in our day to do what we think we should do. It may be fifteen minutes to check on a subordinate, or lunch with a peer to build a relationship, but we can all exercise some discretion in how we spend our time. Some organizations institutionalize the concept, as Google famously did when it encouraged employees to spend 20 percent of their time experimenting on their own projects.

Today I want to focus on the other time-management concept: “systematic neglect.” I learned about this concept in The Servant as Leader, by Robert K. Greenleaf. Mr. Greenleaf says part of a leader’s responsibility is to decide what not to do, what tasks to ignore. He says systematic neglect enables us to focus on the most important work. Specifically, he states:

The ability to withdraw and reorient oneself, if only for a moment, presumes that one has learned the art of systematic neglect, to sort out the more important from the less important — and the important from the urgent — and attend to the more important, even though there may be penalties and censure for the neglect of something else.

All of us understand the concept at some level—there is only so much time in the day. We cannot do everything, and we certainly cannot do everything at the level of quality we would like.

Although that type of triage is intuitive, a light bulb dawned for me when I read Mr. Greenleaf’s statement. Because not only does he say we need to consciously choose to do the more important work rather than the less important, he also makes clear that we must be prepared to accept the consequences of our choices.

My light bulb realization was that other people wouldn’t always agree with me on what to neglect, no matter how reasonable my choice seemed to me. I might choose to neglect a project they think is critical. When other people disagree with you about what is most important—and they will—you must accept their “censure.” You may not change their mind, but you have to accept that they will not be happy with you.

The organization I was a part of at the time embraced the philosophy of “systematic neglect.” Thereafter, there were several times when I was dismayed at the choices some of my colleagues made. They had different priorities than I did. I probably upset them, too, with my choices of what to do and what to neglect. There were heated discussions—censures and penalties—as a result.

Still, when you are prepared to accept the consequences of choosing what to do (using the concept of discretionary time) and what not to do (using the concept of systematic neglect), then you have much greater control of your time. And that lets you set and shape your priorities to a far greater extent than you might think possible.

What have you done when your priorities have differed from those of your co-workers?

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Filed under Leadership, Management, Work/Life, Workplace