Servant leadership in business

31 July 2015 02:50 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


A true servant leader is a guardian of the organisation’s resources and serves stakeholders while staying focused on achieving organisational goals in line with the organisational values. Servant leadership, (unlike other leadership approaches having a top-down hierarchical style), emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy and the ethical use of power. This kind of leader is a servant first, who then makes the conscious decision to lead in order to better serve others.

Instead of increasing his or her own power, the objective is to facilitate the growth of individuals in the organisation and increase teamwork. 

Although there is a general myth that servant leadership cannot be effectively practiced in the corporate business world, we can learn from very successful business organisations around the world that vigorously pursue and advocate servant leadership practices. May be it is hard to find servant leadership profiles easily because those leaders prefer to be behind-the-scenes building platforms of success for others – avoiding the spotlight at all costs. We have selected Herb Kelleher who founded Southwest Airlines to elaborate on servant leadership practices there in.

Southwest Airlines (LUV) announced remarkable 39th consecutive year of profitability in July 2015. Herb Kelleher served as the Executive Chairman from March 1978 to May 2008. Kelleher has been identified as the best CEO in America by Fortune magazine and recognized by presenting several accolades.

Kelleher, a servant leader, emphasized that people should take themselves lightly but their jobs seriously. He believed that the best leader must be the best servant. He did not lead by controlling but by being a servant leader. In an industry notorious for low morale, Southwest Airlines never retrenched an employee and presents a classic case of imparting trust and reaping benefits.

Southwest commenced service with three airplanes in 1971 and in May of 2008, when Kelleher stepped down as the Executive Chairman, operated a fleet of more than 527 airplanes and performed more than 3,400 flights per day. The Fall 2002 edition of Money magazine revealed that, during the 30-year period 1972-2002, Southwest produced the highest return to shareholders of any company included in the Fortune 500 during that 30-year period.

As a servant leader, Kelleher’s management style says it all. When a servant leader imprints their social DNA into an organisation, the entire culture becomes about building platforms of success for everybody. Southwest Airlines had a reputation for hard work and high spirits. Historically, the airline is among the most generous in terms of compensation and benefits. In 1974 Southwest became the first airline to offer a profit-sharing plan.

Followers first 
Kelleher always put followers first, helping them grow and succeed by empowering them. He believed that flight attendants were the airline’s most important leaders because they had the biggest impact on the customer experience. Those who have flown the airline know that Southwest flight attendants are some of the happiest people in the air. For him - the test of true leadership is whether employees leave the company better than when they got there. He wanted everyone growing and changing and improving and believed that is the only way Southwest will grow, change and improve.

Kelleher said – “We do build our pyramid a bit different… at the top of our pyramid in terms of priority is our employees and we deliver to them proactive customer service. If we do a good enough job of that, they in turn spend their time trying to assure the second most important group on our pyramid – our passengers – feels good about the service they are getting. And if those people feel good enough about it, then they come back for more. And if the passengers come back often enough, that means our third group of customers, in terms of importance, the shareholders are satisfied.”

Southwest Airlines corporate values are: warrior spirit, servant heart, fun-loving attitude. Their strategy is creating personality through values. A warrior spirit means being fearless in terms of delivering the services by giving employees all the tools they need to support the customers. As long as it’s not illegal, unethical or immoral to do what the heart tells, as if this person was a member of your own family. A servant’s heart refers to -   treat others with respect. Put other people first and connect customers to what is important in their lives through friendly, reliable and low-cost air travel. A fun-loving attitude -   recruiting people who have a fun and loving attitude and don’t take themselves too seriously.   

Kelleher doesn’t call his employees followers, instead collaborators. Living by the word collaborators people of Southwest Airlines jumped in when a need arise to serve.  They are active and they are engaged, regardless of which side of the leadership relationship they are on. Kelleher himself used to come in to the cleaners’ break room at 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday passing out doughnuts or putting on a pair of coveralls to clean a plane frequently. Pilots helped clean up cabins, ramp workers sold tickets, loading baggage, ticketing customers and mixing drinks on board. Statistically, Southwest employees work longer and harder than employees at any other airline. They always went the extra mile. Stories include an employee stopping to help a stranded traveller change his tyre, flight attendants visiting passengers in the hospital and a reservation agent driving an 85-year-old woman 20 miles between airports so that she could make her connection. 

Benefits of servant leadership
1. Builds up the organisation: Servant leaders place the success of the organisation, first. This often means the leader does not get celebrity status. However, the organisation as a whole is recognized as a success. This is seen in Southwest Airlines frequent recognition as the leader of their industry and the comparably infrequent features of Herb Kelleher.

2. Humbly shares success: When recognition does come to the leader, the first comment is often in reference to the people who really delivered the success – the front line workers. Herb Kelleher often referred to the critical role unions played in the company’s success. 

3. Prioritizes sustainability: Sustainability is a critical attribute for servant leaders. In Kelleher and Southwest this was reflected in Herb’s passing the baton to Colleen Barrett, his long-time partner and Gary Kelly. Neither Colleen nor Gary was public figures but they knew The Southwest way and were well understood as competent successors.

Leadership is not a rank or a position. Leadership is a service to be given.

(This is the 21st column of the leadership series by Eng. Gamini Nanda Gunawardana [BSc Eng (Hons), MBA, CEng, FIE (SL), MCS (SL), MIDPM (UK), FIAP (UK), MBCS (UK)], a Management, HR, OD and ICT Consultant, Corporate Trainer, Executive Coach, Consultant - HRD - Goodhope Asia Holdings Ltd. He can be contacted at, Skype: gamini7147)  

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