Servant Leadership: Now in 3D

by  Tristan Bishop  |  Self Leadership

This post by Tristan Bishop was originally published on his KnowledgeBishop’s Mission blog.

A salty tear rolled past the border of my digital 3-D glasses.”It’s a cartoon, dad!” said my incredulous 11-year-old, “why are you CRYING?” The Saturday matinee was a cove of contrast: 400 giggling, wiggling kids: 150 weeping parents, each experiencing Toy Story 3 through the lenses of their lives. Through my foggy specs, I clearly saw the towering power of the servant leader.

A few days later, I was talking with a new friend, Trey Pennington, who had written an amazing post about how every business needs a “Woody.” I mentioned that I saw Woody as a “servant leader.” Trey, rich with the inspiration that characterizes his work, encouraged me to expound upon the vision.

In the business world, the notion of servant leadership is attributed to writings of Robert Greenleaf. One of Greenleaf’s stellar passages asserts that a servant leader takes great care to ensure that the “highest priority needs of others” have been met. Because I aspire toward servant leadership in my profession, I couldn’t help but notice how clearly Woody modeled this archetype in Toy Story 3.

Woody had it made. His future was secure. He alone would be heading to college with Andy: onward and upward. But he couldn’t ignore the despair of those he’d led for so long. His team was crushed by the incorrect assumption that Andy no longer cared for them. So Woody left his secure position in Andy’s luggage, risking his own future so that he could educate and encourage those he cared about.

Later in the film, Woody was welcomed into a bright new home, safe in a delightful room among young Bonnie’s friendly toys. And yet, upon learning that his friends were suffering and oppressed, Woody once again left his secure position. Disregarding his own comfort, Woody returned to Sunnyside to lead them through danger to safety. For the second time, Woody demonstrated his servant leadership, placing himself in harm’s way for the good of his friends.

In the corporate world, the servant leader is willing to sacrifice time and energy, in order to ensure that the team is informed and inspired. The servant leader is willing take necessary political risks, in order to defend the team from false accusations. The professional servant leader finds purpose and fulfillment in denying self for the well-being of the team.

In the past, it was rare to see servant leadership emphasized as a crucial corporate value. In the future, servant leadership will be a prime predictor of long-term success. So as you ponder servant leadership in your business, don’t ask how you can become more effective. Ask, instead, how you can become more empathetic. Effectiveness rises and falls with empathy. They are inextricably linked.

This post originally appeared (July 27, 2010) on Tristan’s blog, KnowledgeBishop’s Mission.

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Kelly Ketelboeter  |  12 Aug 2010  |  Reply

Hi Tristan,

What a fantastic post! I love the parallels you made between leadership and Toy Story 3. It’s amazing how many leadership lessons surround us everyday. The key is being open to learning and seeing the lessons.

You hit on a very important point and one that is near and dear to my heart, empathy. Empathy is an under-rated and under-utilized skill in today’s organizations and society as a whole. A little empathy can go a long way in leading others as well as serving others.

Thanks for sharing!

knowledgebishop  |  13 Aug 2010  |  Reply

Thank you so much, Kelly! I too believe empathy is the key to golden-rule leadership. I’m excited about what we can learn from one another, and what we can bring as a group into the workplace.

Lori Meyer  |  12 Aug 2010  |  Reply

Thanks very much for this great post, Tristan…a superb teaching moment for us all, as you remind of us of a critical but often overlooked principle of leadership: That service is the ultimate engine that drives leadership, and that is what empowers us all.

knowledgebishop  |  13 Aug 2010  |  Reply

I appreciate your input and kind words, Lori, thank you! Yes, leadership that springs from a servant-heart brings long-term growth. I see so much of that perspective here on Lead Change, and I’m delighted to be a member.

Teri Aulph  |  14 Aug 2010  |  Reply

Tristan – I love this article! Very creative, well-written and compelling. I couldn’t agree more regarding the importance of empathy for leaders.

Tristan Bishop  |  15 Aug 2010  |  Reply

I’m grateful for your affirming input, Teri. Thanks so much for your encouragement. I look forward to watching our collective focus on character-based leadership make significant impact in the days ahead.

Susan Mazza  |  10 Jan 2011  |  Reply

What a great example to draw from in showing what servant leadership looks like in action!

You are a wonderful writer Tristan. I enjoy reading whatever you write!

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