The following is excerpted from the recently published book, The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis by Richard S. Levick and Charles Slack.
By the time a crisis occurs, it’s too late to ask your employees and customers to start believing in your mission. They either do or they don’t — and whether they do or don’t may well determine your chances for survival. Companies are thus well-advised to use their peacetimes wisely to fortify the confidence and commitment of all vital stakeholders.
“Servant leadership,” espoused by executives such as James H. Blanchard, former chairman and CEO of Synovus, a major bank holding company based in Georgia, is a holistic strategy for doing just that. Some 15 years before the current financial crisis erupted, Blanchard sent a clear warning to every supervisor in the company: treat your workers with respect and dignity or you are gone.
Regardless of whether a manager was generating the best numbers in the company or barely scraping by, Synovus would no longer tolerate their saying all the right things to superiors only to return to their own departments and berate or abuse the staff.
“We call that saluting the flag and kicking the dog,” Blanchard says. “We decided that people who were inclined to supervise like that just didn’t have a place in our company.”
Blanchard put his own credibility and reputation on the line by making this announcement, not behind closed doors at an executive retreat, but before the entire company. “I remember standing up and saying, ‘if we don’t fulfill that commitment to you as team members, you have no reason to believe anything I ever tell you.’”
Thus began the company’s formal experiment with servant leadership, a concept developed more than 40 years ago by philosopher Robert K. Greenleaf, who stressed that positions of authority carry obligations rather than entitlements.
Servant leadership defines the supervisory mission in terms of helping subordinates succeed and achieve through appreciation and reinforcement, not intimidation. Instead of focusing exclusively on correcting weaknesses (a losing proposition, in Blanchard’s view), leadership training courses encourage supervisors to recognize and build on the strengths of their people.
At the CEO level, servant leadership is defined by the “attitude that ‘I am here at the pleasure of the board, I am here to respond to my constituents and benefit shareholders, customers, and employees,’” Blanchard says. “‘I’m a custodian.’”
In the months following Blanchard’s announcement, many supervisors, including some highly intelligent and successful performers, balked at the new regime. Some left Synovus voluntarily; others were shown the door. The core of employees and supervisors who remained is committed to principles that have become a guiding force at Synovus.
Synovus is not a self-realization workshop. It is a multibillion dollar business. It has serious fiscal responsibilities and it meets those responsibilities. “We demand a lot, and we expect a lot from our employees, and we require excellence,” Blanchard says. “What we’re really saying is the old command and control type of supervision is not wanted here.”
As it turns out, what’s good for people is good for business. In 2008, Synovus was ranked number 15 on U.S. Banker magazine’s “Top 100 Banks.” A year earlier, Synovus ranked in the top 20 of ABA Banking Journal’s “Top Performers” and earned a spot on Fortune’s annual “Best Companies to Work for in America.” Blanchard, who retired in 2006 as chairman but remains on the board, has received a number of prominent leadership awards.
“If you’re doing servant leadership as just another management style to get more out of folks, it won’t wash,” he says. “But if you’re doing it because you think it’s the right thing to do, it’s a win-win. People give more of themselves for the good of the organization. Your productivity increases, and your customer satisfaction increases.”
Nobody, least of all James Blanchard, believes that servant leadership or any other management philosophy by itself could have prevented the current economic crisis. But it’s the companies focused on short-term returns versus long-term principles and goals that pay the highest penalty when the economy goes bad.
In an age where public opinion can be made or broken by a single event or statement going viral in the social media, arrogant, self-entitled managers put the very principles of capitalism and freedom on trial. Blanchard, for one, believes the tenets of servant leadership may be our best hope to right that course.
Many other leaders who have never heard the term “servant leadership” have already incorporated its philosophy in dealing with employees and customers, and averted possible crises along the way. To be sure, the implications of servant leadership extend well beyond internal management and speak to the ethics with which companies treat their markets.
For example, when Toro a few years back learned that some older model ride-on lawnmowers might be subject to rolling over, then-CEO Ken Melrose directed the company to install expensive rollover protection systems free to anyone who owned one of those models, regardless of how long they’d owned it or from whom they bought it.
“Wall Street was unhappy,” Melrose told MBA students in a 2006 speech at Bethel University. But “we were doing the right thing.” While the motive was humanitarian, it’s not hard to understand that the cost of those systems is minimal in comparison with the potential damage that could be caused when a consumer is tragically injured and a company appears not to care.
Melrose also began using servant leadership as Blanchard did: internally, to remake the corporate culture. He began to act, and act dynamically, from the moment he took over Toro as an ailing (many said dying) company in the early 1980s. His first cost-cutting acts were to eliminate management perks such as company jets and big bonuses. Such actions sent a clear message: I am here to serve the company. So armed, Melrose was also better able to make the necessary job and budget cuts to return Toro to profitability, without alienating rank and file employees.
It’s debatable to what extent the majority of current corporate leaders in the U.S. reflects the views and strategies of a James Blanchard and a Ken Melrose, or how many of them are just less flamboyant versions of Bernie Ebbers — less flamboyant, but comparably appetitive, self-interested, and dangerous. The fraud Ebbers perpetrated led to a spectacular corporate collapse in 2002 that ultimately cost WorldCom and its shareholders billions, and resulted in what was then the largest bankruptcy in American history (along with a 25-year jail sentence for Ebbers).
“Every time we go through a crisis that involves fraud or malfeasance, it not only damages the people and the companies involved, but the entire system that has made us the greatest, most affluent nation on the face of the earth,” Blanchard says. “Everything is fragile. When fire touches wood, it burns. When corruption and deceit touch the free enterprise system, it takes a chink out of the armor. And that’s where we are today.”
“I think very few executives, as a percentage of the total, have abused the privileges of the offices that they’ve held,” adds Blanchard. “The very few but very prominent [exceptions]have smudged everyone. The truth is that CEOs have been so demonized that it will take years to recover.”
Whether you call it servant leadership or just good business practice, a population of CEOs with more servants and fewer commanders may be our best hope, Blanchard believes. “That kind of sensibility can restore reputations that have been damaged so badly in the last few years. I think that’s good for the country. I know it’s good for the free enterprise system.”
— Richard S. Levick, Esq., is the president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis and public affairs communications firm. He is the co-author of The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis and Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference, and writes for www.bulletproofblog.com. Levick was honored in two consecutive years (2009-2010) on the prestigious list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom” by the NACD and Directorship magazine. Levick Strategic Communications is based in Washington, D.C. and can be reached at 202-973-1300 or at www.levick.com.