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Servant Leadership Across Cultures

Author: Fons Trompenaars & Ed Voerman

Publisher: Infinite Ideas

ISBN: Mick Yates

Summary:Thoroughly recommended to anyone concerned with either moving ahead on the Servant-Leadership agenda, or with developing better leadership across multiple cultures.

Servant Leadership Across CulturesA colleague was good enough to send a copy of Trompenaars & Voerman's 2009 book, "Fons".  I have long been a fan of the work of Hofstede, Trompenaars et al on Cultural understanding - so I found this book a neat way to add practical value to the concepts. Let's just first remind ourselves what Servant Leadership is. Here is an extract from the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership website: The phrase “Servant Leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, he said:

"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 … The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature."

"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?

Put all that another way, a Servant Leader gets results by helping others grow - in stark contrast to getting results by the raw application of positional power. Trompenaars and Voerman's book is a very easy if thought provoking read, using simple examples and suggesting some practical tools and approaches for leaders working globally. The book starts with a short overview to define Servant-Leadership and then puts the ideas into an historical context. In fact you can take the core ideas of Servant Leadership right back to the great Philosophers and thinkers - Plato, Aristotle and Cicero.

Plato named four virtues for the basis of a good life: courage, righteousness, moderation, and wisdom — the pillars of servant-leadership.

Aristotle answered the question of what is the essence of life: “To serve others and do good.”

And the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero said: “Men were brought into existence for the sake of men that they might do one another good.”

The book works by defining the dilemmas that a leader faces in a Global context, and suggests some ways to deal with them. The dilemmas are:

  1. Leading Versus Serving
  2. Rules Versus Exceptions
  3. Parts Versus The Whole
  4. Control Versus Passion
  5. Specific Versus Diffuse
  6. Short Term Versus Long Term
  7. Push Versus Pull

As an example, on Dilemma 4 (Control vs Passion) the authors asked a global audience "In my society, it is considered unprofessional to express emotions overtly. In retrospect, I quite frequently think that I have given away too much in my enthusiasm". The respondents were then asked to choose from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” Dilemma 4 - Control vs Passion The answers ranged from Kuwait, Egypt, Cuba and Spain at the "strongly disagree" end of things - i.e. you can show emotion - to New Zealand, Poland, Japan and Ethiopia who saw little role for passion. The USA and UK were somewhere in the middle. The authors conclude on this issue that:

"The servant-leader cannot be characterized as a passionate person. On the other hand, he or she is not overly controlled and judicious either. The servant-leader not only unites both orientations in him - or herself but also helps others through the same process. Where the passionate Italian looks for moments to act rationally, the matter-of-fact English or Japanese look for moments where they can express their emotions. The Englishman often reaches for humor to legitimize emotions. The Japanese prefer to wait until after work to let their emotions show."

I also really like the conclusion around Dilemma 2 (Rules versus Exceptions) that Servant Leaders create a "hyperculture" which helps people grow whilst embracing cultural difference.

"Leaders create a culture. Managers create a monoculture. Servant-leaders create a hyperculture. There are many ways to do the latter. In one case, the servant-leader may focus on successful local practices in order to extrapolate these to a global policy. Imagine that an important innovation happens in France. Then it is relevant for you as a leader to ask yourself if this innovation is applicable globally. If that is the case, the local practice brings the quality of global service to a higher level. In another case, he or she may ensure that the global rule is of a high quality because it is made by people of different cultural backgrounds. In both cases, the challenge is to make rules better with the help of exceptions."

That seems an interesting twist on the time-honoured debate on local innovation versus global best practice. The book is throughly recommended to anyone concerned with either moving ahead on the Servant-Leadership agenda, or with developing better leadership across multiple cultures.