Skip to navigation
16 Min Read

Why You Should Invest In Servant Leadership – An Interview With Marcel Schwantes

David Mizne
David Mizne

Who are the thought leaders you turn to for business and management advice? Got room for one more?

Over the past several months, my eyes have been caught by informative articles on leadership and productivity from the same author. I found an Inc. column so valuable that I asked if I could interview the author for our blog. Fortunately, he agreed to answer several questions about leadership, employee engagement, and organizational health.

2020 Workplace Report

Marcel Schwantes is principal and founder of Leadership From the Core, a leading provider of servant-leadership training and coaching designed to create healthy, engaged, and profitable work cultures. He is an entrepreneur, executive coach, speaker, columnist, and servant-leadership evangelist.

DM: Please tell me a bit about yourself. How did you get into leadership training and coaching?

MS: I’m originally from Southern California, where I attended the School of Hard Knocks as I made my way up the corporate ladder in the LA area. I mostly worked in health-care where I saw some of the worst examples of leadership. I knew that there was something better to shoot for as I bounced from bad boss to bad boss in the most horrific and toxic environments you can imagine, inside hospital systems.

You would think that in a hospital system where the focus is on patient care, that there would be a focus on safety and quality. But in order for all that to be true, you need employees who feel the same way, who are supported and feel satisfied. That wasn’t the case.

Thus began my journey to find out what type of leader people will respond to so that the people on the front lines are producing better work, are being more innovative, and feel safer to speak up. How does that respond to the bottom line? How does that translate to a happier culture and happier customers?

Everything pointed back to Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership. It wasn’t just this touchy-feely, soft style of leadership. Of the Fortune Best Places to Work, roughly ⅓ are going to show up as servant leadership companies. Classic examples include TD Industries, The Container Store, and Whole Foods Market.

So I found the need to teach, coach, become a servant leadership evangelist, and spread the message that work doesn’t have to be a place you hate going to every day.

DM: What exactly is servant leadership? How is it distinguished from other types of leadership?

MS: Servant leaders put the focus on the employee. Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes, said that the best leaders put the spotlight on their employees and take it off of themselves. How they do that is by focusing on growing and developing their people.

What Greenleaf observed from forty years of studying leadership while he was working at AT&T, was that the best leaders were coaches and mentors. The best leaders focused on people’s development and human potential.

It seems so logical, but it’s so hard to find. It’s a mindset. People didn’t go to work twenty years ago with their attention on the betterment and development of employees. Not just supporting them while at the company, but even if the employees quit, so that they can succeed in life afterwards.

Who does that!?

The prevailing thought process was, you show up as a leader or manager because you have numbers that you need to meet. You have stakeholders and shareholders that you’re accountable to. Workers aren’t meant to have a voice! They’re just the worker bees who are expected to produce.

Servant leadership seems counterintuitive, but really it’s not. When you care about people and meet their needs, they show up with their best selves.

DM: Is selling leaders on these new and seemingly counterintuitive leadership paradigms challenging? How do you overcome the resistance?

MS: If they are resisting from the get-go, they’re not the right client. They have to come in with the mindset of, we believe this stuff.

When a CEO calls me that they are ready to transform the culture, my question is, Does your executive team buy into it? If not, talk amongst yourselves and come back to me when there is complete buy-in. This eliminates a lot of politicking and headaches for me. My job is not to educate and hand-hold through a process. They need to be 100% convinced that servant leadership will transform the culture and through that, transform the business.

DM: If you had a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being command and control and 5 being servant leadership, where do you think most companies lie?

MS: They’re probably between level 2 and 3. We use an assessment tool that diagnoses organizational health, and your question matches our methodology for assessing a culture.

We often see a parent/child relationship between leadership and subordinates. That speaks to the power model of leadership, where leaders don’t trust employees and therefore don’t freely share information.

The need to control and be bureaucratic, and the lack of transparency gives employees the impression that they are not trusted. In return that decreases employee engagement, which has hovered around 30-33% since the turn of the millennium.

Want to create a healthier organization, with increased transparency and higher engagement? Click Here!

DM: Some people believe that culture shifts from the top down, others are convinced that it’s bottom up. What happens when one manager at a large company wants to make servant leadership work, can it spread from there?

MS: The preferred method is to have the vision set from the top down, but most of the time it happens differently. A middle manager may get wind of a great way to lead people, and they will initiate.

You can lead if you are a department of ten or a whole company. In the hospital system that I came from, the managers took total ownership of being servant leaders and executives wanted no part of it. That created silos. Execs lived on their island, and the managers were engaging their employees.

The employee opinion survey came out for that year and the scores were off the charts. That sent a signal up to the C-Suite, who are all about the numbers. In this 1500 employee hospital with 30-50 managers, the managers who were bought-in had a huge impact. The execs noticed that morale had improved and began to investigate, and then brought in a consultant to work with the leadership team.

DM: There’s often a certain amount of self-awareness or coaching that managers need to become the type of person who wants to develop others. How do executives create that environment once the company is a certain size, or after the company culture is set?

MS: The most courageous thing any leader can do is to accept feedback. If you’re going to raise your self-awareness, you’re going to have to listen to feedback from all sides and levels to understand who you are being, what you are creating, and how that’s impacting your metrics.

Whether it’s morale, engagement, turnover, and even customer satisfaction and profit, figure out how leadership impacts that. We take assessments about what a company is shooting for and raise awareness to help them achieve those outcomes.

Then they’ll have to sit in a room with a person like me and have a really hard conversation about personal accountability. As coaches, we want to work with those people who are willing to learn and grow. They just have blind spots that we help illuminate and bring into focus. The first step is admitting that there’s a problem, and there’s nothing shameful about that. A willingness to be aware of one’s responsibility in shortcomings on the team is commendable.

What makes all this work is the powerful leadership trait of humility. I worked with a CFO recently who had to put his ego aside and say, I’m the problem. Jim Collins in Good to Great, calls a Level 5 Leader a combination of fierce resolve, being results oriented, and being extremely humble.

That combination of ferocity and humility is a paradox, just like the principle of the servant leader. Yes, you want results. Servant leadership is about excellence, profit, and expecting high performance from employees. But you don’t lead with an iron fist, you serve people by listening to them and supporting them.

DM: What’s an example of a lesson that you teach a leader so that they become more responsive to the needs of employees?

MS: Just sit and listen first before responding.

We are in a knowledge-worker economy where customer-facing people on the front lines know more than their bosses. The best managers will leverage that as a way to get more valuable feedback from an employee. They will sit down and consider learning something from somebody who is less experienced or younger.

Reverse mentoring is a tactic of great leaders who know that millennials understand more about tech and social entrepreneurship. For example, as a Gen-Xer, I know that millennials are technologically more savvy than I will ever be. Leaders have to get into that humble space where they can bring somebody to the table who doesn’t have the same privilege, status or position. Then pick their brain about strategy and ideas.

When employees are given that type of opportunity to provide ideas, engagement skyrockets. They are excited and motivated to go to work in the morning because they know that their opinions count. They know that leadership is relying on them for input. That’s why leaders should get to know everyone all across the org chart, even the janitor.

Listening to everyone regardless of their level is how you foster the entrepreneurial spirit within your organization. Then include others in conversations about decisions. Many of those companies that make the Best Places to Work list give employees opportunities to share input. Listening and considering all perspectives is one of the most underutilized leadership practices.

DM: We are social animals. We start becoming socialized in the home and then later in school, and we perceive that we are rewarded for sharing. It’s how we earn currency in the group. So it almost goes to the core of the fears of our humanity that when we listen, we don’t contribute anything. It seems counterintuitive that listening has value. How do you flip that switch?

MS: Active listening is a skill that involves listening to other people’s problems with their needs in mind. If you’re not parking your thoughts, you’re not listening. You have to have no need for rebuttal. If you are just waiting for the other person to stop talking to chime in with what you think is a better idea, that’s not listening. That may not even be hearing.

Listening in its true form is emptying yourself completely and with a clean slate in your head, you ask, how can I help this other person? Then you are just being there in the moment, in that space free of an agenda, self-talk, or mental clutter.

It’s amazing what you can learn about people and their strengths, and even information about your company that you never even knew about.

David is the Sr. Manager of Best-Self Management at 15Five, a lightweight weekly check-in that delivers a full suite of integrated tools – including continuous employee feedback, OKRs, pulse surveys, 1-on-1 meeting agendas, and peer recognition. David’s articles have appeared in The Next Web, TalentCulture, and 

Image credit: shutterstock