The servant leadership principles icon: NONPARTISAN. The nonpartisanship icon: a person with outstretched arms holds a weight in each in hand, like a scale. To the right is a collection of smaller icons for the other principles and the words: SERVANT Leadership Principle - NONPARTISAN.

SERVANT Leadership Principle: Nonpartisan

The principles of servant leadership include Nonpartisan. Nonpartisan leaders seek insights from anyone, anywhere, almost anytime. They do this while also reflecting a sense of vulnerability. See examples from the movie MoneyBall, Darwin Smith, and John Letts.
The servant leadership principles icon: NONPARTISAN. The nonpartisanship icon: a person with outstretched arms holds a weight in each in hand, like a scale. To the right is a collection of smaller icons for the other principles and the words: SERVANT Leadership Principle - NONPARTISAN.

Background: This post is part of a series defining the principles of The Acronym Model of Servant Leadership®️ (SelflessEmpatheticResoluteVirtuousAuthenticNonpartisan, and Thorough). For more, visit the overview at this link or sign up for the free online course, Servant Leadership 101.

We’re near the end of our series on The Acronym  Model of SERVANT Leadership®️. The second-to-last principle is Nonpartisan. The servant leader is nonpartisan by being open to new ideas from anyone, anywhere, almost any time.

 

Operating environments change rapidly. New competitors arise, financial crises occur, political unrest and wars break out, regulations change and funding fails. The only constant is change. Therefore, any leader must be open to new ideas from anywhere. This is not a new concept. Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, who held servant leadership principles (though many believe the company no longer reflects the values of it’s founder), understood this concept:

The key to success is to get out into the store and listen to what the associates have to say.

What the Nonpartisan Principle Looks Like

To be nonpartisan, a leader should recognize that executives who have not been on the front lines of their organization for years, cannot have all the answers. It is the prideful executive, perched on the precipice of failure, who is unwilling to hear new ideas.

 

In this scene from the movie Moneyball, Ben explains how Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane exemplifies the nonpartisan principle. 

So leaders should create opportunities to listen to their teams. A servant leader makes clear their intent to listen to new ideas, encourage the development of others’ ideas and set clear expectations for execution of the best plans.

 

The nonpartisan principle also encompasses the attribute of vulnerability. This is apparent in the leader’s desire for input from others and feed forward. If the message from the leader reflects that they do not have all the answers and even made some bad decisions in their past, that leader reflects vulnerability. Furthermore, this behavior encourages action from the team. For, if they know their leader to be human, they see the need for support and the role they play in providing that support.

"First Among Equals"

Among my favorite lessons from Robert Greenleaf is the one on “Primus Inter Pares”. This is Latin for, “First Among Equals“. The point is, if someone is an expert on  a topic, they may be better to lead a discussion or decision on that topic, than the chief executive. Servant leaders recognize they are not the best to lead in every situation. Max De Pree wrote about this in Leadership is an Art:

For the CEO to vote on the kind of drill press to buy would be foolish. For the drill press operator (who should be voting on the kind of tool to use) to vote on whether to declare a stock split would be equally foolish.

So leaders should be clear who is first among their equals. And remember, their equals do not require a fancy title to be considered.

What Nonpartisan is Not

A nonpartisan leader is not one who follows every recommendation. That would be foolish. Remember, another key attribute of servant leaders is resolve. So a leader who switches directions frequently or lacks a clear vision is not serving their stakeholders and will lose the momentum of the team. In seeking new ideas from others, the leader must carefully consider the recommendations and delegate the research needed to consider all implications of an idea. This is about being thorough – the last of the principles in The Acronym Model of SERVANT Leadership®️.

Furthermore, the servant leader is no wimp. Being vulnerable does not necessitate a blubbering mess, unable to control their fears. I often cite military leaders as some of the best examples of servant leadership in action. They’re no wimps.

 

Vulnerability does not require weakness. Instead, it means being receptive to the idea of help from others. “United we stand, divided we fall”. A servant leader appreciates that when it comes to the whole of a team:

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Nonpartisan Attributes of Servant Leaders

Other leadership models defined many nonpartisan attributes as important to servant leaders. These include the following from Spears and others, Frick & Sipe as well as Russell & Stone (2002).

  • Invites Feedback (Frick & Sipe)
  • Shares Power and Control (Frick & Sipe)
  • Conceptualization (Spears)
  • Listening (Spears, Russell & Stone)
  • Delegation (Russell & Stone)

Nonpartisan Servant Leadership Examples

A black-and-white profile photo of Darwin Smith from Kimberly Clark. He wears a suit and tie, with glasses on.

Darwin Smith

CEO and Chairman of the Board of Kimberly-Clark from 1971 to 1991, Smith was an unassuming man. Yet he led an amazing turnaround at the then paper-giant to a leading consumer-goods company. Darwin was nonpartisan in seeking ideas and advice from others. When it came to praise from others, he explained the real praise goes to the teams he led. In fact, the man never felt qualified for the job. The following is from Jim Collins and the book Good to Great: “Early in Smith’s tenure as CEO, a director pulled Smith aside to remind him that he lacked some of the qualifications for the position (he had been corporate counsel and had never run a major division). Smith, a man who never entirely erased his own self-doubts, later summed up his tenure by saying simply, “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”

John Letts from Air Products and Chemicals was a great example of the Nonpartisan principle. In this image, he wears a yellow golf shirt and glasses with a big smile.

John Letts

You may not know John, but he was a senior leader at my employer, early in my career. In fact, I was less than a year out of college when I had a general check-in with him. He was several levels above me, so I considered this meeting a kind gesture by him and an opportunity for me. On one day, during our scheduled check-in, there was an escalating crisis in his department. I anticipated our meeting would be cancelled. However, as I approached his office, his assistant said we were still on. I asked John, “wasn’t he busy?” and “should we reschedule?”. No, he assured me, his team was on top of it and he’d been looking forward to our meeting. He delegated and trusted his team while simultaneously displaying his need to hear new ideas, regardless of the source. John is an excellent servant leader who reflected the needful concept, beautifully.

Question: Which aspects of a nonpartisan servant leader do you believe are most important?

References:
1. Spears, Larry: Power of Servant Leaders (Greenleaf, Spears, 1998); Servant Leadership: A Journey into… (Greenleaf, Spears, 2002); and more
2. Sipe, James W. & Frick, Don M.: Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership: Practicing… (2009)
3. Russell, Robert F. & Stone, Gregory A.: A Review of Servant Leadership Attributes: Developing… (Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 2002)
 

Read More About The Acronym Model of SERVANT Leadership®️

The selflessness icon: A person up front has their arms extended, lifting two other people up - one in each hand.
Selfless
The empathy icon: two outlined heads overlap and share an eye.
Empathetic
The resolve icon: a person pushing a boulder up an incline.
Resolute
The virtuousness icon: a person has their left hand placed on a book and their right hand raised as though they are taking a vow.
Virtuous
The authenticity icon: a person with a big checkmark in front of them as though validating them as authentic.
Authentic
The nonpartisanship icon: a person with outstretched arms holds a weight in each in hand, like a scale.
Nonpartisan
The thorough icon: a person holds up a magnifying glass.
Thorough

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Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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