The last principle in the SERVANT-Leadership™ acronym is THOROUGH. Servant leaders focus on the long-term. In contrast, most executives today are obsessed with the quick win. Unfortunately, these near-term wins are often achieved at the expense of people and long-term assets. In the for-profit, publicly traded companies, the issue originates with executive incentives tied to quarterly or annual results. However, the problem exists anywhere the leadership is not thorough with their responsibilities.
Thorough leaders also plan for and invest in the long-term, first. Short-term wins come second in priority. As a result, short-term gains are framed within the larger view of a long-term vision. Without this approach, stakeholders often become confused and organizations may become too diversified, lacking focus. To be thorough, a leader should clearly communicate what each key decision means to all stakeholders in the near and long-term.
What Thorough Looks Like
The thorough servant leader builds a clear, strategic vision and framework within which all smaller efforts should fit. If the team is not clear on the long-term strategy of the organization, the leadership is not, likely, thorough. As a result, decisions take longer as confusion and grey-area issues are resolved. This focus on long-term strategy is often reinforced by a focus on retaining team members longer than the current trend of high turnover. So thorough leaders often celebrate milestone employment anniversaries with more than a token gift.
The thorough leader does not hesitate to make big decisions, but does ensure she has all the information needed to make the best possible decision. Now, when making big decisions, leaders rarely have all the information. However, there’s a difference between not enough facts and insufficient detail. The thorough leader resists making a major decision until enough detail is discovered. To do this, the leader sets clear expectations about what should be known before decisions are made and frees their people to gather that information. Furthermore, if the wrong decision is made, the leader takes accountability without losing resolve.
To drive the principle of being thorough throughout the organization, a servant leader builds systems and processes that drive the right decisions at the right speed, in a repeatable manor. This is a focus within the organization. Looking outside the company, the thorough leader should be intimately familiar with their industry, competitors and customers. This supports the leader’s vision and foresight for their teams.
What Thorough is Not
A thorough leader does not do everything asked of them. For leaders to be thorough, they must do just the opposite. A leader must prioritize clearly and consistently. If everything is important, nothing is important. So if a leader is not clear where the team’s priorities should be, there will be wasted effort on lower priority issues. Being thorough is also not about slowing down. A leader stuck in analysis paralysis is not being thorough – they are indecisive.
It’s also important that leaders realize they should not do everything themselves. Delegation is important, both to avoid burnout and to ensure the person best suited for a job is the one executing it. Still, the leader should be thorough about who she delegates to. To do so, a leader should be thorough in their hiring / vetting process.
Attributes of Thoroughness for Servant Leaders
Previous servant leadership models defined many thorough attributes as important to servant leaders. These include the following from Spears and others, Frick & Sipe as well as Russell & Stone (2002).
- Systems Thinker (Frick & Sipe)
- Builds Teams & Communities (Frick & Sipe)
- Visionary (Frick & Sipe)
- Comfortable with Complexity (Frick & Sipe)
- Demonstrates Adaptability (Frick & Sipe)
- Accepts and Delegates Responsibility (Frick & Sipe)
- Has Foresight (Frick & Sipe)
- Awareness (Spears)
- Foresight (Spears)
- Vision (Russell & Stone)
- Communication (Russell & Stone)
- Visibility (Russell & Stone)
Examples of Thorough Servant Leaders
Max De Pree
Max De Pree is the former CEO and chairman of the board at Herman Miller. Long before I ever worked for this company, I was enthralled by his leadership books (Leadership is an Art, Leadership Jazz & Leading Without Power). I valued these books, in large part, because they emphasize the attributes of a thorough servant leader: long-term vision, valuing long-tenure in employees and the need for strong communities. Within the organization, Max left behind many signs of thorough leadership. For example, the Water Carrier award and celebration that recognizes employees with 20 or more years of service. While celebrating, the ceremony also instills a strong message to these employees: they have an obligation to share the stories, history and culture with others, that made the company what it is today.
Founder and "Chief Shoe-giver", Mycoskie saw the suffering caused by a lack of footwear for the poor children of Argentina. He returned home and founded what eventually became, "Toms Shoes", a for-profit that provides a free pair of shoes to people in need, for each pair purchased. Since then, he's expanded this successful business model to include buy-one, give-one for eyeglasses and coffee for water. The sustainable business models established by Mycoskie reflect a thorough approach to serving stakeholders in our global community.
Question: Which thorough attributes of servant leaders do you think are most important?
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)