Veterans can teach us, a lot, about servant leadership.

I came to believe that a leader isn’t good because they’re right; they’re good because they’re willing to learn and to trust. ~Four-star General Stanley McChrystal

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

Given it is Veteran’s Day this week, it seemed only fitting to learn about servant leadership from a Four-star General. Thanks to Hollywood, many military images have been burned into our minds. When we think of military leadership we tend to think of officers shouting orders, and rank dictating process and strategy. Like much of Hollywood, this doesn’t reflect reality but it certainly drives revenues.

On a number of occasions I’ve done research and searches on servant leadership for various clients.  What still seems to catch me off-guard is the number of servant leadership examples from the military.  Actually, most of the real life examples I find are from our armed services.

Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last, is based upon military leadership. It’s even in the title, officers always let the enlisted men and women eat first. In the military, it’s common practice for leaders/officers to eat after everyone else. They sacrifice personal interest and self-serving actions to support their team. This is symbolic of what drives many of their decisions.

Servant Leadership: Willing to Learn and to Trust

In that same spirit, Four-star General Stanley McChrystal delivered a TED Talk that I use periodically in leadership training to dissuade the idea that servant leadership is a “weak” form of leadership. The following was excerpted from McChrystal’s talk:


Instead of giving orders, you’re now building consensus and you’re building a sense of shared purpose. 

You have to watch and take care of each other. I probably learned the most about relationships; they are the sinew which holds the force together. I grew up much of my career in the Ranger regiment. And every morning in the Ranger regiment, every Ranger – and there are more than 2,000 of them – says a six-stanza Ranger creed. You may know one line of it, it says, “I’ll never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.” And it’s not a mindless mantra, and it’s not a poem. It’s a promise. 

Every Ranger promises every other Ranger, “No matter what happens, no matter what it costs me, if you need me, I’m coming.” And every Ranger gets that same promise from every other Ranger. Think about it. It’s extraordinarily powerful. It’s probably more powerful than marriage vows. And they’ve lived up to it, which gives it special power. And so the organizational relationship that bonds them is just amazing.

I came to believe that a leader isn’t good because they’re right; they’re good because they’re willing to learn and to trust. This isn’t easy stuff. And it isn’t always fair. You can get knocked down, and it hurts and it leaves scars. But if you’re a [servant] leader, the people you’ve counted on will help you up. And if you’re a leader, the people who count on you need you on your feet.


Well said, General McChrystal! 

Not only do we owe a thing or two to our veterans regarding our knowledge of leadership, but we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for our freedom. Let’s each go out of our way this week to thank a veteran for both their service and the way they have modeled servant leadership – leading with bold grace.

Introversion is not a liability: why introverts make great leaders.

Culturally, we tend to associate leadership with extroversion and attach less importance to judgment, vision, and resolve. We prize leaders who are eager talkers over those who have something to say. ~Susan Cain

I first wrote this post three years ago and it hit a nerve. I was reminded of the importance of this topic last week and thought we could all use a reminder.

While working on my doctorate, my cohort was split into two smaller cohorts of a dozen students. The split was simply alphabetical. You would think it would have been a somewhat random split of personality types. Not so. The first half of the alphabet was essentially all introverted and the second half was predominately extroverted. Note my last name—Scanland—I was the introvert in the predominately extroverted cohort.

This is one of many experiences I’ve had where as an introvert I was asked to step it up and be more extroverted. I’m going to assume it’s not intentional, but for the extroverts reading this, there’s something I’d like for you to note. When introverts are asked to be more extroverted, it feels like you’re being told that extroversion is superior to introversion.

It’s not just my own personal experiences. I’ve had clients flat out tell me that they were concerned about individuals’ ability to be effective leaders because they were introverted.

The Research Says

To set the record straight, here are just a few research conclusions about introverted leaders.

From Susan Cain

Introverted leaders often possess an innate caution that may be more valuable than we realize.

The charisma of ideas matters more than a leader’s gregarious charms.

From research conducted by Adam M. Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann

Extroverts and introverts are equally successful in leadership roles overall.

Introverts, in certain situations (i.e., complex and uncertain), actually make better leaders.

An introvert’s ability to hear others, plan, theorize, organize information, and think evidently has its own values!

From Jim Collins’ research…

The best-performing companies of the late 20th century were all led by CEO’s described with words like “reserved” and “understated.”

From the 2012 U.S. Presidential race…

Two introverts ran against each other for U.S. President in 2012: Barak Obama and Mitt Romney.

Often Overlooked

Finally, from Ilya Pozin on, here are some of the numerous leadership characteristics of introverts that are often overlooked.

  • They’re motivated by productivity, not ambition.
  • They build more meaningful connections.
  • They don’t get easily distracted.
  • They solve problems with thoroughness rather than in haste.

Introverts make great leaders! Maximize their assets instead of asking them to “blend in” with the extroverts. Maximizing the strengths of everyone, is a sign of leading with bold grace.

Change happens in the details.

We think in generalities, but we live in the details. ~Alfredo North Whitehead, British philosopher

Change happens in the details. Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve been trying to communicate with someone who has a different first language than you do? What do we do, we instinctively talk louder thinking that will somehow help the other person understand what we are saying. I carry this image with me frequently when an organization is undergoing a major change and wondering why employees are not quickly jumping on board.

Organization leaders announce a change and believe they articulated it clearly. Then to their dismay, everyone just keeps doing what they’ve been doing guided by the same beliefs and attitudes they had in the past. In other words, nothing changes.

The leader then keeps repeating that same announcement, believing that if they just keep saying it over and over employees will change. Kind of like talking louder and thinking that will help the other person to understand what you are saying.

Should leaders repeat the vision for the change? Yes, absolutely. However, only doing that is practicing what Whitehead profoundly stated, “We think in generalities, but we live in the details.”

Change happen in the details: two things leaders can do.

  1. Leaders need to listen to identify the details. What many leaders forget is that communication, especially in the midst of a change, is two-way communication. They should be listening more than they are talking. If leaders don’t listen, they won’t know what details employees are living in that will impede their willingness or ability to change.
  2. Leaders then need to respond with empathy and action. Notice I said respond with empathy, not react to. Reacting by trying to justify a change is many times perceived as de-valuing employees’ questions, concerns, or perceived needs. It may not only slow the change process, it may cause it to come to a screeching halt altogether.

You can’t listen to the details if you’re not asking probing and thoughtful questions. Questions like, “What do you think?” or “Do you have any feedback?” are not probing and thoughtful. Think more detailed. “What gets you excited about what I just presented?” “What concerns you about what I just presented?” “What have I missed?”  

Responding with empathy should go beyond acknowledging that employees’ thoughts are valid (which you should certainly do). It means taking action by giving them the tools and the ability to make change happen. Again, think in the details.

For example, upon the completion of a strategic plan for a client, those in leadership realized that their mid-level staff need to be better project managers. They could tell them, “you need to work on your project management skills,” which will likely have little to no impact. Or, they could develop tools like trainings, user groups or forums, and job aids, to name a few, to give those managers both the skills and ability to become effective project managers.

Manage the journey.

William Bridges said, “Change comes more from managing the journey than announcing the destination.”

Change happens in the details. It requires bold grace to listen for the details and then respond with empathy and action.

Agility is the new stability.

You have control or growth, but you can’t have both. Trying to eliminate chaos, stifles growth. ~Craig Groeschel

I’ll admit, I like stability. However, as I’ve learned over the past number or years and especially that last 1.5 years, stability actually comes from my ability to change and adapt.

The adaptability and agility I’m talking about here is not the kind when you are forced to change. We all experienced that in the last 1.5 years. We had no choice. This type of adaptability and agility is a choice, and it’s a strategic one. This is when we are choosing to adapt or change. We are proactively seeking out ways that we need to adapt.

An organization’s culture that is characterized by stability that doesn’t also have characteristics to counterbalance that desire for stability could actually be self-defeating. For example, if stability is part of a culture, a counterbalance would be characteristics like innovation, results-oriented, goal-oriented, ambitious, curious, progressive, etc. If the organization’s other culture descriptors are reinforcing stability like risk averse, regulated, cautious, etc., then I would have a hard time concluding that this culture will actually result in stability, especially over time.

The Counterbalance

McKinsey has researched the counterbalance of stability and agility. This balance is typically more challenging for organizations that have been around for a number of years, or decades. McKinsey reported on this pattern.

“Why do established companies struggle to become more agile? No small part of the difficulty comes from a false trade-off: the assumption by executives that they must choose between much-needed speed and flexibility, on the one hand, and the stability and scale inherent in fixed organizational structures and processes, on the other.”

“A 2015 analysis of McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index showed that companies with both speed and stability have a70 percent chance of being ranked in the top quartile by organizational health. That’s a far higher proportion than McKinsey found among companies focused only on one or the other.”

This isn’t an either/or option. It’s a both/and requirement for organizational health.

The Yin and Yang

What’s your organizational yin to your yang? Is your organization too focused on only one or the other—on only stability or only agility? Are you missing the counterbalance?

Ask a number of random employees what five words they would use to describe your culture. (The actual culture, not what might be stated on your website.) Then, put all of those words into two lists. One list that supports stability and one that supports agility. Are the lists balanced?

I like stability, and because I do, I also crave agility and proactively look for ways to adapt. It’s all part of the yin and yang of leading with bold grace.

Are you a future-back thinker?

I think the lesson is that unless you’re intentional, things usually don’t change. ~Billie Jean King

Being a future-back thinker requires intentionality. It’s a word that I’ve circled back to frequently this year. I’ve worked with a number of boards over the past year and I would describe several as “waiting until someone brings them something to react to.” Whereas intentional would mean being deliberate, purposeful, intended, and planned.

Richie Norton said, “Intentional living is the art of making our own choices before others’ choices make us.” I would modify that slightly for leadership and say, “Intentional leadership is the art of making choices before others’ choices make us.”

I’ve heard some leaders say “I don’t have time to be intentional. I have too many things I need to respond (or react) to every day. Being intentional is a luxury I don’t have.” Well, Richie Norton has a response to that as well. He said, “You don’t need more time, you need to act on creative, intent-based ideas.”

How to be more intentional?

Become a future-back thinker.

Tanya Prive wrote in Inc. “Mark Johnson, author of Lead From the Future, argues that strategic planning requires a series of outcomes not from the present to the future, but, rather, from the future back into the present – as “future-back thinkers.” Others may refer to it as reverse engineering. Starting from the endpoint and working your way back is a highly effective way of designing a road map to realize the strategy or future you intend.”

If you don’t know where it is you’re going, it’s difficult, if not nearly impossible, to be intentional. If you are simply allowing the past to push you into the future, then you are only “forecasting” where you are going. Forecasting is not planning and it’s not intentional. It’s the opposite of intentional. It means your movement into the future is accidental, haphazard, or involuntary.

Realize a future that was not predictable.

Prive also says that “A leader’s sole purpose is to realize a future that was not predictable or going to happen anyway.” I feel like that needs repeating. “A leader’s sole purpose is to realize a future that was not predictable or going to happen anyway.” Sounds like leaders need to be intentional. Prive goes on to say “That’s where management stops and leadership starts. Your main focus should be on getting your team aligned and inspiring coordinated actions throughout your organization. To do that, you continuously must have conversations with various stakeholders, each and every day.”  

Intentionality means you know where you are going, and have given it the priority of both your time and attention that it requires. You’re not just waiting until someone or something is knocking at your door and needs attention. You are choosing what needs and gets your attention. You’re intentional. That’s leading with bold grace.

Unless you’re intentional, things usually don’t change. ~Billie Jean King