Article in Brief: We’re living in a time of immense technological and cultural change. As marketers scramble to keep up, the principles of servant leadership seem more important than ever.
by Keith Reynold Jennings
An entire movement was launched by a man reading a novel. The poetry in that alone feels lost in today’s world!
The novel was Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. The story tells of a band of men, supported by a simple servant named Leo, who undertook a mythical journey. All goes well until Leo disappears. Then the men (and journey) unravel.
The man who read this story was Robert Greenleaf, an AT&T veteran who served in various management, development and education roles with the organization over his 38-year career. In 1970, influenced by Leo’s character in that story, he published an essay titled, The Servant as Leader.
Even though the tenets of servant leadership are ancient, it was this essay that coined the phrase and launched the modern movement. When you use the phrase, “servant leader” or “servant leadership,” you have Mr. Greenleaf to thank.
What struck Greenleaf was that the group of men in the story perceived and experienced Leo first and foremost as a servant. The reality, which is revealed at the end of the story, is that Leo was the head of the order that sponsored the group’s journey.
The power of Greenleaf’s foundational idea lies in the title he chose — the servant as leader. Notice it’s not titled, “the leader as servant.” On purpose.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this idea — and the principles of servant leadership — in light of the growing complexities and evolution of modern marketing.
Are We Having a Marketing Leadership Crisis?
In the July/August 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review, Kim Whitler and Neil Morgan remind us that chief marketing officer turnover is the highest in the C-suite. And 4 out of 5 CEOs either distrust or are unimpressed with their CMOs.
The problem, according to the authors, is that responsibilities, expectations and performance measures are not aligned and realistic. To put it bluntly, the stereotype CEOs have of marketers sets up failure. And marketing leaders, for a variety of reasons, play into this stereotype and seal their fate. (I had the privilege of hearing Kim Whitler speak last week and this crisis isn’t getting better.)
The real problem, of course, is that marketing today is unrecognizably different and more specialized than it was even five years ago. Mark Schaefer writes about the “hyper-empowered customer.” Are you ready for that?
We’re talking AI, data science and influencer marketing today. I spend most of my free time these days studying MarTech. A couple of years ago, we were talking content marketing and social media advertising.
We’re Living in a Poly-Synchronous Society
Today, it seems we’re living and working in the early days of a third communications era of society.
In the first era, society was asynchronous. This era pre-dates the industrial revolutions of the 1800s, before standard time and mass media came to be. Times varied from city to city. News spread slowly, if at all. Knowledge was predominantly local. People were limited by when, what and how they got information.
During the second era, from the mid-1800s to the 1990s, society was synchronous. With the advent of standard time and the rise of telephones, transportation and television, society pretty much read, listened to and watched the same things at the same times.
We’re now in the third era, in which society is poly-synchronous. Satellite, digital and mobile communications have allowed us to opt-in to synchronous media when we want. Pockets of people will watch the same things, just not always at the same time.
This (r)evolution is driving immense technological and cultural changes that are impacting our ability to market effectively. Marketers are scrambling to keep up with the mindsets, skillsets and toolsets needed to succeed. Yet many CEOs, especially those in small to mid-size businesses, still view marketing through a synchronous society mindset.
And, therein, lies the root problem.
Greenleaf’s Principles of Servant Leadership
In his original essay and in subsequent works, Greenleaf outlined a number of principles for servant leadership. The primary ones include:
- Acceptance — receiving what is offered
- Empathy — experiencing the world through another’s lens
- Know the Unknowable — recognizing patterns
- Foresight — predicting what will happen & when
- Perception — being aware of environmental signals
- Persuasion — influencing others through non-judgmental argument
- Deliberate — making your way one action at a time
- Healing & community — making whole
These original ideas feel oddly fresh and relevant, don’t they?
Applying Servant Leader Principles to Modern Marketing Practices
Here is my first pass at how these principles translate to marketing:
- Start with the needs of those you seek to serve, not your own
- Serve the always, not the now
- Treat others as participants, not recipients
- Discover and iterate, rather than direct and control
- Test, don’t guess, because you’re probably wrong
- Accept that you’re a steward — your customers, funding and employees aren’t really yours
- It’s for them, not about you
As mass media hit maturity during the synchronous era, brands hit their zenith in power and influence. Yet, somehow, Greenleaf recognized that serving others was a higher calling than serving yourself.
As social and digital media hit their maturity during this poly-synchronous era, it seems customers are peaking in their power and influence. Yet, they are drawn to people, organizations and movements that serve a bigger story.
CSR initiatives are becoming the trend du jour. But I believe the real opportunity lies in embracing our roles as servants.
What ideas do you have? What are ways you take a servant leadership approach to marketing?
Image from Pexels
Keith Reynold Jennings is a marketing executive and writer focused on the intersections of servant leadership and modern marketing. Connect through Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook or email him directly.
Sign up here to get next week’s article in your inbox.