Combining Servant Leadership 2.0, Empathy, and Design Heuristics in High Performance Teams


Brahms’ favorite view from his summer hotel toward the Trisselwand — Altaussee, Styria, Austria

It’s time to put some of the big concepts together and understand how they combine to make high-performance design teams.  So here goes!

Ideally, a design team will have an individual who embodies Servant Leader 2.0 — not just a compelling vision and integral drive toward success, along with an understanding of what makes his or her company money (the ‘Inner Hedgehog’ idea), but also a profound self-awareness that allows them to negotiate effectively with the world outside the design group. Such an individual also understands their personal long-term motivators.  Servant Leader 2.0 makes a commitment toward facilitating the creation of relationships both inside and outside the group that can help both the performance of the design team, as well as the larger community interconnectedness.  He or she models appropriate responsibility-taking (I know how to do that, and I’ll take the lead!) as well as ego suppression. That’s likely as good as it gets.

Add in a design team with members that have the appropriate expertise in the area, a clearly defined design goal, and the tools necessary to understand and capture the physics the group will be dealing with, and you’re halfway there.  Next, create an environment where people can move, unrestricted, in search of knowledge that they need, with the blessings of the leader to create appropriate relationships, and we’re getting closer.  Finish up with a larger group purpose, as well as the time, for individuals in the group to understand that they must also be receptive to helping people seeking knowledge from them — it’s not just about their goals and assignments.

Finally, put both elements together in a design process that has enough flexibility for the creativity required, and enough customer interaction so that there is grounding of the design concepts created by the group.  Make sure everyone in the design team can understand what the goals, and what the process is.

Examining this from an empathetic perspective, Servant Leader 2.0 knows him or herself well enough that they are at the same time, clearly separated from the individual team members, yet connected to all of them with rational empathy.  The Servant Leader 2.0 also starts the process of creating the high performance team by connecting to each individual, and at the same time, starting the process of creating the web of relationships between other individuals on the team.  Some of this is explicit — introductions, shared work tasks and such.  But some is also implicit and opportunistic — making events where people can select partners on their own.  This person also has the sense of inner purpose to not be threatened by strong empathetic relationships being formed within the team, through that independent agency of team members.

Finally, through the assistance of Servant Leader 2.0, everyone on the team takes the long, holistic view — that everyone is here for a purpose, that they can make a difference, yet at the same time all of them will evolve and change.  And the community that is created will persist long after the design goal is reached — for reasons that no one can quite predict.

Takeaways:  Building High Performance design teams takes time.  And it almost always takes someone who serves as the kernel where things grow.  It involves creating appropriate scaffolding, as well as surrendering some level of control.  But the results can be tremendous. 

Design Thinking and Servant Leadership — Part II — Understanding the Legalistic Transition

conor snowhole

Conor at 13, firing it up on the Lower Salmon, Snowhole Rapids, Idaho

In the last post, we ended with a short scenario on why servant leadership couldn’t thrive in an Authoritarian v-Meme organization.  The obvious reasons that jump out are the lack of trust, especially in assigning credit, as well as the lack of connection that a more evolved empathetic sense would create.

Yet the problems with developing leadership in Authoritarian organizations go deeper than that.  One of the biggest problems is a lack of stable social structure for the entire company — because this is subject to rearrangement by the person at the respective top of the system.  This is intrinsically linked to the main problem with Authoritarianism — that the person at the top is in control of the veracity of the knowledge in play.  The short version is that the Authority gets to decide who’s telling the truth.  And if there are no constraints on that person’s power, they can move the deck chairs (with employees in them!) around as they wish to reinforce whatever version of truth suits them at that moment.  The ranking of employees themselves is directly at the mercy  of the whim/impulsive nature of the Authoritarian figure themselves.

And it’s also likely a real Authoritarian is going to become aware of a servant leader arising in their midst, through the appearance of empathetic subgrouping of employees around that individual.  Without any other modifiers, they are going to perceive that person only as a threat to their power and control.  Which will mean the aspiring servant leader will have to be whacked.

We can start to see the beginnings of potential for servant leaders in true Legalistic  v-Meme hierarchies, in that now there are at least some rules that constrain authority.  And while there is not necessarily a level playing field — hierarchies are, well, hierarchies — there are at least some rules about who can talk to who, and some process that has to be followed.  In the case of the prior blog post, it’s more unlikely that Big Boss would scheme with John, the lower level employee, against the servant leader.  And if there were an established culture and examples of how credit was to be delivered, a show of humility by the Servant Leader in the middle would have less chance of being misinterpreted.

Additionally, rules and process for product excellence would likely also be in place.  John, at the bottom, upon completing a deliverable and having it certified — a Legalistic v-Meme construct — would have some external validation of due diligence on their part.  Certification of success is an important part of a trust environment.  Equally important is the lack of responsibility for statistical failure.  John could complete a task, get it certified, and have the servant leader in the middle commend him, without worrying about whether a trap was being set.

While Legalistic systems won’t in and of themselves create atmospheres for servant leadership — in my opinion, they’re more neutral than anything else — they do create the scaffolding for support of servant leadership as the company evolves.  And creating scaffolding is necessary for access to those higher v-Memes where Performance and Community can take off.  At the Legalistic v-Meme level, you can start the process of establishing global standards that take away from the authority of the Authoritarian — and creates a system that people can move, connect and develop, at some level independent of one person’s idiosyncrasies.

That’s not to say you couldn’t have a person in an Authoritarian organization put in their time until they got to the top of the organization — and then totally emerge as a servant leader, and rearrange everything beneath them.  But now we are once again in the realm of the Exceptional Individual.  Hardly a predictable way to assure long term continuity and performance.

Takeaways:  The Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme provides important scaffolding for the emergence of servant leadership.  But it is typically not sufficient in and of itself.

Further Reading:  Reflecting on the last two posts, it should come as no surprise that servant leadership maps well to Plato’s idea of a philosopher king — an individual who was not only a just and fair Authoritarian, but one capable of creating Legalistic/Absolutistic systemic thought that would constrain their own actions.  For those that have been following this blog for a while, it should also come as no surprise that being a philosopher king was probably the best that someone in ancient Greece could aspire to, as the society Plato wrote about was just past the Chthonic Transition into stable Authoritarianism with emerging principles of Legalism.  Old Plato stretched as much as he could — the idea of higher-level synergistic networks was simply unavailable.

Design Thinking and Servant Leadership — the First in a Series


Alicia on her birthday, by the shores of the Great Western Sea, Chinook, WA

One of the important questions about understanding the impact of social structure and empathy is to also understand what kinds of leaders do the various social structures require.  There’s been a ton of research on leadership — but I have yet to see where it has been put into context that considers how a company is set up, and what channels of information are available to employees in the company.

Of particular interest to me has always been Jim Collins, and his famous book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap.. and Others Don’t.  In the book, Jim dwells extensively on what’s called Level 5 Leadership — more commonly known as Servant Leadership, which is characterized by humility and a strong sense of inner purpose.  The inner purpose is usually embodied in the Hedgehog Principle, which is characterized by an overlap of three concepts:  what you are passionate about; what you can be the best in the world at; and what drives your economic engine.

Of interest as well are the other four levels.  Is there a pattern in Collins’ work that maps to the Spiral, and empathetic development?  The graph below by Collins lays out the basics.


The answer is: well, not really.  And this should not be surprising.  It’s not that Collins’ categories were arbitrarily selected.  They were grouped, as is typical from most of these types of studies, from large data sets (I think that Collins had ~1430, and for the book he selected 11 particular companies).  If they were like the vast majority of companies, they were likely bunched around the Authoritarian/Legalistic <-> Performance/Communitarian transition, with companies bundling the various v-Memes in different ways, dependent as much as who was the boss, as well as cultural/Principle of Reinforcement conditions from the outside.

As well, it’s no surprise that out of the 1400 firms that Collins and his researchers surveyed, only 11 made the grade of having someone at the top that was a servant leader.  Servant leadership DOES map well to the Coral/Bodhisattva level that’s off the standard Spiral Dynamics chart.  If we remember what the classical Hindu definition of a bodhisattva, it’s someone who stayed behind from ascending to Nirvana to help the rest of us more flawed individuals get there.  Seems pretty well coupled with the ideas of intense humility and a strong, integral will that sets the example for others to succeed.

Collins defines, over and again, this kind of leadership as a property of the ‘Exceptional Individual’.  Yet we know from all the previous stuff I’ve written, that exceptional individuals are at some level created by the social/relational systems they are placed in.  At some level, this is a pipe dream, but my hope for all our organizations is that we create systems where Servant Leadership is naturally emergent.  It may still be uncommon — it will still require a commitment from the individual.  But it is accelerated by the social/relational systems present in the organization.

This is not as trivial as it sounds.  One thing that would most definitely be required is some movement past the Trust Boundary — the line dividing the predominant Externally Defined/Independently Generated relational modes, where rational empathy comes into play, and emotional empathy is downloaded into the core of the organization.

Why is it not trivial?  Consider the following circumstance.  Let’s say we have an organization that is fundamentally Authoritarian/Egocentric.  Leaders, for the most part, are governed by the need for Power and Control — not performance.  They control the veracity of the information stream — if they don’t like it, it must not be true.  And they are impulsive and belief-based:  “that’s the way we’ve always done it around here.  And things have been JUST FINE.”  No one would listen to them if they didn’t have a given title.

You are in a meeting with your supervisor, with an employee on your team.  Let’s call him ‘John’.  Your boss, whom we’ll call Big Boss, says “Who’s responsible for the success of this project?”  As a good servant leader, demonstrating your sense of humility, as well as your belief in facilitating people, you say “John.”

What happens next?  What do the people — Big Boss, and John, think, inside this organization?

Big Boss likely thinks “Well, if John is the one that is doing the work, maybe I should get rid of this guy in the middle and promote John.”

John, used to working in a low-trust environment, where status is everything, likely thinks “boy, my boss is likely setting me up as the fall guy.  He must know something is going to wrong, which is why he’s fingering me as the one responsible to Big Boss.”  Or maybe John’s thoughts are completely egocentric.  “If I’m the one responsible, why am I not the boss?  I’m going to go around my boss and tell Big Boss what’s really going on.”

It becomes pretty clear that in environments without trust, any person with the empathetic development to become a servant leader — already extremely high on the Spiral scale, and a low probability individual in the population at large — will not get ahead.  The servant leader candidate, counting on empathetic connection, trust, change, and data-driven decision making, can’t last.  The Principle of Reinforcement says that the social structure will maintain itself, in this case through fragmentation of social bonds.  In fact, the servant leader candidate will be lucky if they don’t get fired.