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It’s Time to Ditch the Term “Servant Leader”

inviteCHANGE Generative Wholeness Practitioner, Katherine Gilliland, PCC explores the identity behind a servant leader, and how leaders can evolve to become generative so that they invite change in their workplace, at home, and in their communities.

Recently, I’ve noticed a common coaching conversation theme has been about my clients defining what type of leader they want to be. Within a week, two clients – completely independently - shared that they liked the idea of the “servant leader,” but not that label. What they appreciate about the Servant Leader is that it focuses on the needs of the team members, enabling those around them to be successful. My clients strongly identified with having others’ development and interest at heart and serving as a problem-solver and obstacle-remover for anything getting in the way of the team’s success. And yet, both had very negative reactions to labeling themselves as a Servant Leader. One disliked the sense of being subservient, preferring to see everyone as equals; the other disliked the antiquated language that harkens to servant/master.

So, we explored what they would like to call themselves, what language would capture their aspirational leadership. I encourage all leaders to do this – define who you want to be and how you want to show up, and, because language is so very important, what name you would give yourself as a leader (I use the term “leader” in the broadest sense, as we are all leaders of our lives – even if you don’t lead a team, you still have a leadership style). Prompted by these conversations that kept showing up in coaching spaces, I got curious about my own aspirational leadership. I quickly realized that my old, long unexamined style to be something like a “servant leader” is no longer complete for me. Personally, the shift is as much about the concept as it is about the vocabulary. While I still value aspects of the Servant Leader, such as focusing on the growth, autonomy, and well-being of those around me, in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, that seems to fall short. We need leaders who can step outside of their current context to see the possibilities beyond themselves, their teams, and their organizations to have an intentional positive impact on their communities and society as a whole. We need an evolution of the Servant Leader, building on those strengths and expanding to today’s needs… we need Generative Leaders.

Merriam Webster defines generative as “having the power or function of generating, originating, producing, or reproducing.” I credit inviteCHANGE for adopting this language to leadership, for being generative and inviting our clients to be generative is woven into our organizational fabric. As an inviteCHANGE coach, I am a “Generative Wholeness Practitioner,” where my clients detect their authentic selves and claim their way of being. As an inviteCHANGE delivery leader, I explore how to integrate generative principles into coaching in our classes. But what does it mean to be a Generative Leader? At the heart, it will look different for each person, because the expression is unique for each person… and I will share what it means to me, acknowledging my bias coming from inviteCHANGE.

Being a Generative Leader starts with having a generative mindset – seeing both ourselves and others as whole, resourceful, capable, and creative. Sure, we might not always feel that way, but when that’s the case, the Generative Leader gets curious about what about the current context is getting in the way. Any sense of lack is seen as transitional and situational and an opportunity for learning and growth, not as a permanent deficit or character flaw. So often I hear from people that their favorite leader is the one who challenged them in a good way, because they saw something in them that they didn’t even see in themselves.

This mindset builds upon an abundance mindset – the idea that situations and life is not a zero-sum game – that there is “enough” for everyone. This requires a focus on the long-term, not just the immediate impacts; a recognition that what is truly important is bigger than the current circumstance. There is also a focus on relationship – not at the expense of getting things done, but in support of getting things done. Sometimes that means going slow now – to build relationships, to gather information, to get alignment – in order to go fast later.

Generative Leaders create climates and cultures where continuous learning and productive, creative, and innovative work thrive. They create a space where there is a clear and aspirational vision (not just for the team and organization, but also for how the organization affects the community and broader society), experimentation and reasonable risk-taking are encouraged, conflict is surfaced and engaged productively, team members both hold each other accountable and support each other, and people are both engaged and challenged to learn. Generative Leaders model paying attention to what is happening around them, sharing what they notice, staying curious, and listening first.

To support this, a Generative Leader must do the inner work to be clear on their values and intention, and who they are as a leader (not who they think others want them or need them to be). There is a willingness to embrace complexity and ambiguity, a focus on being present, an awareness of choice in all situations, and an expansive capacity for joy.

Does this mean Generative Leaders are perfect? I hope not (for who could attain that?)! Instead, I think of Generative Leaders as being “perfectly imperfect” – meaning, Generative Leaders are fully human, making missteps and mistakes all the time, AND it’s what they do in those moments that reinforce that generativity. There is a balance of humility and owning their actions (and resulting impact); of adopting a learning mindset and a resolve to do better.

How would you describe your leadership? What values do you lead with? What name would you give your leadership style?

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

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Katherine Gilliland, PCC

Katherine believes in the power of possibility. Drawing on her consulting background, Katherine focuses on improving business performance through harnessing individuals’ potential. She believes that increasing self-awareness, removing barriers and providing targeted support helps people be – and achieve – their best. She helps her clients find their own leadership voice and increase their positive influence. Inspired by her clients’ journeys, Katherine draws upon her experience and presence to bring a playful and honest challenge to shake up the status quo.
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