When Leaders ‘Try,’ Part 2

Webster’s definition of “try”: “To make an effort to do something; to attempt to accomplish or complete something; to do or use something in order to see if it works or will be successful; to do or use something in order to find out if you like it.”

In June’s column, I shared about a mentoring session I experienced with a very wise leader. With my permission, she mentored me regarding the use of the word “try” in my leadership vocabulary. I must say, I was surprised by the power such a tiny word can have.

 I am a firm believer in servant leadership; my wife and I have dedicated the balance of our lives to living as servant leaders and sharing our knowledge with others. We have implemented servant leadership in our companies and have created the Servant Leadership Institute to help others do the same.

Let’s look at how others might receive my comments on servant leadership if I were to incorporate the definition of “try” in my speech:

“We are going to make an effort to implement servant leadership at our company.” “We are going to use servant leadership to see if it works or will be successful.” “We are going to implement servant leadership to see if we like it.”

Now let’s eliminate the word “try” or any variant of its definition from our speech.

“We will be a servant-led organization. I believe servant leadership is the only way to lead and serve others, and we will be known as a servant-led company.”

Early on in our implementation at Datron, our leaders thought servant leadership was just the latest “fad,” and it would be replaced with something else within 12 months. Their reaction was not directed to me as an individual, nor was it directed to the concept of servant leadership. It was based on the fact that the leadership of the company over the years prior to 2005 had spent a lot of money and effort “trying” different leadership styles to “see if they liked it” or “see if it works.” They never committed themselves to operating their business in any particular way. Does that sound familiar?

We have dedicated ourselves to practicing servant leadership. At one point though, the leadership team at Datron drifted in its commitment to this practice. It was a subtle drift over a two-year period. Several leaders were brought in from outside the company, including a new CEO. The onboarding of these new leaders in our servant-led organization was not what it should have been. When I stepped back into the CEO role, I even found myself falling into slightly changing how we talked about servant leadership. This culture or mission drift happens in all companies, but that doesn’t mean it has to be permanent. (I recommend a book called Mission Drift by Peter Greer and Chris Horst to fully understand this concept.)

Thinking back to how my mentor had politely “busted” my leadership language, I realized this little change in my language – and hence in my thinking and that of my team – was hindering our company’s ability to recover from the culture drift that had happened over the past several years. The use of the word “try” was limiting our team’s commitment to stop the culture drift and refocus on our original mission and purpose.

I took more than eight pages of notes during that hour-long mentoring session. I am still “thinking about my own thinking” – about the words I use as the CEO, about their impact on others, and about the mindset I have on the language of a servant leader.

Where do you stand as a leader? Are you fully committed to a leadership style? How do those you influence translate the words you say as a leader? Do you use words like “we’ll see” or “we’re going to try…”?

In the end, leaders need to show their commitment to those they influence. Our message must be clear. When we’re in a senior leadership position, our words send messages to others that reveal the level of our commitment to serve them. I am thankful for this leader’s willingness to mentor me. Those I serve will feel her leadership influence through seeing a change in my behavior.

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