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Patience and Discernment: Key to Servant Leadership


In working with individuals who are transforming their behavior toward servant leadership, you have to be patient. A key point to understand is that each leader will transform at a different speed. There will be some leaders who will latch onto it, roll into it, and run with it. Others will stand back, waiting for you to earn their trust through the process before they jump in. And some will never buy in; they just don’t think it’s the right thing to do. That’s where patience comes in, because you still have to manage this team, inspire them, and get results, even while you’re managing their transformation, or lack of it.

We like to use the analogy of putting together a puzzle when we’re teaching the concept of patience. Those people in your organization who latch onto their transformation and can communicate and work together at a much faster rate are like pieces of the puzzle that fit together nicely. But there may be a few pieces of the puzzle out there that haven’t yet figured out if they want to jump in. They may even have their own little puzzle going with each other while they’re trying to make a decision. That’s when you have to have patience and trust your values. Don’t give up. You have to remain true to your values.”

Here’s where discernment comes in: When you do finally come to the conclusion that you have to let a leader go, don’t wait too long to do it. In the beginning, we wanted to make sure we had done everything we could to help that person transform, and a couple times we waited too long to make the decision, and we paid for it. We weren’t mature enough to understand the breakdown of trust within that leader’s organization and the length of time it would take to get it back after we let the leader go. You really have to find that balance: We’ll invest in a leader up to a certain point; but after that point, if we don’t see any progress, it’s better for the organization to help that person move on to a different organization.

Another part of discernment is honing your skills at reading people and their body language. You need to understand that when people sit back and cross their arms, when the listening knob in their head is turned off, they’re not engaged. Early in my career I spent eight years working in the administration building at Disneyland in accounting. During breaks and at lunchtime we were allowed to walk around the park, and that’s where I learned to really read people. I would sit and watch people come down Main Street, and I got to the point where I could tell things like where people were going to stop and take pictures or which families were having a tough day (maybe Dad really didn’t want to be there or Mom had had enough with the kids). And that foundation of watching people for eight years is something I really cherish today, because it’s helped me read the body language of people and how they’re responding.

You have to be able to understand nonverbal language that tells you how people are reacting. The most rewarding experience for me is when I see that light come on in a leader’s eyes, when he or she starts to realize, “Hey, I can be a better person because of servant leadership.” That’s what you should strive for. And you need to have discernment when dealing with situations in the lives of your leaders.

Recently, I had a conversation with one of my senior members who has trouble with migraine headaches. She’s a younger leader, and as we were talking over a cup of coffee I encouraged her to not let Datron be one of the factors that cause her migraines. I said, “Datron is not worth that. You have more important things in your life to worry about, like spending time with your family and friends. You need to learn how to turn off that switch on a Saturday, not turn it back on until Monday, and not worry about things here at the office during that time.” She’s a very special person who has done a wonderful job since she’s been with us, and she has a great heart. But she’s going down the same path I went down as a young leader, when I thought my career was everything. I know from personal experience that those who put their careers first will lose some things in the process.

So, as you begin your servant leadership journey think about ways you can practice patience and discernment within your organization.  Can you take a few extra moments to mentor a new leader? Perhaps you need to sit down with a seasoned but overwhelmed team member and don’t forget to practice patience and discernment.

Art Barter

Written by Art Barter

Art Barter is CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute (SLI), an organization that helps people and organizations put servant leadership into practice, through hands-on training, coaching, events, publications and other programs. He is also CEO and cultural architect of Datron World Communications Inc., an organization he transformed from a $10 million company to a $200 million company in just six years by putting into practice the behaviors of servant leadership. His latest book is The Art of Servant Leadership II: How You Get Results Is More Important Than the Results Themselves.

Read more posts by Art Barter

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