Servant Leaders & Awareness

On this aspect, I don’t plan to focus on the leader’s self-awareness but in line with Greenleaf’s use of the term I will focus on the leader’s awareness of the world around them. Here’s what he says in introducing the concept of awareness:

Framing all of this is awareness, opening wide the doors of perception so as to enable one to get more of what is available of sensory experience and other signals from the environment than people usually take in. Awareness has it risks, but it makes life more interesting; it certainly strengthens ones effectiveness as a leader. When one is aware, there is more than the usual alertness, more intense contact with the immediate situation, and more is stored away in the unconscious computer to produce intuitive insights in the future when needed.

A previous boss once described me as the “canary in the mine”. Initially unsure how to take this ornithological analogy I quickly realised that he meant it as a compliment! He was communicating to the team that he relied on me to help him monitor the health of the organisation because I was more sensitive than most to how people were feeling and the prevailing climatic conditions in which they worked. If there was anything to be concerned about I would be quick to spot it. Interestingly he went on to describe me as the “conscience of the organisation”.

So what the attributes of a “canary” are? In my mind:

– Canaries are good listeners and make it easy for the people they work with to be honest with them including when that means they are the bearers of bad news.

– Canaries are keen observers of people, watching their body language, connecting to them emotionally, not just listening to what they say but what they are not saying.

– Canaries are enthusiastic collectors of experiences which allows them to put what’s happening in the present into historical context to establish patterns and trends. (Think about the difference between a photograph and a video).

– Canaries have foresight and are able to anticipate the impact that what is happening now will have on the future and also how the future should shape what is happening now.

Thinking about that first bullet. Leaders are not always good listeners and often don’t make it easy for the people they lead to tell them what they don’t want to hear. As a result there may be a fire but no one is prepared to say they smell smoke! Worse than that leaders often suffer from confirmation bias whereby they subconsciously over emphasise the signals that confirm their view that there is no fire and tune out the sound of the smoke detectors! It’s easy to understand why leaders would do that. Leading is a difficult job. It comes with huge responsibilities and challenges that those following don’t have to carry or face. Leadership is difficult enough without having to face up to the reality of what’s actually going on! Greenleaf again:

Some people cannot take what they see when the doors of perception are open too wide, and they had better test their tolerance for awareness gradually. A qualification for leadership is that one can tolerate a sustained wide span of awareness so that he or she better “sees it as it is”.
Awareness is not a giver of solace – it is just the opposite, it is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are sharply awake and reasonably disturbed. They are not seekers after solace. They have their own inner serenity.

Here Greenleaf is making two important points. Firstly “staying open” requires courage to face reality. Secondly, it requires the ability to manage yourself inwardly in response towards your outer world, you could say this is emotional intelligence. Courageous leaders are not frightened by reality neither are they phased by it. They would rather know than not know. Their hope is rooted in their inner world and not in what’s going on around them. Leadership listens and responds, it doesn’t react.

Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant