Servant Leaders Outperform Because They Connect

Servant leaders connect with the people they lead and create Connection Cultures that are essential to achieve sustainable superior performance. Connection is defined as a bond that exists among a group of people based on shared identity, empathy and understanding that moves self–centered individuals toward group-centered membership.  Here’s an example of a servant leader that brings the force of connection to life.

Retired CNO Admiral Vern Clark was formerly the chief of the U.S. Navy from 2000 until 2005. When Admiral Clark became the chief, first term re-enlistment didn’t meet the Navy’s goal of 38 percent. Within a little more than a year, it soared from under 38 percent to 56.7 percent and the Navy had more sailors that it needed.  Although I don’t have space in this article to tell you all of what Admiral Clark did, his actions can be summarized in three words: Vision, Value and Voice.

The Vision he communicated was that “together we will build the 21st century navy.” Clark explained that the work they did was hard. They spent months on end away from their families and friends, and they put themselves in harm’s way. They did this because it’s important work.  The Navy’s job is to protect freedom and democracy in the world, and the interests of the greatest nation in history. He told everyone that he was proud to serve alongside them because they “serve a cause greater than self.”

Admiral Clark created Value in the Navy’s culture by getting the Master Chiefs – the leaders of the enlisted class — to value the sailors under their command. Admiral Clark told the chiefs the story of his first command and how a chief named Leedy helped mentor him to become a better officer. Clark told the chiefs that he needed them to mentor the sailors as Chief Leedy mentored him, and that if they did, the Navy would have more sailors than it could handle.  The head of all the chiefs told me that after hearing Admiral Clark the chiefs could be heard saying “Old Vern Clark” knows who’s running the Navy and we’re not going to let him down.

Finally, Admiral Clark brought greater Voice to the Navy.  He encouraged people to speak up, challenge the assumptions and make the Navy better each day.  He told people to dig into the data and don’t be afraid of “constructive friction” as they discuss differing points of view.  This gave people permission to speak up and to prove their case if they had ideas that would improve the Navy.

As the Navy improved sailor retention and developed greater alignment with Admiral Clark’s vision, it became faster and more responsive. Within a matter of hours following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, aircraft carriers, Aegis destroyers, and cruisers were in position to protect America’s shores. This was due in part to the fact that naval leaders anticipated what had to be done and took action before they received orders. At the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., command and control of the Navy was quickly reestablished and planning for America’s response began while the embers of the fire from the terrorist attack still smoldered a short distance away.

Servant leaders such as Admiral Clark outperform other leaders because they move people to “surrender the me for the we” and it is nearly always the case that we accomplish more when we are pulling together than when we are drifting apart.

Note: You can read more about the inspiring story of Ret. CNO Admiral Vern Clark’s leadership of the U.S. Navy in an article Jason Pankau and I wrote for the Leader to Leader Journal entitled “To Boost Performance, Connect with the Core.”

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