When Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote a New York Times Op-Ed titled “America Deserves a Servant Leader” in August, he described a leadership style that is growing in popularity among some of the world’s greatest companies, including his own.

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On Sept. 8, 2015 at 1:30 p.m. EST, Executive Coach Marcel Schwantes will host a webinar for Carrier Management readers: “Six Servant Leadership Practices That Drive Performance and Increase Your Bottom Line.”

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“The values of servant leadership—putting others first and leading from the heart—need to emerge from every corner of American life, including the business community,” Schultz wrote in the August 6, 2015 essay that also called for the same values to emerge in politics, among candidates for U.S. president.

Marcel Schwantes, an executive coach with Leadership from the Core, who also spreads the word about servant leadership, refers to the Op-Ed during the accompanying podcast interview with Carrier Management, “Learning to Lead.” During the interview, Schwantes also explains similarities between servant leaders and the “Level 5 leaders” of Jim Collins’s popular leadership book, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t.” In addition, Schwantes describes the appeal of the servant leadership style for millennials.

Schwantes uses the image of a leader on the bottom of an organizational pyramid “supporting those people that follow him or her by lifting them up” to explain the concept of servant leadership. Looking after the needs of the people they are appointed to lead “by developing them, by sharing power, building the relationship, walking their four corners, or just being interested in the lives of their people [is] what’s going to get the best out of them,” he says.

Put another way, Schwantes quotes the words of Robert Greenleaf, recognized as the founder of the modern servant leadership movement. “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead,” Greenleaf wrote in his essay “Servant as Leader.”

That just sounds too conflicting to many business people, Schwantes admits. “‘How can I be a servant and lead? People will walk all over me.’ That’s one of the complaints I hear,” the executive coach tells Carrier Management.

Level 5 Servants

“You have the noble trace of both the Level 5 and the servant leadership, but you still have the person that is driven to success and driven to results,” Schwantes says.

Related Article: In the Carrier Management 2014 article, Executive Insight: How to Elevate a P/C Carrier From ‘Good to Great,’ Scottsdale Insurance President Michael D. Miller explains how Scottsdale applied the concepts for “Good to Great” to a specialty P/C insurance company.

It’s a concept that is hard to grasp for bosses and executives that come from “traditionally top‑down command and control leadership styles,” but not for devotees of Collins’s “Good to Great” or for millennials entering the workforce with leadership aspirations.

Servant leaders are in place at successful businesses like Starbucks and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. And “Level 5” leaders can be found in the property/casualty insurance industry at Scottsdale Insurance Company. “The biggest similarities are really in the paradoxes of each style. Level 5 says to display humility plus fierce resolve. Those are polar opposites,” says Schwantes. “You can connect the dots there to servant and leadership—two opposing forces.”

“There are many other similarities, like for example, how each style of leadership will credit others for the work. They never take the spotlight. And even when results are poor and things don’t go well, they’re the first ones to take the blame.”

Under both leadership styles, leaders “are going to do whatever it takes to produce great business outcomes, so we can’t forget the balance there.

“You have the noble trace of both the Level 5 and the servant leadership, but you still have the person that is driven to success and driven to results,” Schwantes says.

And there’s bravery in the ranks of servant leaders, according to Schwantes and Starbucks CEO. “Schultz even goes as far as suggesting that the servant leader [presidential candidate] would be courageous enough to select a member of the other party as their running mate,” Schwantes said, referring to the New York Times piece. “That is true. That’s what a servant leader would do,” Schwantes notes.

A Leadership Style for Millennials

The term “servant leadership” may sound too soft for the business world, but companies led by individuals who ascribe to this style are seeing the impact on their bottom lines—and attracting millennials to join their ranks, according to Schwantes.

Marcel Schwantes
Marcel Schwantes

Schwantes is the author of the six-part “Great Leaders” series of articles published by Carrier Management. These three installments are available online already:

“If your insurance carrier is getting younger, or maybe even wants to get younger, then you’ve got to start thinking about a different approach that inspires and motivates this generation,” he says.

What the research is saying is that millennials thrive in community, and they seek workplaces that collaborate well. They want management that engages them,” Schwantes says, echoing the words of Brian Duperreault, Chief Executive Officer Hamilton Insurance Group, who presented similar ideas during an address at the International Insurance Society’s Global Insurance Forum in June.

“They want to be team players. They want their careers to have purpose. They want to build new things that matter. They use social media to collaborate. They crowdsource everything from fundraising to business capital,” said Duperreault, who also called the insurance industry’s inability to attract “digital natives” into the fold “an existential threat.”

Schwantes agrees. “These people are different animals with very different needs. They want purpose, they want meaning, in their daily work, not just a pay check, free coffee, or a ping pong table in the lunchroom. They’re big on getting mentoring, coaching, and learning and development.

“They’re experiential. So, you want to furnish a laboratory environment for them to expose them to new experiences. They’re social, so you want to employ conversation and storytelling. These are all strengths of a servant‑led institution that really may appeal to Gen‑Y,” Schwantes says.

A Mission to Change Leaders

When Schwantes describes the work of his own firm, Leadership From the Core, he says that his company’s “calling is to help leaders influence change” and to build “servant-minded, organizational culture[s] of authenticity, accountability, creativity, trust, and service.”

What set him on this mission?

“If your insurance carrier is getting younger, or maybe even wants to get younger, then you’ve got to start thinking about a different approach that inspires and motivates this generation.”
“This is a no brainer. I saw enough bad examples of leadership—those who I reported to in the executive positions as well as peers of mine that I witnessed at the highest levels. These were all good people. I had nothing against them as individuals, and some of them are still my friends. But they were leaders who did not have the capacity to engage and motivate and inspire and develop properly.

“I saw costly decisions. I saw horrible turnover rates. One company, up to 60 percent. What I saw in most of those situations, was the opposite of what we’ve been exploring here. It led to low morale and unhappy employees.”

After researching the best approaches, I landed on servant leadership. Believe me, it took quite a few books and thought leaders, and research, just reading up on a lot of stuff. I found that servant leadership is the best in class model to transform work culture, and so this became our calling at the company.”