I once had an experience that for me was a simulation of servant leadership. I was working with the Oregon Air National Guard and was scheduled to go up in an F-15. But because Congress has put its foot down on such flights without special permission, it was canceled. (When I checked into it and saw the kind of strength you need in your back and neck muscles to deal with those G-forces, I was glad my flight had been canceled. )
Anyway, they put me in a flight simulator, and while I was in the simulator, I was attacked by different “bandits” that tried to shoot me down. An instructor taught me how to use the stick in my right hand and the guns in my left hand to fight the bandits. My teenage son, Joshua, could easily have killed these bandits, because he plays all these video games, but I was just total thumbs and they shot me down one right after another.
Then they sent across the screen a “dumb bandit.” It couldn’t shoot me down, but I had to shoot it down. Well, I sat there for 15 minutes, and I could not kill this bandit. Finally, the commander put his hands on my hands and showed me how to do it.
Next, they took me into a room where pilots go after they’ve had their “dog fights.” In this room, the pilots see visual recreations of the encounters as captured from the perspective of the other planes. So I sat there as they showed the pictures taken from different angles by planes involved in this simulation.
The commander sat next to me and showed me how my plane was seen from all the other angles on these simulated combat missions. So, in this way, I had access to all the data. The commander helped me interpret the data and understand what was happening and why. He explained why I should have done this or that. Of course, I was very open to his instruction because we share the same objective to save our lives, to win the battle, and to preserve the peace. So we quickly formed a relationship based on trust, shared vision, common purpose, and access to all the information.
From this experience, I gained important insights about servant leadership. At first, I had a limited vision and had trouble working the controls. I was being shot down all the time. Even with the instructor’s hands over mine, I could hardly shoot down a dumb bandit.
But after seeing the big picture, the shared vision and mission, I had a much broader awareness of what was going on. With a servant leader by my side, I learned fast.
This experience represents the difference between “go-fer” delegation (“go for this, now do this, now do that”) and empowerment (“let’s spend the time to set up the agreement and to operate within the guidelines, but from the moment we set it up, you’re responsible for desired results, and I’m a source of help”).
In her book, The New Science of Leadership, Meg Wheatley teaches the same basic principle. She says what you need is a common vision and purpose and free information flow, because it’s going to be chaotic, and you’ve got to expect it. But use chaos to your advantage. Let people have whatever information comes in, and then become a source of help to them.
The servant leader often has to help expand vision and perspective, and then bring to bear his experience. But people want it. They’re asking for it because their lives are at stake. They know that their organizations are fighting for their economic life. And so the people working under the servant leader have more responsibility and accountability. They’re at the controls and sense that they’re in charge, that this isn’t a game any more, that there’s something at stake here.
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