Warning: This article is not like previous installments. In all honesty, it is difficult writing an article full of witty repartee and pithy retorts in this troubled time in which we live. I am also not qualified to make broad pronouncements about the state of the world. I can, however, offer a little glimpse from my own little microcosm: the world seen through the Tim prism.
To state the obvious, the world is devolving into split personalities of ideology, factions and leadership styles. The headlines are filled with polar opposite personalities such as of Putin, Saint (Mother) Teresa, Trump, Obama, Bashar al-Assad, Hillary, Kim Jong-un, Pope Francis. It has brought unprecedented disagreements and strife between friends and family (my own included).
This article is not really about politics. After all, what could an organization that has three levels of potential dysfunction (non-profit, arts and gay) know about politics? No, the article is about my observations on a topic that has interested me for years: leadership.
I find myself fascinated by the leadership differences so drastically playing out on today’s world stage.
We’ve all read the book What Color Is Your Parachute. But what about “What Direction is Your Pyramid—right-side up or upside down?”
Just recently, in his final address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama stated, “My belief is that governments serve the individual and not the other way around. Our nation began with a promise of freedom that applied only to the few … but because of our ideals, ordinary people were able to organize and march and protest, and ultimately, those ideals won out.” It was an incredibly moving speech.
Then there was President John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And it’s not the proverbial “Let them eat cake,” either. That one got blamed on poor Marie Antoinette and it was bread! What is one to do?
Is the most effective “pyramid of power” right side up or upside down? Does an organization serve the people or vice versa?
In 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf turned the long-held norm of the patriarchal business model on its head when he coined the phrase “Servant Leadership.” Greenleaf describes the servant leader philosophy as one that “begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. The philosophy enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” It is sharply different from the leader first philosophy. This person often has a need to “assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”
Among author Peter Economy’s secrets of Servant Leadership is this: “Every person has value and deserves civility, trust and respect.” And he exhorts those practicing it to “Listen intently and observe closely.”
Pop Quiz: Place names in Paragraph #2 into one of the two pyramid position types.
So, why has this been on my mind? Well, as you know, I arrived in San Francisco just over five years ago. I had learned about the concept of Servant Leadership before leaving Dallas, but had never thought about applying it to a gay men’s chorus. Would it work? Choruses are not democracies. Someone has to ultimately be the “Decider.” Sorry, couldn’t help myself. Stick with me.
But as far as the organizational structure was concerned, I just wondered if we could, indeed, turn the traditional pyramid upside down. The expected model has the conductor at the top, “power” viscerally electrifying the masses with the mere flick of the Maestro’s Magic Baton. Can you tell I have fantasized about that? Could the conductor actually be at the bottom of the upside down pyramid, serving the board and leadership, the singers and, ultimately, the audience and patrons. Could a world leader do the same?
At the same time, a new book by Ramona Wis, The Conductor as Leader, appeared on the scene describing the “Conductor as Leader.” I decided to pack Servant Leadership in the U-Haul on my move from Dallas and see if it would fly in this beautiful city by the bay. We began to rebuild the organization—with me on the bottom instead of the top!
In such a system, how can a conductor, who is supposed to be all-powerful, still maintain control critical to success? Here’s where it gets good. Dr. Wis says, “Serving does not mean always giving them what they want, but what they need.” The only way to know that is through a deep sense of empathy. I know what I need as a musician. I also know what fulfills me as an audience member. I can walk in those shoes, or sit in those seats.
The organizational transformation has been nothing short of miraculous. Of the 300+ men singing in the chorus, over half of them serve in an additional capacity other than their role as singers! Volunteerism is at an all-time high. People are empowered, energized and engaged and seldom told what to do or think. We come to conclusions together. Much more critical than didactic.
Back to the folks at the top. They definitely fall into two very distinct categories. Some are perched on top of a big old pyramid looking down on those supporting them from below. Others absolutely live the servant leader model. Some serve. Some do not. Some possess empathy. Some do not.
At the end of the day, Greenleaf asks some questions to gauge results of servant leadership:
Do those who are served grow as persons?
Do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants?
Will the least privileged in society benefit, or at least not be further deprived?
Are there dangers along the way? Of course there are. A key component to leadership is being able to make a difficult decision. The servant leader must also be strong, decisive and perfectly clear in the direction and communication. If successful, the servant leader is imbued with authority, won by respect rather than force. Keeping an upside pyramid in place is a precarious balancing act to say the least.
Having traveled this journey in my own life and career, I can’t help but gravitate towards others who embrace a similar philosophy to the one I try to adopt on a daily basis—and it takes daily reminders to break that mold.
Today, as we try to make sense out of our world, perhaps it helps to examine ourselves and how we perceive and manage our own little pyramid called life. For now, I’m going with upside down. What’s the worst that can happen? If it falls over, we push it back up and we write a song about it! We shall overcome.
Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.