Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

Developing Servant Leaders – by Chance and On Purpose

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Leaders developingDavid Packard, one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard was once asked about his theory of leadership. He sat silent for moment then answered, “Bill Hewlett and I just always did the things we loved to do, and we were so happy that people wanted to join us.”[1] Hewlett and Packard not only set out to do what they loved to do they set out the change the way technology worked…and as a result how the world experienced things. I start with the story of Hewlett and Packard for three reasons.

First, David Packard did not give an outline of his developmental process or theory of leadership.  He started with his passion.  This is where all effective servant leaders start and why understanding the differentiated self is so important.  All good servant leaders have an idea about how to develop others. At first they develop leaders by chance. As time progresses however, the best ideas ultimately become explicit processes that are tested and improved over time.

Second, the company called Hewlett-Packard started with a team, Bill Hewlett and David Packard did not start out alone.  Entrepreneurs who go it alone fail. Hiring committees look for a professional catalyst that will either make sure the survival of existing programs or turn languishing programs into fabulously flourishing hallmarks of greatness. Find someone you want to work with to change the world or to make a difference in a specific context! Loneliness is a real challenge in leadership in any venue, so friendships are valuable and necessary but they need vulnerability. No one can effectively lead without being vulnerable – they can dictate or be a tyrant or a laze faire manager, but they can’t lead. Leading well often means that others who have you on a pedestal will be disappointment when you fail to live up to their expectations. Embrace that fact and show people how to live authentically. Friendships are built over time and tested by behavior.

Third, the recruiting strategy initially used by Hewlett and Packard is telling. People who also wanted to change the world joined them in the work. Finding people who want to join the mission is only as difficult as actually doing the mission. People are drawn to activity that does what it claims to do. Collins identifies this dynamic in the flywheel concept he described in four phases: (a) leaders act according to their strategic plan; (b) they produce results; (c) people line up behind results; and (d) momentum is generated.[2] When I first saw the flywheel concept I realized the many leaders attempt to push the flywheel backwards in that they declare what they want to do and insist on momentum (that everyone offer praise and support of the idea) without demonstrating that their big idea or latest craze actually works.

If these three points are a foundation to development then how does developing leaders or talent work?  Development is a process in which servant leaders help emerging servant leaders: (1) to bring latent talent to fruition; (2) to mature their ability to carry increasing responsibility successfully; (3) to face and understand the consequences of their own behavior on others; and (4) to experience and reproduce the power of developing others.  Maturity is important because it is “…the capacity to withstand ego-destroying experiences and not lose one’s perspective in the ego-building experiences.”[3]  Leaders must experience ego (self) building so that they also have the capacity to withstand the complexities and challenges of leading.

There are two challenges in developing leaders.  The first is how to master the discipline of servant leadership in one’s own values, behavior, and perspectives.  The second is how to reproduce servant leadership values, behaviors, and perspectives in others.

The dynamics of leadership development occur in the daily interaction between leaders and their followers, the results they produce, the context in which they serve, the accountability they have within that context, the mentors they have inside and outside the context and the time the leader spends reflecting on what they are learning. The servant leader facilitating the development of others works to make sure that interaction, accountability, feedback, results, and reflection become learning that changes the leader’s mental models and behaviors.

I illustrate the interrelated dynamics of how leaders develop in Figure 1. I designed the figure to offer a snapshot that allows a leader to see development opportunities that may be missed and to also realize that development occurs serendipitously as well as intentionally in daily life.

The figure visualizes the various dynamics that help shape how a leader thinks and how they act. The arrows indicate feedback loops that alert the leader to the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of their actions. Feedback alerts a leader to the need for altering behaviors or actions, increasing resources or reflection that challenges the leader’s prevailing mental model about how to define reality and causation.  If the leader’s mental model is left unchallenged then incomplete correlations between causation and outcome lead to frustration and increased activity that has little bearing on effecting altering outcomes.

Figure 1: Dynamics of Leadership Development

Leadership Development

Each group of feedback has a triad of primary spheres of influence on the developing leader. For example, the context creates a triad of influence that includes the leader and his or her direct supervisor. As the leader and his or her direct supervisor grapple with circumstances, challenges and opportunities that arise in their daily routines they are reinforcing assumptions and behaviors about how to lead. If their relationship includes a healthy reflective practice that encourages them to think about cause and effect then they have the opportunity to find what assumptions and behaviors are effective or ineffective and why.

When building your organization’s leadership development pipeline keep the reality of intentional and serendipitous development opportunities in mind. Recognize the various influences that contribute to or derail an individual’s development as illustrated in Figure 1. Use the figure as a diagnostic to find weakness or fatal flaws in your organization’s development processes. Organizations that succeed in developing leaders and talent are typically organizations that are fun to work for and capable of sustained excellence, profitability and purpose.


[1] Peter M. Senge. “Afterward” in Servant Leadership: a Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2002), 356.

[2] Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001), 175.

[3] Robert K. Greenleaf. The Power of Servant Leadership, Larry Spears, ed. (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1998), 63.

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Author: Ray Wheeler, DMin

Ray Wheeler - executive coach, confidant, mentor, leader, and friend. Ray is the author of, Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's world. He is also an adjunct lecturer at LIFE Pacific College, Bethesda University California and Azusa Pacific University in cross-cultural leadership, leadership development, leadership ethics, administration, church growth, and mission in today's world. Certified leadership coach, certified Birkman Consultant, and certified in the iOpener Assessment (happiness at work).

2 thoughts on “Developing Servant Leaders – by Chance and On Purpose

  1. We are beginning to work on a Leadership Pipeline Process for cru. I will be looking at this diagram more in the future… and trying to understand all that is represented there! 🙂 Thanks for the continual challenge, Ray!

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