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September 22, 2007


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It is strange for someone who has never respected age and position for its own sake to become one of the more senior members of the teams I work on. Hierarchy-wise I'm a leaf on the tree and I like it that way, I'd rather have to do (or duck) one performance review than review a dozen others. On the other hand I am drawn to the concept of servant-leadership.

I can't help but think there is a close and deep connection between the decentralized/centralized polarity, the meritocracies characteristic of successful self-organizing open collaborations, and servant leadership. That is the kind of pyramid I want to climb, the control pyramid is all about reviews and other paperwork.


My sentiments exactly. You can do a performance review in the spirit of servant leadership, as a mentor, a colleague, a senior team leader, and as a person who recognizes that he may well be working one day for his or her so-called subordinate. The wise and the good very often report to the foolish or the knavish. As we say, the fish rots from the head down. Meritocracy is fine, but if you have, say, torture going on the in the dungeon, you don't want merit above that, you want a conniver with it, and so on up to the top. Merit can be a very inconvenient thing in a hierarchy, depending on the leadership, the modus operandi, and the circumstances. Performance reviews are about "merit raises," but meritorious service can be like Paul Bremmer and the Presidential medal he received for his incredibly inept handling of the early months in Iraq. Merit can mean doing as told, following the Boss wherever it leads. The review process is about discipline, staying in line, fitting in, and not asking too many questions.

What distresses me in Trista's post is the lack of vision. She is talking about personal dynamics, and her role as supervisor, without any nod towards the question of why and how a person ends up as another's immediate superior, in what sense any of us are another's immediate superior, and what the heck that has to do with philanthropy, or civic life, or citizenship, or philia. "Me, I got promoted, and I am so young, now I supervise a woman old enough to be my Mom. I know which end is up, and I am moving up fast. I am doing well." Vanity saith the Lord, all is vanity. To submit to such a performance review, and to humbly accept the judgment of the superior set above you is an exercise sometimes in Christian virtue, and even in servant leadership. We often lead from below, simply by patiently enduring the indignity.

Constructively, what will help Trista is moral imagination. Put herself in the position of the woman old enough to be her mom. Imagine what comes with that, in terms of life experience, and sorrow. Empathize with the sense of failure that goes with sitting quietly head bowed as a much younger person finds fault or gives patronizing praise. Imagine how to an elder the voice sounds, the innocence in it, the lack of life experience, the lack of self-awareness, the complacency, and the tightness that comes from insecurity and having to prove a point. To see all that playing out on the face of the immediate superior calls for servant leadership on the part of the subordinate. But it would better come from the supervisor.

Frame it as conversation. Say, "On paper I am your superior. In experience, you are mine. We both have an interest in seeing you make an ever greater positive impact on this organization. What in your opinion can we plan for next year that will make that possible? What holds you back? What strengths can be capitalize on? How can I clear a path for you? And by the way, we do have to go through the Company provided forms. Did you have a chance to do them? What were your thoughts on the first question, the one about following orders promptly?" That is a servant leadership conversation. Employees, in my experience, deeply appreciate the gesture of solidarity, common purpose, and subordination of all parties to certain principles, of fairness, for example and dignity, as well as of performance. In business this can be done; surely in a nonprofit it could.

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