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Published: March 1, 2013

 
 

You Gotta Serve Somebody

The very idea of leaders subordinating themselves to followers, of inverting the traditional pyramid, made many people uncomfortable. But Greenleaf’s philosophy excited many more. Those who embraced it learned to “do no harm,” to respond “to any problem by listening first,” and “to accept and empathize” rather than reject. Over time, companies as diverse as Starbucks, TD Industries, Southwest Airlines, and Brooks Brothers integrated Greenleaf’s ideas into their management practices. Business schools added Greenleaf to their reading lists and syllabi. Nonprofit organizations and religious institutions introduced his principles to their members.

What helped servant leadership take hold wasn’t merely that many of those who tried it found it effective. It was also that the approach gave voice to their latent beliefs about other people and their deeper aspirations for themselves. Greenleaf’s way of leading was more difficult, but it was also more transformative. As he wrote, “The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

The time is ripe for the sales version of Greenleaf’s philosophy. Call it servant selling. It begins with the idea that those who move others aren’t manipulators but servants. They serve first and sell later. And the test—which, like Greenleaf’s, is the best and the most difficult to administer—is this: If the person you’re selling to agrees to buy, will his or her life improve? When your interaction is over, will the world be a better place than when you began?

Servant selling is the essence of moving others today. But in some sense, it has always been present in those who’ve granted sales its proper respect. For instance, Alfred Fuller [founder of The Fuller Brush Company]... said that at a critical point in his own career, he realized that his work was better—in all senses of the word—when he served first and sold next. He began thinking of himself as a civic reformer, a benefactor to families, and “a crusader against unsanitary kitchens and inadequately cleaned homes.” It seemed a bit silly, he admitted. “But the successful seller must feel some commitment that his product offers mankind as much altruistic benefit as it yields the seller money.” An effective seller isn’t a “huckster, who is just out for profit,” he said. The true “salesman is an idealist and an artist.”

So, too, is the true person. Among the things that distinguish our species from others is our combination of idealism and artistry—our desire both to improve the world and to provide that world with something it didn’t know it was missing. Moving others doesn’t require that we neglect these nobler aspects of our nature. Today it demands that we embrace them. It begins and ends by remembering that to sell is human.

Reprinted with permission from Riverhead Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA). Copyright 2012 by Daniel H. Pink.

 
 
 
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