Are You a Leader, or a Follower? How About a Servant Leader?

Leaders, Followers and Listening to What People Want

When is giving people what they want leadership, and when is it following-the-pack?

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a lot of wonderful conversations recently about developing products and services for customers. One of the issues that have come up repeatedly is the importance of finding out what your customers want so that you can give it to them. Otherwise one runs the risk of developing a product that seems like a great idea but that no one buys.

Seems like a No-Brainer, right? But it’s not. In the context of those conversations a very smart person made the statement that asking what people want and then giving it to them isn’t leadership, it’s following-the-pack.

That really made me stop and wonder: When is giving people what they want leadership, and when is it following-the-pack? When is asking what people want and then giving it to them good customer service, and when is it purely mercenary? Why don’t more people – and companies – ask what their customers want?

I’ll address the last question first.

Why don’t more people – and companies – ask?

It takes curiosity to pursue finding out what people want and whether or not they are happy. Why don’t more people – and companies – ask? Fear.

As I wrote about here and here, there are a variety of things that keep people from exercising curiosity. The big one is fear – fear of finding out we are wrong about our assumptions or beliefs, fear of finding out we’re on a different path than everyone else, fear of looking dumb. Fear of admitting we don’t know. Fear of having to change, because change usually involves the unknown and that feels like chaos.

Another Fear

Another fear is of becoming a follower rather than a leader, that creating a product just because everyone wants it is not being a leader but following the pack, pandering to the desires of others.

This goes back to our earlier questions: Can one really be a leader if one just gives people what they want? Which raises another question: Should someone conduct surveys just because it’s The Thing to Do?

Soliciting input and feedback should not be done just because everyone is doing it. That is just following the crowd. It is inauthentic, not writing your own story but acting out someone else’s story.

If, however, people you admire are surveying their customers to find out what they want so they can create products that will help them, you may emulate them. You can put your own stamp on it by creating your own conversations with your customers. And the best surveys are conversations.

But still, isn’t doing what your customers want really just “following the pack?”

Not necessarily. Much depends upon how one defines leadership, and upon the extent to which that definition includes a component of service.

Consider the idea of Servant Leadership. According to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership,

“The phrase “Servant Leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, he said:

‘The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.’ ”

There are Ten Aspects of Servant Leadership, which tend to give a person authority versus power:

  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Healing
  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Conceptualization
  • Foresight
  • Stewardship
  • Commitment to the growth of others
  • Building community

Although curiosity wasn’t listed as one of those ten characteristics, I submit that curiosity is an important component of several – especially Listening, Empathy and Awareness. In this context, exercising one’s curiosity and finding-out-what-people-want is an important part of leadership.

The best surveys are conversations. And a good conversation involves several of the characteristics listed above.

It is this service mentality that keeps finding-out-what-people-want and then giving it to them from being either “following the pack” or a purely mercenary endeavor. Moreover, an effective leader listens to identify what problems her or his people need to have solved, and then leads by teaching them honorable methods for solving them.

Should we always give people what they want?

We must compare what people want to what we are called and able to give. Are those in alignment? If not, we may still serve by referring people to someone who can give them what they want.

For example, one of my favorite parts of the movie “The Miracle on 34th Street” is where Santa Claus refers customers of Macy’s to other department stores if they ask for something Macy’s doesn’t carry. At first the management at Macy’s is horrified – until they realize that this honesty and willingness to be of service doesn’t lose customers, it makes them even more loyal.

It is also important to remember the importance of dialogue, and of authenticity. There is a difference between “tell me what to do” and “tell me what you want.” A responsible servant-leader engages in a conversation and does not just take orders. And when it comes to finding out what people want, remember that the best surveys are conversations.

A responsible servant-leader has to prioritize, and listening to the wants and needs of customers can help with that.

And sometimes a responsible leader has to say No. But it is possible to listen respectfully, weigh the options and then respectfully disagree and follow another path.

It is possible to ask people what they want and try to give it to them without just being an order taker. It is also possible to listen respectfully and yet follow another path. If you are committed to listening and building community, then the input and feedback you receive is part of a dialogue, a conversation. And in that context it is important to say, “Thank you for your advice/input, but I am going to do this instead – and here’s why.”

It all goes back to being willing to be curious.

It all goes back to being willing to be curious. Which means being willing to admit we don’t know, to being open to change – changing our minds, changing our methods, even to hearing a new calling and changing paths. And a Servant Leader who is curious can have very meaningful conversations with customers as he or she works to find out – and help them get – what they want.

“The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.” Woodrow Wilson

Are you curious? If so, stay tuned – there’s more to come about having meaningful conversations with customers. Meanwhile, please leave a comment and tell me what you think about this!

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5 Responses to Are You a Leader, or a Follower? How About a Servant Leader?

  1. Square-Peg Karen March 1, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    Susan, I love how your repeated: ” the best surveys are conversations.” That seems so key! And: “There is a difference between “tell me what to do” and “tell me what you want.” This is vital stuff!

    Your post got me thinking – I wonder if sometimes people get confused about leading because they imagine needing to be miles beyond and sort of pulling their clients/readers/customers ahead? If so, they might consider giving clients “what they want” pandering.

    I would guess though, that even for someone quite visionary – someone who IS miles ahead (and I doubt there are very many of those folks) – one can only lead clients a few steps beyond where they are at a time — and listening to what they want would help one know where they were.

    Giggling a bit here because I have a thought here, but I’m not sure I got it out of my head in one piece (must be the 2 back-ward facing train rides I had this morning — head’s still not screwed on right).

  2. Susan March 1, 2011 at 11:10 am #

    Hi Karen! Thank you, I’m glad it’s useful! And I think you are right, listening to what people want can help know where they are. Can’t wait to hear your next thought, even if it comes out backwards!

  3. Fabienne Doze March 1, 2011 at 11:37 am #

    Hi Susan!

    I am wondering: isn’t there a necessary step before asking people what they want?

    Intuitively, I think we should first figure out what people need. That does not always involve asking. Sometimes observing and drawing conclusions on what is missing or on what could be improved is a great way to find out what people need. Then the next step involves, like you mentioned, deciding whether this is something you can give.
    Another issue is that sometimes what people want is not what people need. I am assuming that people are less likely to buy what they want if they don’t need it. A combination of both seems necessary. I’m wondering if it wouldn’t make sense to create something they need and then ask them if they want it. This is likely to help you evolve your useful product into a useful and desirable product.

    In the laws of Marketing, there are four main dimensions: Product, Price, Place, Promotion. In this article, you are addressing the “product” dimension. The other three dimensions are just as important in satisfying your customers.
    People will compromise on the product qualities for a better price, easier access, or a better ad/attached image.
    It seems important to evaluate all the forces at play before asking people what they want.

    My last thought has to do with the belief that people don’t always know what they want. When the iPod came out, millions of people didn’t want an high tech MP3 player. They would have been unable to articulate that they wanted to manage their music libraries on their computers and have the iPod automatically sync to it. However, as soon as the iPod was launched, it gained the interest of a large population of people. Now, they wanted it.

    Thanks Susan for sharing your thoughts! It does make me wonder…

  4. Susan March 1, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    Hi Fabie, excellent points! I could not address all of them in one post, or it would have taken days to read! I will be addressing some of them in the future, especially that people do not always know what they want. This is where an effective conversation is so important.

    Although it is counter-intuitive, there are studies that show that people frequently buy what they want even if they do not need it. But I agree that evolving a useful product into a useful and desirable product – or vice versa – could be a good thing.


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