By any measure, Jim Blanchard’s leadership has made an indelible mark on the state of Georgia. He served for more than three decades as the CEO of Synovus, overseeing a period of dramatic growth; he has served on the boards of companies ranging from AT&T to Chick-fil-A; his list of accolades includes “Most Respected CEO,” “Georgian of the Year,” and literally dozens of others.
But to Blanchard, the true measure of his leadership is not the titles on his résumé, nor the awards on his mantle, but the degree to which he served the people who worked for him. That gospel of “servant leadership” is one he’s been spreading for 15 years now since founding The Forum at Columbus State University’s Leadership Institute around the time of his retirement from Synovus.
“Servant leaders come to work every day with the development and the growth of the people who look to them for leadership in mind,” he explains. “They’re constantly coaching and counseling—not nitpicking, but they give people opportunities to exercise their initiative and they empower them to make decisions that are good for the department, the company, or particularly the customer.”
A key to servant leadership, Blanchard stresses, is recognizing that no matter how powerful a CEO, president, or chairman is, they don’t achieve things on their own, and they certainly don’t deserve all the credit. “I used to remind our staff at Synovus headquarters, we are the bureaucrats, we may make plenty of decisions, but we don’t make a dime. All those guys out there actually dealing with customers, they’re the ones who make the money, and it’s our job to empower them, to help them do more business and make it easier for them to do it. Good leadership produces good results.”
But servant leadership has applications far beyond the world of business, Blanchard is quick to add. In all of our social interactions—from those with service workers and students to those with members of our own family—employing humility and a willingness to serve others can engender good will, lift spirits, and promote harmony even in a time of deep division.
What does restoration mean to you?
I would put it in the context of the conversion to Christ and the “born again” experience that basically makes you a child of God.
Describe the concept of “servant leadership” in your own words. How does it differ from the traditional concepts of “leadership” that many of us have become accustomed to?
Many of the concepts are similar, but the primary concept is that it is service to others, not a position where you expect to be served. My job as a leader is to empower, equip, infuse with confidence, express appreciation, and treat people with dignity rather than bossing them around.
There’s a lot about servant leadership that seems rooted in the teachings of Jesus—how we are all called upon to serve the Lord, the first shall be last and the last shall be first, that sort of thing.
In the gospels, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I came to serve, not be served.” Ken Blanchard [no relation], the prolific author of leadership books, wrote a book called Lead Like Jesus. His main concept is that we have seen what self-serving leaders do and the chaos that they can produce, and that we have a desperate need for a change in the leadership model toward the kind of servant leadership that was modeled by Jesus during His lifetime and His ministry.
There’s so much division in the country today, and I wonder how much of that is due to that “self-serving” kind of leadership you mentioned—elected officials expecting to be served rather than realizing that their duty is to the rest of us.
I would say that’s one of the prime examples of self-serving leadership. You can point to Congress or state officials, how so many of their comments or actions that they take are more for the purpose of making sure they get re-elected than for the good of the people. It certainly doesn’t apply to everyone—in fact, I would say most elected officials go into their first campaigns and their first positions with good aims and high, noble purposes. But somewhere along the way the idea of “How is this going to affect my re-election campaign” creeps in, and sometimes takes over. So there are those who do it for the purpose of helping society, so that their children and grandchildren will have a better state and a better country to live in, but that seems to evaporate in so many cases after a certain time of service.
What are some of the most common mistakes that potentially good leaders make in failing to be servant leaders?
Their ambitions and their agenda become more important than taking care of the people who are under their leadership. Under that, there are all kinds of specific mistakes that are made—I think the biggest mistake that I saw in the workplace was that a leader will begin to focus on the shortcomings of the people they lead. It will begin to irritate them, and it will get to where they can’t even bring themselves to compliment one of their people because the 5 percent of that person that’s weak overrides the 95 percent of their strengths and very fine qualities.
That’s just one example. Failure to communicate, secrecy, manipulation of people for their own purposes—in our extensive training and leadership side programs at Synovus, we used to call that kind of leader a person who would “salute the flag but kick the dog.” That’s a person who says all the right things to the boss up above him but goes back to the office and just beats up on the people, and they go home at night feeling whipped and mistreated and dread having to come to work the next day.
One of the problems many adult men face these days is that they’ve achieved great things in their careers and achieved positions of prominence, but they still feel unfulfilled. Can servant leadership help them find some of the things they’ve been missing?
I do. It is rewarding in every direction—it’s rewarding to the leader who lives it, and it’s rewarding to the people who respond to that person as their leader.
When we think of “leadership,” we usually think of politicians and corporate executives, but men are called upon to be leaders in their families as well. How do the concepts of servant leadership apply to being good husbands and fathers?
I think it fits right into the servant leadership concept: It’s not about being “the boss,” it’s not about being “greater than,” it’s not about holding power over the wife in the marriage, and it’s not beating up the kids with orders. It’s a position that respects and appreciates and loves the wife like Christ loved the church, and the job with the children is to create boundaries to teach them biblical principles and encourage them. Give them a strong sense of purpose and meaning and comfort and safety, the sense that they are nurtured and taken very good care of by a loving father, and it gives them a great concept then of what a heavenly father is like.