What is your leadership style?
Go ahead, give it some thought.
Seriously. I’ll wait. I want to know what first came to mind for you.
Since making my first hire over 15 years ago—and assisting credit unions with their executive recruiting for the past four years—this is a question I ask often in interviews. In both my own experience and in listening to responses from dozens of leaders on the CUInsight Experience podcast, the most common answer seems to be servant leadership.
Is that what popped into your head, too?
It makes sense: Servant leadership is a noble style that does not require a rambling response to sum up. People understand that servant leaders are committed to serving others—the employees, the customers, the shareholders—as their primary function; that they will build a company based on their commitment to putting others first.
The term servant leader was coined and modernized in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf in his essay The Servant as Leader. In this essay, Greenleaf is reacting to Journey to the East, written by Herman Hesse, in which a group is on a journey that falls apart when their servant leaves the group. Later, it is recognized that the servant– all along– was the designated leader with a heart that had led him to act in service to others. Greenleaf observes that the true servant leader is one who helps those served grow as individuals, serving them by identifying and meeting their needs.
For good reason, leaders with hearts of service and a desire to help are highly regarded. They mentor, they coach, they provide resources that help individuals cultivate their best selves. I admire this style, yet it somehow feels incomplete. How does a servant leader, striving to meet the unique needs of each individual stakeholder, inspire people to coalesce around a common goal, to push forward through challenging times, or to focus on an end that is greater than any individual? For this, leaders must be more than servants. They cannot just support team members, they must be in the fight alongside them, working together toward the greatest good by stepping forward or backing up other team members as needed.
Leaders who inspire me don’t just serve others, they serve alongside others, in the arena with their teams.
I started contemplating the concept of arena leadership after a conversation with key leaders at Chartway Federal Credit Union. The credit union is currently seeking to add two key senior executives — Chief Financial Officer and Chief Human Resources Officer — to its leadership team. As we discussed recruiting to find the perfect fit in these new leaders, I was struck: Chartway’s executives share a strong commitment to making life affordable for their nearly 200,000 members across the country. They recognize that to reach this end, every leader on their team must serve as both advisor and executive, switching between strategist and activator, knowing when to charge ahead and when to stand down so others may lead. It is a team of individuals who recognize the value that comes in standing shoulder-to-shoulder to lead the credit union to its full potential.
As Chartway’s President/CEO Brian Schools described what he wants in team members—those willing to roll up their sleeves, take action, and be all in with learning as they grow—I was reminded of a poster I first saw in my dad’s office as a young girl. “The Man in the Arena,” is an excerpt from a Theodore Roosevelt speech that encourages people to go all in. Decades later, I was surprised to see the words that had been hanging on that high school wrestling coach’s wall re-popularized in “Dare to Lead,” a 2018 leadership book written by vulnerability expert Brene Brown. Growing up, it had always made sense to me that poster would be in that office—a place where my dad and his colleagues counseled young men to “rub some dirt on it” and keep charging ahead, persisting through challenges, continuing despite adversity. It seemed the opposite of vulnerability: Encouraging a disregard of pain or fear to forge ahead, until I considered the reference to great enthusiasm.
When a person is fully devoted to an end beyond him- or herself, striving for achievement is something that cannot be denied. Knowing there is risk of falling short of ultimate goals, people in the arena will still put out to the world the ambitions they have, they will work toward excellence. As leaders, they put their strengths and vulnerabilities on display, coming alongside their employees to battle it out for the common goal they share. They do not serve those in the arena. They are in there, too, committed to victory, striving for success, and learning alongside the rest of the team in the times where they are challenged to rise above some obstacle.
Are you an arena leader, willing to dig in and make a difference to your members, your colleagues, and your community? Able to admit you don’t know it all, but working with an enthusiasm and a spirit of camaraderie that will help you drive to excellence?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Theodore Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic
April 23, 1910