Legate Andrew Abela spent his first week as dean of Catholic University’s Busch School of Business asking each of the school’s senior staff questions and listening carefully to the answers.
He then called everyone together to share what he had learned and to set priorities for the school.
In another era, someone like Abela might have seized command and informed the staff of the direction the school would be taking. But as a leader in 2019, he employed what’s known as “collective ambition,” a team-oriented process for determining the purpose of an organization. “You enlist the aid of the decisionmakers,” said Harvey Seegers, associate dean for administration at the Busch School, “to put together a very cogent explanation of what the mission of the organization is and what values you cherish as you pursue its objectives.”
For much of the 20th century, Seegers said, most organizations were run like the military in a command-and-control style in which the person at the top charged those under him with accomplishing certain tasks and goals.
“Enlightened management in the 21st century is more about bottoms-up leadership, where you enlist everybody in the organization to help define what the mission is and the means of accomplishing the mission,” Seegers said. “In many ways it is very similar to the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social tradition – placing the responsibility at the lowest level qualified to do it.”
Balancing the top-heavy company
Seegers began to experience this shift in management style when he worked at General Electric in the 1990s under former CEO Jack Welch, who had introduced what he called “boundarylessness” in the 1980s. “He was a big believer in subsidiarity because he was constantly challenging the officers in the company to get the work to the lowest level you could do it.” Seegers said by pushing work down the organization, Welch was able to turn a top-heavy company into a more balanced one. As a result, the company’s stock price skyrocketed and what Welch was doing drew the attention of other CEOs and business publications. Even the Harvard Business School picked up on his method.
Its inclusion in Catholic social tradition aside, Seegers said, subsidiarity is a good management technique because it drives productivity. And, he added, employing it doesn’t mean a leader isn’t strong. “The best leaders lead through persuasion and influence rather than command and control.” They can do this because they have the self-confidence to acknowledge they don’t know everything, but also possess the skill set to discover what they need to know by asking the right questions of others. “My experience has been that the very best business leaders govern, if you will, and lead by asking the right questions.”
Asking the right questions, the best way
Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, considers asking good questions so important that he has devoted an entire book – Questions Are the Answer – to the topic. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, he said understanding what kinds of queries spark creative thinking is key. “There are lots of questions you can ask,” he wrote. “But only the best really knock down barriers to creative thinking and channel energy down new, more productive pathways.” He said such questions reframe the problem, intrigue the imagination, invite others’ thinking, open space for different answers, and are not posed in a way that asserts position power.
Seegers said asking the right questions comes naturally to some people, but most need training and experience to do it properly. “People don’t do it because they don’t know how to do it, but the other element is that people who don’t do it sometimes have a deep-seated insecurity that it will be a sign of weakness if they ask somebody.
It’s kind of ironic: people who ask these questions and know how to do it are really reflecting strength.”
Asking good questions also is one of the hallmarks of a servant leader, a concept credited to Robert Greenleaf, who developed his ideas while working in management for AT&T and then published them in an essay in 1970. “The best servant leader asks the most provocative questions to help discover the truth,” said Patricia Falotico, CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
Servant leadership – non-coercive but very strong
When applied to business, servant leadership is about understanding and meeting the needs of others so they can fulfill their highest potential and aspirations, Falotico said. “It’s not a tower-over, coercive leadership model. It is a very focused, others-centered leadership style. The leader is all about providing the resources necessary for teammates to thrive.” Ultimately, Falotico said, servant leadership helps organizations thrive and contribute to a better world.
As someone who grew up in a command-and-control environment, Falotico became a convert to servant leadership when she began to recognize that telling people “this is the way we’re going to do it” was not necessarily helping them to be their best. “I shifted into servant leadership without even knowing that that was what it was called.” Early in her career, she said, she was becoming frustrated with the people she was leading as a first-line manager in a corporate setting. Her husband challenged her to stop thinking about getting the job done and whether it matched how she would have done it and instead to start helping those under her to do the job their way.
Though sometimes mistakenly associated with weakness, the servant leadership model actually requires great strength because more is required of the leader, Falotico said. “It takes a lot more work to ensure that you are that you are putting the interests of others ahead of your own and . . . achieving the outcomes you need. It takes persistence, courage, the ability to have people become more accountable, the need to inspire others, the need to get them to feel a sense of shared ownership. There is nothing soft about it. What it isn’t is coercive. In a world where we associate strength with coercion, servant leaders are not coercive, but are very strong.”
Not everybody’s best friend
Falotico said someone who thinks of a servant leader as being everybody’s best friend is probably not going to want to embrace the concept. However, she continued, “Quite honestly, not all servant leaders are everybody’s best friend. We push, we challenge, we hold the bar high. The difference is we will help you get to that bar. We’re all about getting great results and building really powerful relationships with others.”
Although not a purely Catholic idea, servant leadership is nonetheless practiced by many Catholics who live out its principles in their business lives, Falotico said.
Seegers said servant leadership is taught at the Busch School, particularly in the classes of Andreas Widmer, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and author of The Pope and the CEO. Widmer’s book shares the leadership lessons he learned while serving as a Swiss Guard protecting Pope John Paul II and refined in his own business career. “He teaches servant leadership from day one and uses the word,” Seegers said.
He said he also has seen servant leadership at work in Abela’s challenge to the school’s leadership team to lead with truth and charity. “Truth means we don’t want to lull ourselves into believing everything is perfect and we’re constantly looking for the truth, but the charity part is to do it with magnanimity. You don’t go searching for the truth like an army soldier. You pursue it with grace and dignity and in a way that’s respectful of the other person. It’s a great way to think about servant leadership.”
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer