‘Bluer Than Indigo’ and Empowering and Developing Your People

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Servant Leadership

Being an effective organizational leader is a challenging, often underappreciated role. While some leadership positions come with a measure of prestige, power and higher pay, the vast majority of those who lead in organizations fall somewhere in the middle of the organizational hierarchy and often don’t have a significant formal role that brings with it much elevated status. Additionally, they usually have to work much longer hours, have greater responsibility and accountability and often feel constant pressure from all sides.

So why do employees take on and stay in leadership roles (some formal, some more informal) when they are often so demanding, with relatively little payoff? Of course, there is an element of personal growth and development in such opportunities; we can often leverage a growth experience to move into a new, elevated role and thus build our capabilities and grow our own careers. While this self-interested component to being willing to take on leadership responsibilities can be both inevitable and healthy, I don’t believe it is the main reason so many effective and inspiring leaders stick with it, day in and day out, through the long, hard slog of the ups and downs of running an organization and leading their people.

So why do leaders choose to lead, and what is the key that makes them effective and successful?

Bluer Than Indigo

I am a firm believer in servant leadership and that effective leadership requires, in addition to confidence and some measured self-interest, a great deal of selfless desire to lift those we lead and a continual focus on what matters most as we strive to positively influence those in our stewardship. In his 2012 TEDxBoston talk, Harvard Business School professor and management guru Dr. Clayton Christensen stated: “When I pass on and have my interview with God, he is not going to say, ‘Oh my gosh, Clay Christensen, you were a famous professor at H.B.S. He’s going to say… ‘Can we just talk about the individual people you helped become better people? … Can we talk about what you did to help [others] become wonderful people?’”

Similar to Christensen’s approach, every day, leaders around the globe, in organizations of all different shapes and sizes, strive to make a meaningful impact on the lives of their people to help them to become better, more fulfilled and successful workers and individuals. They know what Christensen knew: that empowering, developing and lifting others is the mark of a truly successful leader.

As I have contemplated the many examples and impacts of truly great, selfless leaders in my life, I have come to my own philosophy of leadership. Early on in my adult life, I learned about an Asian proverb that translates as “bluer than indigo.” I have found that many of the principles of servant leadership that I hold dear are embedded in the meaning of this proverb. If you think about the color indigo, it is a brilliant, deep and vibrant blue — what some would call the bluest of blues. So to have something that is “bluer than indigo” is rare and truly remarkable. Based on Buddhist and Confucius teachings, this proverb describes the ideal of the teacher/leader and pupil/follower relationship — one where the teacher/leader’s greatest desire is to help their pupil surpass their own capabilities and capacities, thus becoming “bluer than indigo,” or surpassing the teacher/leader.

What would a “bluer than indigo” leader look like, and what would they do?

Conclusion

As I consider the implications of the proverb, I think implicit in its meaning is that this sort of leader will always be able to recognize and work to help their pupil fulfill their fullest potential. That means the leader needs to be other-oriented, attuned to the needs of those around them and able to keep their implicit biases and ego in check. Too often the leader will be too caught up in their own successes and achievements to really be truly and fully invested in their pupil. Sometimes they may even feel threatened by the successes of their pupil. When this happens, they allow their status, position and power to get in the way of fully developing and supporting their pupil.

Among my greatest desires is to become a bluer than indigo teacher/leader, as challenging and stretching as that ideal may be to achieve. However, as we work to develop more authentic relationships of mutual accountability and trust with those we serve and lead, listen more and develop greater emotional intelligence, it is possible. Furthermore, as we train ourselves to recognize the tremendous potential in those around us, not just seeing them for what they can currently do for us, but more importantly, what and who they can become, we will then be in a better position to help them recognize their own potential and support them in achieving it.

As we strive to consistently demonstrate our complete commitment to the development and success of others, we help to build a healthy, people-centric and sustainable organization. In helping to lift and build the capacities and capabilities of others, we will come closer to reaching our leadership and teaching ideal of helping others to become bluer than indigo, the mark of a truly great leader.

Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.

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