Servant Leadership Theory That Isn’t Theoretical with Jim Britt, Ep #48

Servant Leadership theory is a concept that became wildly popular for a time after the publication of Robert Greenleaf’s 1970 essay entitled, “The Servant As Leader.” But while intriguing, the theory can be empty without a flesh and blood example, so I’m tremendously thankful that on this episode of the podcast I get to introduce you to a man who embodies the concept.

Jim Britt is a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft, where he has been part of the team since 2010. He’s also served on the teams of other influential organizations such as Ensynch, ConocoPhillips, and Motorola. Jim’s life and leadership lessons are those that come from being in the trenches. He’s the kind of guy who does the hard work necessary to grow in both his personal and professional lives. His servant leadership and life, in general, will serve you well as you endeavor to continue your leadership development, so I invite you to listen.

Outline of This Episode

  • [1:01] There are multiple reasons I have invited Jim Britt to be my guest on this episode
  • [4:30] The impact having 4 children across a wide age span impacts Jim’s attitude
  • [8:43] Is the focus to be work-life balance or work-life synchrony?
  • [15:28] Why mentoring is a win-win if it is done right
  • [20:02] An account of once when the light came on for a mentee
  • [24:43] The defining moment from Jim’s past that explains who he is
  • [29:08] Value comes from understanding the stories of others
  • [32:35] 3 actions you can take immediately after hearing this episode

Work-life balance or work-life synchrony?

When we add the word “balance” to the end of the phrase “work-life” I believe we unintentionally create a zero-sum-gain. The words “life” and “work” become dichotomous to each other where one is not able to be part of the other. Instead of believing that’s the default way things are, I prefer to think in terms of “work-life synchrony” where life and work not only can be in contact with each other but should be.

On that topic, Jim finds himself leaning more toward my idea of synchrony than he does the concept of balance – but he openly confesses that his application of it is not a perfect science. He’s always concentrating on work in some form or another even when he’s not technically on the clock – but he also seeks to be “100% there” for his family when he is with them. Given the technologically connected world we live in, that can seem like an impossible task. Nevertheless, it’s Jim’s goal.

Take the time to listen. You’ll hear Jim describe how he works to enable his career and life to parallel each other and how his desire to be the very best at whatever he’s doing impacts both of those realms.

Mentoring is a servant-leadership practice that is a win-win if done right

Jim has been on both sides of the management fulcrum as both a team leader or manager and as the one who is a team member being led and held accountable by a senior person on the team. He’s come to understand what it means to be managed and how as a leader now, he must learn how to best manage each person individually, even though it’s an increasingly daunting task the larger the team becomes.

He’s come to see that the mentee typically approaches the mentoring relationship with fresh eyes, eager to learn and absorb the things that can help them move forward. Jim’s developed the ability to look through his mentee’s eyes to see new things that will help him grow as well. He loves to see the lights go on for his mentees, watching with delight as they grow in their skills and ability under his teaching – and how the very experience of teaching enables him to grow. My experience is that mentoring done right is almost always a 50/50 venture, where both mentor and mentee learn equally. 

The defining moment for Jim: A divorce and a move from California to Oklahoma

I’m always eager for my guests to describe the pivotal moments of their lives. Jim was quickly able to pinpoint the most pivotal moment on his journey, and it’s a circumstance many would think of as a negative thing – but he doesn’t see it that way. 

When Jim was 13 years old his parents divorced. He moved with his mother from California to Oklahoma which was a dramatic change for him. Before moving, he was in his own words, “a beach bum” who was “ripe for trouble.” The move put him into a circumstance where he had to work alongside his mother to support the household. He not only worked, he got involved in track and field at the local high school (to stay out of trouble) and eventually became the State High Jump Champion his senior year. 

He says the opportunity to learn honest hard work, how to be a team member and in individual contributor to the success of the whole, and the groundwork those experiences laid for learning to work smarter over time, set him up for the future success he’s been able to enjoy.

Servant leadership means leading the way you would like to be led

Servant-leadership theory has one area of focus: the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. It’s about the growth and development of those being led, for their benefit and the benefit of the entire organization. Jim’s application of servant-leadership concepts means that he tries to lead others in the ways he likes to be led. That means working to understand the stories of those around him.

Jim says that the assumptions he makes about those he works alongside are not always true, so digging deeper into their stories in appropriate ways enables him to serve them more effectively. He’s able to hear the backdrop against which his team members play out the stories of their lives. As he values those stories, team members feel respected and supported and Jim can serve them in ways that matter to them on a personal level.

From the first conversation I had with Jim, I’ve noticed how he epitomizes the concept of servant-leadership. After speaking with him for this episode’s recording, I’ve come to think of his name ever time I hear the term. Join us to hear one of the most authentic expressions of servant-leadership theory.

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