Exceptional Leaders Must First Become Exceptional Servants: Penn State’s Barbour

By Sandy Barbour, Penn State

The “secret” of leadership success is something that leaders, or those that occupy leadership positions in organizations, have grappled with forever. We have all asked, what truly IS leadership and, perhaps more importantly, how do we execute it effectively? I’ve come to believe strongly that it’s definitely an art, not a science, although there’s certainly some chemistry involved. There are principles that I believe need to be consistently followed and applied, but no two effective leaders lead in the same exact way, and no two situations for an individual leader can be approached in the same way, expecting the same result.


From my perspective those critical leadership principles are: people, vision, servant hearts (selflessness), purpose (our “Why”), and passion. There may be important aspects of effective leadership that reside on the periphery or just outside of one or more of these principles, but it’s my assertion that if you nail these five, you’ll have your organization or unit humming its way to great success, both for its individuals and for the organization as a whole.


People, people, people. When it comes down to it, people are all we have. We don’t lead budgets. We don’t lead facilities. We don’t lead widgets. We lead people. Our role is to inspire and motivate people to act in a way, every day, which contributes positively to the mission, vision and goals of the whole. It seems like a trite cliché, but the key to our people performing at their best is for them to know that you, as the leader, and on behalf of the entity, care about them well beyond their ability to contribute to the whole. Do you respect them as human beings, fathers, mothers, partners, daughters, uncles, first and foremost, and as productive employees, secondarily?


We all bring our outside or non-work lives, to work every day. It’s impossible to separate, and therefore unwise and ultimately ineffective, for leaders to try and keep them separate. This is particularly true in our industry where the hours are long, and the personal sacrifices are great. The most effective leaders I’ve witnessed or worked for, and certainly the most effective I’ve personally observed, are those who authentically establish a level of care and compassion for the human being in each of our employees. These can be small things (that add up big time for the individual) like time flexibility or a handwritten note of recognition or larger things that can be costly to the organization, like compensation.


The consistent offering of compassion and recognition that our lives are complicated, messy and hard, is sometimes worth more to our teams than anything else. And yet, in our fast-paced workplaces, these small touches are easily overlooked, and we need to be constantly checking-in with ourselves and our organizational leadership team to ensure that we are putting our people first, we’re messaging through words and actions, and that we’re taking time to make sure that our organizational culture around respect and dignity is fully intact.


At Penn State, they established many years ago a TEAM ICA group that meets monthly to work on events and activities that bring the entire Athletic Department together to socialize, celebrate and enjoy each other’s company. Whether it’s the holiday party, a home run derby, family day at a local theme park, or a food drive for the Centre County food bank, their work is important to keeping the department focused on people and family.


A critical role that leaders play is establishing the vision. The leader doesn’t have to have all the best ideas, but they better be able to pull together everyone’s best ideas and paint the picture of the aspirations for the organization, ultimately charting the road-map for achieving those aspirations. They need to do it in a way that can be well understood by all and will inspire and motivate them to action.


That being said, it’s never about the leader, his or her skills, talents or experience. Certainly not outwardly. They need to give others credit for their great ideas, and make it clear that it will require everyone’s best in order to achieve the desired result. It’s about how the leader can serve the organization and help drive the goals and aspirations that will make the organization successful and create pride and connection for its stakeholders. The vision, and the way it’s constantly delivered and messaged, must give hope and promise for success on the road ahead. In our strategic plan, Proud Past || Bright Future, we’ve created a very simple and straight forward vision of Preparing students for a Lifetime of Impact. It has resonated with our team across the board, and has assisted individuals and units in personalizing their WHY, in order to provide individual motivation for contributing to actualization of the vision.


A great vision sets the stage for the teamwork required to achieve the goals. However, they can only be realized if the organization is led by and populated with employees who, at their core, are servant leaders. These culture caretakers must know that their most important role is to serve others and to benefit the dreams and aspirations of their key stakeholders, or in our case the institution and its students. This can be a critical leadership challenge when it’s viewed as being in conflict with individual goals, both personally and professionally. It’s imperative that leaders communicate, message and model in ways that make it abundantly clear that organizational success does lead to individual success.


In contrast, individual achievement may not lead to organizational success, and may not yield the professional advancement that the individual desires. The leader must model the service orientation and servant heart attributes consistently, in order for the culture to take hold. The most powerful and effective leaders I’ve ever been around are the ones who deflect all credit to others, and absorb every ounce of the criticism themselves. “Penn State before self” is a culture in Happy Valley rather than a mantra. Penn Staters, and particularly our 350+ strong ICA employees, established that culture long ago, and they continue to live it today to the betterment of our students and community.


A key element to developing a servant’s heart approach to your work and life, is having a keen understanding of your “Why”. Although the “Why” has been a key element of a number of leadership principles and used by many authors, it came into clear focus for me when I was introduced to Simon Sinek’s first book “It Starts with Why”. Sinek, also the author of “Leaders Eat Last”, a great read focused on servant leaders and servant hearts, suggests that when we focus on what we do, we actually have it backwards, and that we need to start with and focus on our purpose, our why. By establishing the why, the organization and all its individuals can focus on the core institutional purpose, in our case some version of students and their growth and development, and decisions about resources (creation and utilization), initiatives and activities, become much clearer because the purpose and the intended results are universally understood. Focusing on the purpose rallies all areas of the organization around their part in contributing to the success of the whole.


There is also the element of an individual developing their personal WHY, which should ideally align with the institutional why. We’ve all used the term “fit”, as in someone is “a great fit” for our institution. More times than not, that happens when the individual has defined their purpose as something that integrates seamlessly with the organization’s overarching why. It’s crucial that all leaders in the organization, at all levels, can clearly articulate both their institutional and personal why to a variety of stakeholders. We’ve used the concept of starting with and focusing on the WHY, to bring clarity to priorities within Penn State ICA and help individuals determine their purpose and motivations for the work they do. It’s also a great concept for helping team members identify the skill building and improvements they need to make in order to better serve the WHY.


Although all five of my suggested leadership principles are important, this last one serves as the glue for the other four. With passion, all things are possible. Without passion, the accomplishments are few and far between, and the enjoyment and fulfillment from them is limited. If the leader is clearly passionate about the purpose and the people, then the organization will be collectively passionate about the work required to fulfill the vision.


Given the nature of our endeavor, the hours, the 24/7 access and news cycle, the sacrifices that we and our families make, it’s crucial that there’s a love and enjoyment about the work at hand. This is where a dogmatic connection to the why, and to our teammates, is so important to success. It’s also where leadership must constantly be monitoring to strike a balance of work and play. I’ve always said the we should take what we do very seriously (people are counting on us, it’s important work!), but that we can’t take ourselves too seriously. Leadership needs to understand that there are times when the pressure needs to be released, opportunities to gather socially and enjoy each other’s company need to be provided, and that 24/7/365 “Mach 2 with your hair on fire” can’t be the every day mode of operation.


Sometimes there is an organizational culture where this happens organically from within, but if it doesn’t, it’s incumbent upon the leader to make sure these opportunities exist and that their people are given permission to enjoy the moment. People who work hard, should also have the opportunity to play hard. The combination, keeps them passionate about what they do. Like any glue element, the combination of people, vision, servant hearts, and purpose keep us fueled with passion for the work we do. We’re fortunate at Penn State that passionate people, with a dedication to the work, and a commitment to students and their growth and development, are drawn to the place, and drawn to our incredible students. It’s the responsibility of leadership to keep those fires burning hot.


None of us have all the answers when it comes to leadership. But I do know that a selfless, humble leader, with a clear vision, who passionately focuses on people and purpose, will create a culture where people will succeed and ultimately the organization will thrive. It’s definitely an art, where the leader gets to choose the medium and the colors and then go to work!