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MCLEOD: Why servant leadership is slightly off

Lisa McLeod

Lisa McLeod

What constitutes a great leader?

Is it charisma? Someone with a great vision who fearlessly leads the team up the hill?

Or perhaps it's servant leadership, a humble leader who patiently and selflessly puts him or herself into the service of others?

Leadership is the most overanalyzed, thoroughly dissected and utterly confusing topic in business. From trust falls to rope courses, people are always looking for activities and metaphors that symbolize great leadership.

Servant leadership is the current trend, but personally, I don't like the term, in fact, I loathe it.

While I'm in absolute agreement with the principles of servant leadership, whenever I hear the phrase "servant leader," I envision a long-suffering manager wearily going about their job with no spark or power whatsoever.

Charismatic leadership seems sexier, but it's a breeding ground for narcissism.

But after years of searching, I've finally found a leadership metaphor that fits: Leaders Open Doors.

It comes courtesy of leadership expert Bill Treasurer. In his new book, "Leaders Open Doors: A Radically Simple Leadership Approach to Lift People Profits, and Performance," Treasurer provides a model that is both humble and powerful.

The concept for "Leaders Open Doors" came out of a short conversation with his son.

Treasurer writes, "My five-year-old son, Ian, is a preschooler at the Asheville Montessori School in Asheville, N.C., where we live. Each Monday his teachers pick one person to be the 'class leader' for the day. I only became aware of this because one sunny afternoon Ian came bounding up the stairs proclaiming, 'Guess what, Daddy -- I got to be the class leader today!'

"Being the class leader would be a big deal for any five-year-old kid. For Ian, who is used to playing second fiddle to his more dominant firstborn twin brother and sister, Alex and Bina, being selected as the first fiddle was even more special. Ian's exuberance caught my attention.

"'Really? Class leader? That's a big deal, little buddy. What did you get to do as the class leader?'

"Ian's answer was simple, funny, and in its own way, profound.

"'I got to open doors for people!'

"In a matter of fifteen seconds, with seven simple words, Ian clarified what's most important about leadership."

Think about it, what do you want from your boss? Someone who can quote the 17 steps of change management? Or someone who shows up every day ready to open doors so that you can charge through?

Treasurer, a long time leadership consultant (Giant Leap Consulting) and best-selling author of "Courage Goes to Work" says, "I think we've made leadership hard. I was part of the legion of leadership complexifiers with our quadrant and statistical models."

Yet he says, "I got as much out of a conversation with my son as I did three years in grad school."

The aim of the book is simple: "to help you open doors of opportunity for the people you lead."

But just because the idea is simple doesn't mean it's easy. Open door leadership takes work. It requires mastering the duality of power and service, being both confident and humble at the same time. It also means helping your people become more confident and pulling through opportunity rather than pushing through fear.

Treasurer provides a powerful reframe of a quality that is still in short supply: leadership.

Because at the end of the day, the world still need more great leaders.

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of several books, including "Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud."