Paradigm shifting with an age-old leadership model
by Lisa Seppala, True North Implementation
Why is the sea king of a hundred streams?
Because it lies below them.
Therefore it is the king of a hundred streams.
If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility.
If he would lead them, he must follow behind.
– Tao Te Ching, 600 BCE/1997, 66
I first came across the concept of ‘servant leadership’ while working on a project for my MBA. The readings I did at the time put words to my own beliefs about leadership. Since then, I’ve intentionally applied the concept while in numerous leadership roles, particularly while implementing change initiatives in large corporate environments.
Now, the concept has come to the fore for me once more, but this time for a micro-organization primarily comprised of volunteers and contractors – all working within the strata complex where I both live and serve as the volunteer strata council president.
While creating a Terms of Reference for the new strata council term, I wanted to build an organization chart to visually depict how the various volunteer groups, employees, contractors, etc. work together to keep the complex maintained and operating. In addition, I wanted the organization chart to reflect the key external stakeholder relationships and the purpose of the strata corporation and council as identified in the BC Strata Property Act.
Throughout my career I’ve struggled with the traditional hierarchical organization structure, as too often it signals that all are in service of the single person at the top of the organization. As a key communication tool for those inside and outside of the organization, it’s a missed opportunity to demonstrate that the organization must serve some greater good, purpose or ultimate customer or client.
As I was working with various graphics to depict the strata corporation organization chart, I came across an old favourite, the ‘inverted pyramid’, which is often used to depict an organization following the servant leadership model. I decided to give it a go.
The servant leadership model perfectly reflects the need for all layers of the pyramid to work to a common goal which, as defined by the BC Strata Property Act, is to “…manage and maintain the common property and common assets of the strata corporation for the benefit of the owners” and further, “the council must exercise the powers and perform the duties of the strata corporation, including enforcement of bylaws and rules”. Reflecting on the servant leadership model, I determined that the ultimate client we are all serving is the strata corporation itself, including the physical assets, the operations, and the systems and rules that make living within the complex as a community possible. In less technical terms, the ultimate client we are serving is our home. And every layer involved has a duty to serve that client.
Aha! This shift in my own thinking made me realize that the key for the council, which is at the bottom of the inverted pyramid, is to ensure that all the layers of the pyramid are working in alignment for the common good of the ultimate client, our home. I now have a better appreciation for the struggles we as a council experienced last year. Too many times the layers were misaligned and that created extra work and stress.
On behalf of the owners, the strata council sets the tone, establishes the strategic direction, and creates and oversees foundational processes. The property manager, employees and contractors all perform work to help realize the strategic direction. Owners and tenants need to provide the funding, and abide by the program direction, including the rules and bylaws. External stakeholders need to perform their roles to ensure the building is operated in accordance with regulatory requirements. If any one of these levels fails to fulfill its role, then the struggles ensue, and our home and our community are not served. Every layer of the pyramid has a role in ensuring the assets, operations and community are functioning as they should.
This paradigm shift brings me back to familiar territory. It also demonstrates why at times the role of the council can be difficult and time consuming to uphold. Look at all the weight on the council’s shoulders. However, if all layers are aligned, the property will be maintained, operations will run smoothly, and the community will function as it should. And now that we have the picture of how this all fits together, let’s get on with the alignment!
* The servant leadership philosophy is found in the Tao Te Ching, the writings of Lao Tsu (or Tzu), from approximately 600 BCE. Section 66, quoted above, reflects servant leadership perfectly. The translation of the Tao Te Ching referenced in this article is the 25th Anniversary Edition of Lao Tsu Tao Te Ching (Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, Trans.) (1997). Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York (original work published in 600 BCE)