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The Service of Leadership

The Service of Leadership

Russ Klein

illustration of rocketships

A reflection on the concept of leadership in our new work reality, by the CEO of the AMA

In a whiplash “post-pandemic environment,” employees, customers and investors have looked to their leaders for guidance and comfort. Leaders who want their organizations to meet this moment and succeed long-term need to move away from the status quo and change their approach to how they’ll lead the necessary transformations.

Transformational leaders are continually thinking about what their organizations should become, anticipating how employees and customers will react and change as context and the world around us changes. My own experience on this topic has been a journey of growth. I once thought, as a leader experienced in successful turnarounds, that change management and transformations were one in the same. They are not. I learned this firsthand in a humbling chapter of my time as CEO of the American Marketing Association. In short, I tried to transform the AMA before it had the capacity for transformation, mistaking my experience in turnarounds via change management for true transformation. They are both important skill sets. There can be change without transformation, but not transformation with only change.

Transformational leadership requires a vivid idealization of a future state. It requires inspiration, whereas successful change management can be brought about with effective motivation only. Transformation must be achieved through co-creation, a process desired but optional in change management. Lastly, transformation must enroll employees and stakeholders in a vision in which they can see themselves playing meaningful and fulfilling roles. 

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Transformationalists must project confidence and optimism in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, volatility and complexity. In fact, solving for complexity has been cited by experts as the most important skill for a CEO. 

Corporate America and every organization is hopefully aware of the concept of servant leadership, which recently experienced its 50th anniversary as a form of “modern leadership.” Robert K. Greenleaf first coined the phrase “servant leadership” in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as a Leader.” However, it’s an approach that people have used for centuries. As a servant leader, you’re a “servant first”—you focus on the needs of others, especially team members, before you consider your own.

Organizational dynamics and what constitutes an effective leader have continued to evolve. Work done by various research entities suggests the concept of servant leadership has endured even after hitting its golden anniversary. Today’s leaders are expected to be open, transparent, empathic and teachers, all qualities congruent with servant leadership. However, I see a distinct evolutionary stage of servant leadership in a concept called Leadership as a Service (LaaS). 

While fractional leadership consultancies are not new and have become a cottage industry in their own right, there is another way to evaluate such resources in the context of LaaS. Perceptions of pro-tem leadership talent parachuted in from outside organizations generally do not enjoy the same esteem as full-time leaders inside organizations. LaaS is a framework for full-time leaders to create value in their organizations with more precision—especially as organizations gain a better understanding of the distinctive difference between change management and true transformation. 

Leadership as a Service makes clear the value of responsibility versus accountability. The example I use is from when I was president of Burger King. The person on the shake machine is responsible for making shakes, but they are responsible for noticing other pressing needs such as an elderly person struggling to open the front door. A responsible employee knows they can stop making shakes for 30 seconds and go to help the customer get in. 

Power of continuity is establishing a safe and stable workplace in which we can deepen institutional knowledge, develop mastery of skills, and grow trust through shared experiences and tacit knowledge. Leadership as a Service recognizes that “employees are the new consumer.” Employees in 2021 have experienced extraordinary mental or emotional pressures and they expect to use smarter, more flexible working practices and to work for leaders who are effective, authentic and compassionate. They want their leaders when and where they need them but insist on empowerment with autonomous, independent decision-making, not micro-management. Transformational leadership often involves major structural change (acquisitions, disposals, partnerships and organizational redesign); widespread deployment of new technologies; considerable effort; and cultural change. 

Transformational leaders—both in the C-suite and in critical roles in the organization (i.e., a head of a business unit)—should clearly explain how they’ve reached decisions in an effort to build a learning organization that rewards curiosity and uses failure as a teacher, too. Doing so will send a positive signal to others to practice finding and using their own mentors. This is an allied tool to internal co-creation. 

Today’s leaders should no longer have the orientation, “Build to last”—they must build to adapt. In this role, they must navigate ever-changing uncertainty to work the edges of the organization. Not unlike military leaders in the Middle Ages, transformational leaders don’t sit back and send others to the edges of conflict (or unclear opportunities)—they are out front, at the edge of the known, seeking to make sense of what others may not see.

LaaS means leaders are always seeking a contextual understanding of their organization, keeping a finger on the pulse and awareness of those at the “edges” or frontline who require clear communication, alignment and inspiration to deliver on the vision. As politicians and rock bands continue to tour in front of their fans, there’s no substitute for being there as a CEO either. It’s why in seven years at the AMA, I have never said no to an AMA chapter invitation. 

Successful transformation requires harnessing the leadership team and organization’s collective intelligence, energy and experience. The type, degree and magnitude of change in a transformation demands too much for an individual or small team’s capacity, especially considering that it can take between seven and 10 years to take effect. That’s right, transformations are almost never completed in fewer than three years.

Transformational leaders empower others to operate with relative autonomy. Only in this way can an organization move at the speed of trust. They must encourage team members to think, learn and act differently, finding new ways to create value for customers by activating their entrepreneurial spirit. 

Consider evolving your own style to Leadership as a Service to get the most efficient and effective return on your time, effort and talent.

As CEO for the American Marketing Association, Russ Klein is charged with the transformation of the AMA to become an essential community for marketers. Klein is a five-time award-winning CMO who has quarterbacked teams for many of the world’s foremost brand names, serving as president of Burger King from 2003-2010 and holding top marketing and advertising posts at Dr Pepper/7UP Companies, Gatorade, 7-Eleven Corporation and Arby’s Restaurant Group.