Are Executive Assistants Natural Servant-Leaders?

In this article, author Jan Jones discusses Servant Leadership and the relevance for executive assistants.

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FlyPrivate: Servant Leadership remains a topic of interest for our EA readers because executives continue to develop an interest in this philosophy. You wrote about servant-leaders in your book and you’ve written about it for us. In the spirit of the Holidays, would you say something for assistants whose executives are practicing servant leadership? How do executive assistants work with executives who are servant-leaders? What is the relevance for the EA role?

Jan Jones: A good place for EAs to begin their understanding is this insight from Carolyn Myss, a New York Times bestselling author in the fields of human consciousness, spirituality and medical intuition.

By service I don’t mean servant, like, ‘I will pick up your clothes and I will pick up your shoes and let me bring you a cup of tea.’ Service means, ‘I will empower you. I will be able to pray power into your life.’ There is such a difference between the love of power and the power of love, and that is the journey of life, right there. – Carolyn Myss

Certainly, it is the journey of a special caliber of executive assistants – self-managed professionals who’ve been called to leadership through the role they play in the business world. It’s not necessarily a path they’ve chosen consciously, yet they’ve found themselves ideally suited to this particular expression of the role of the executive assistant. Their hearts are in their work.

At this time of year when we reflect on the past 12 months, and envision our path in the coming year, this is an invitation to assistants who see the EA role as a job only, to consider the opportunity to participate in the EA role in a more fulfilling way. To experience what it’s like to perform the role in a manner that empowers those who receive your efforts, while empowering you even more. You can start by asking yourself why you are doing this work. Let me help you put this topic into perspective by going back a little.

Servant-Leader and Servant Leadership are terms coined by Robert Greenleaf in an essay he wrote in 1970. His inspiration was Herman Hesse’s book, “Journey to the East.” Greenleaf was an executive at AT&T where he spent forty years in management research, development and education. After that he was an influential consultant.

In my book “The CEO’s Secret Weapon,” I told the story of Leo the servant in Hesse’s book. Hesse wrote, “In addition to his menial chores, Leo sustained the group (of travelers) with his spirit.” When Leo left the group, they fell into disarray and the journey was abandoned because they could not make it without Leo.

This reminded me of the role an executive assistant plays in an organization. They perform tasks that are sometimes perceived as menial, yet “They hold together and sustain the multiple activities and personalities that keep an enterprise going,” as Greenleaf wrote.

I was introduced to Greenleaf’s work by management guru Dr. Ken Blanchard. When I was writing my book, Dr. Blanchard invited me to spend a day at his home, where he gave me advice and direction. He showed me first-hand who servant-leaders are. They are leaders who listen closely to their teams, care about them on a personal level, care about their development and value their contributions. Dr. Blanchard referred to his long-time assistant, Dana Kyle, as a “soulmate.”

Like many EAs, appreciation for the servant leadership concept didn’t come easily to me. I struggled with “servant-leader” because the words usually mean the opposite of each other. People don’t want to be perceived as servants, particularly assistants whose role through the years has sometimes been spoken of in derogatory terms. That’s why I recommend EAs pay attention to the Carolyn Myss quote. It offers deep perspective around one of the core principles of the EA role – empowering others by your efforts. When I read about Leo in Herman Hesse’s book, I suddenly became clear about what a servant-leader is, and how true executive assistants have been examples of the concept for generations.

In my book, author Simon Sinek said that a huge mistake executives make is “Treating their assistant as a subordinate. What they don’t recognize is if you look after the person and look after their growth as a human being, they will want to do everything in their power to keep you healthy, happy and productive.”

Simon’s description zeroes in on what an executive assistant does for their executive and team. It’s about having the heart of someone who wants to serve and be of service. I would say that’s how assistants of the pre-millennial generation typically expressed the essence of the assistant role. The role was never about them personally. It was about how they could be in service to the requirements of the role. They understood that they served the larger organization, but their first loyalty was to their direct executive, who was their conduit to the wider organization. They looked out for the executive and kept them protected. Yes, some assistants took their protection too far by keeping tight control on access to their executive. That’s because they saw themselves as the protector of their executive’s time. And with that in mind, there was little the assistant would not do in service of their executive’s position.   

While they had the best intentions, that thinking could sometimes be exclusionary, which is contrary to the idea of servant leadership. But understand also that in previous generations business style was more formal than it is now, particularly in the executive suite. Many executives wanted an assistant who could bring an authoritative demeanor to the role, to create the perception of exclusivity around the executive.

It is important for today’s assistants to understand the concepts of servant leadership because its influence is widespread, and many companies such as Starbucks, Nordstrom, The Container Store, Marriott, have been vocal about instituting servant-leadership practices and offering servant-leader training.

With the growing influence of servant leadership, EAs may find themselves working for an executive who is committed to being a servant-leader. It can be a radically different experience, one that takes getting used to because you are asked to be mindful of your better nature at all times.

Embodying what it truly means to be a servant-leader is not easy. It takes someone with a giving heart. Someone of sturdy character who is consistent, capable and self-assured. Servant leadership doesn’t happen overnight. It is a long-term transformation for people and organizations, so gear up for a long-haul journey of business and self-discovery. I recommend you start a journal about your transformation process.

Servant leadership is not a one-way street. The server is as valuable as those being served. It is not about subjugating yourself. It is about claiming yourself, living to your highest purpose while supporting others to do the same. I once read that the essence of servant leadership is shared vision. Working in support of a shared vision is one of the fundamental tenets of the role of the executive assistant. Your job is to position your executive for success. That can only happen if you are united in a shared vision.

The former CEO of the Greenleaf organization, Larry Spears, referenced 10 characteristics of servant leaders. Practically speaking, I see these as the most relevant for executive assistants:

Awareness: Particularly self-awareness and situational awareness. Assistants, pay close attention to your impact on people and how you conduct yourself. You’ve certainly noticed that many executives lack self-awareness about how they are perceived. Don’t make that mistake. You represent your executive and you represent yourself. Make sure you always put your best foot forward. Situational awareness is what’s happening around you. Keep alert so you are able to respond effectively, as circumstances dictate.

Listening: Listening is vital to the growth of a servant-leader. Listen receptively and respectfully to others. It also means getting in touch with your own inner voice, to understand what it is communicating to you. Listening and reflecting are essential to the role of the servant-leader, and a crucial characteristic for an executive assistant. Former Popeyes’ CEO Cheryl Bachelder says “Listening well is the path to serving well.”

Persuasion: Using persuasion rather than authority. Assistants should be expert at this since, typically, many of you don’t have any direct or positional authority, yet you manage to get things done through collaboration, resourcefulness and treating others respectfully. Persuasion and influence go hand in hand.

Healing: The potential for healing one’s self and others is a powerful force for transformation. Assistants routinely come across people who need help and encouragement. Speak healing words. Find ways to be of service, without neglecting your core work responsibilities, or becoming overwhelmed by other people’s issues. Empathy is about understanding how others feel. It is not about unnecessarily taking on someone else’s problems.

Foresight: Understanding the lessons of the past to look ahead and avoid problems in the future. A frequent complaint I hear from executives is that assistants don’t look ahead. Assistants must develop the ability to anticipate. Being prepared gives you a big advantage in supporting your executive and independently spearheading projects. Your position in the executive suite gives you a bird’s-eye view advantage. Use that data strategically to plan your course of action.

To summarize, let’s be very clear. Servant leadership is not asking you to be submissive. You are being encouraged to build and be a part of something. Something you care about. Tune into the needs of your executive and team so they feel looked after by you. To apply servant-leader characteristics to your role, remember servant leadership is for people at all levels, not just for people with a “C” in their title, like CEO.

As a servant-leader, the assistant understands their stewardship to their executive and to the organization of which they are a part. Whether it is business needs, or basic human needs, what can you do to give your executive and team respite from the pressures of the business day? Offer them anything that says “I’m here to support you.”

Providing support is not limiting the assistant. It is expanding the assistant. There are many directions in which a resourceful assistant, with forward-looking skills, can take the role if they are looking out for the best interests of their executives and the organization. Remember, you are a part of that equation. There is much that can be done by an assistant with bold vision and a sense of purpose, who wants to take the lead.

When an executive adopts the role of servant-leader, the executive and assistant are in streamlined service and support of each other. I know, because I’ve worked with a servant-leader executive. Believe me, you will gladly work your heart out for this person, because you know they have your back as much as you have theirs. They truly see you as a human being, not just a productive “resource” whose mettle they will test to the point of breaking. In a servant-leader relationship, the executive and the assistant are successfully partnered to deliver superior performance. They are aligned and fully engaged, bringing their best to work every day in the true spirit of servant leadership.


©The CEO’s Secret Weapon. The ideas expressed in this article and any text extracted from “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” are the intellectual property and copyrighted to Jan Jones. All rights reserved. No unauthorized usage or duplication by any means is permitted without the express consent of the author.

Author: Jan Jones

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Jan Jones is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness.” The book has received widespread acclaim from executives and executive assistants worldwide. Jan spent 20+ years as an esteemed international executive assistant to well-known business people, including Tony Robbins, the world’s #1 business and life strategist. Jan continues to champion the executive assistant profession with her writing, consulting and speaking. She offers timeless, practical advice that is relevant to the day-to-day role of the executive assistant. 

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The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness

Jan Jones

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