Servant Leadership: The Key to Executive Assistant Influence

In this article, Author Jan Jones, discusses Servant Leadership, explaining the relevance for executive assistants and the parallel to emotional intelligence.

FlyPrivate is a proud partner and associate of Jan Jones. Jan brings valuable, actionable information to EAs across the globe. We hope you enjoy her blogs as much as we do! 

FlyPrivate: In your book, you talked about Servant Leadership and explained the parallel to the role of the executive assistant. When you discussed this topic with us previously, many assistants had not heard about Servant Leadership, or understood how the concept could apply to executive assistants.

As Servant Leadership is more widely practiced by executives and business today, our readers are showing a growing interest in this concept. Would you help them to understand the specific relevance for executive assistants and how it will help them expand their influence at work?

Jan Jones: I’m constantly reminding assistants to take an interest in the ideas and practices that interest their executives. It keeps assistants in the know, and better able to relate to their executive’s way of thinking. It improves the EA’s understanding of how to work in partnership with their executive, because they understand the psychology behind how their executive is approaching certain issues. 

The concept of servant leadership parallels emotional intelligence in many ways, particularly with social awareness and empathy. Assistants will find servant leadership useful and interesting, because many assistants have a natural desire to be of service. Assistants help their executives and teams to perform to their highest capability, which is one of servant leadership’s foundational principles.

I recently heard my former boss, Tony Robbins, describe his success. He said “I love to serve. Do more for others than anyone else in the industry. When you do that year after year, decade after decade, you build a brand and millions of people come. That’s what happens when you add value. It’s always about adding value – how do I influence someone for a higher purpose?”

Servant-Leader and servant leadership are not new concepts. Robert Greenleaf coined the terms in an essay he wrote in 1970. He got the inspiration from reading Herman Hesse’s book, “Journey to the East.” 

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 some tasks that are mistakenly perceived as menial, yet “They hold together and sustain the multiple activities and personalities that keep an enterprise going.” This is precisely what executive assistants do in organizations all over the world.

I was introduced to Robert Greenleaf by management guru Dr. Ken Blanchard who is a respected friend of Tony Robbins. When I was writing my book, Dr. Blanchard invited me to his home and spent a full day guiding and advising me. This showed me firsthand who servant-leaders are. They live true to their principles. In my book I’m sure you noticed Dr. Blanchard’s relationship with his wonderful assistant, Dana Kyle, whom he likened to a “soul mate.” Reading his comments, you experience the servant-leader in action. They are leaders who listen closely to their teams, care about them on a personal level, care about their development and value their contributions. Which assistant wouldn’t want an executive like that?

Appreciation for the servant leadership concept didn’t come easily to an individualist like me. I struggled with the term because the words tend to imply 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 unflattering terms, analogous to servant. When I read about Leo in Herman Hesse’s book, I suddenly became clear about servant leadership and how true executive assistants have been examples of the concept for generations. It’s not about self-sacrifice, but about being of service. Helping people to accomplish their goals doesn’t diminish you. It strengthens your ability, elevates you and expands your influence.

In my book, Simon Sinek, author of “Start with Why”, 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.”

Does that sound like what an executive assistant does for their executive and their team? Like Tony Robbins, it’s about having the heart of someone who wants to be of service. That’s how in earlier generations assistants expressed the essence of the role. They were intensely loyal to the executive they served. They understood they served the larger organization, but their focus was centered on the executive whom they were hired to support. They looked out for them, and kept them protected from unnecessary distractions. They were the protector of their executive’s time, so these executives benefitted from that “white space” on their schedules that we hear so much about today. Quiet time to think and strategize, rather than being overwhelmed with doing. These assistants were tuned into their executives. They knew what they needed in order to be productive, and made sure they got it. This is how they were of service and in service to their executive’s objectives. And they were clear that in serving their executive, they were serving the executive’s direct reports, customers and the wider organization.

It is important for today’s assistants to understand the basic concepts of servant leadership because its influence is widespread. Companies such as Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, SAS, Marriott, Zappos, Nordstrom, FedEx have instituted servant leadership practices and offer 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 and one that takes getting used to, because you are asked to step up and be mindful of your better nature at all times. Embodying what it truly means to be a servant-leader is not easy, and cannot be trivialized as the latest buzzword. Servant leadership doesn’t happen overnight. It is a long-term transformation for people and organizations.

Assistants, let’s be clear. Servant leadership is not about subjugating yourself. It is about claiming yourself, living to your highest purpose while supporting others to do the same. Servant leadership is not a one-way street. The server is as valuable as those they are serving. If you are supporting a true servant-leader, they are also in service to you, helping you to perform at your optimum level.

Servant leadership is uniquely human. No AI, with all its digital efficiencies, data and metrics, will match the assurance and comfort a servant-leader brings to the workplace, allowing colleagues to perform at peak levels in a supportive environment. EAs should consider what developing servant-leader characteristics can do for their career prospects in a VUCA world.

Here are some characteristics of servant leadership as explained by the former CEO of Greenleaf’s organization, Larry Spears, and my take on the relevance for EAs.

Listening: Listening intently and receptively is vital to the growth of a servant-leader, and a crucial characteristic for an executive assistant. Former Popeyes’ CEO Cheryl Bachelder says “Listening well is the path to serving well.”

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. Find ways to be of service, without neglecting your core responsibilities, or becoming overwhelmed by other people’s issues. I knew an EA who volunteered for a suicide hotline. She had to stop because she became too depressed and it was seriously impacting her job as assistant to a senior VP. Empathy doesn’t mean taking on someone else’s problems.

Awareness: Not only situational awareness, but self-awareness. Because executives have high visibility, we are more aware of their lack of self-awareness than our own. I found myself demonstrating a lack of self-awareness recently. It brought home the value of vigilance, which keeps us from acting like a high school kid. Be aware of your impact on people.

Persuasion: Using persuasion rather than authority. Assistants should be used to this since many don’t have any direct or positional authority, yet they manage to get things done through collaboration, resourcefulness and treating others respectfully.

Foresight: Understanding the lessons of the past to look ahead and avoid problems in the future. Executives want assistants to develop their 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.

How will you apply these characteristics to your role as executive assistant? Remember servant leadership is for people at all levels, not only for people with a “C” in their title (CEO, CFO). As a servant-leader, the assistant must understand their stewardship to their executive and to the organization of which they are a part. Servant leadership is not asking you to be submissive. You are being encouraged to build and be a part of something. Build something you value and care about.

As much as we speak about “partnerships” and “relationships” it must be remembered that the assistant has been hired to provide the support the executive needs in carrying out the company’s mandate. Your effort must be in service of this requirement. This is not limiting you. It is expanding you. A spirited, resourceful assistant can take the role in many directions if they are looking out for the best interests of their executives and the organization of which the assistant is an integral part. There is much that can be done by an assistant with bold vision and a sense of purpose who wants to take the lead. It is only limiting if “what’s best for me” is your predominant focus.

Ideally, the executive has already adopted the role of servant-leader, so together the executive and assistant are in service and support of each other. I’ve had the privilege of working with a servant-leader executive and I can tell you, you will gladly work your heart out for this person, because you know they have your back as much as you have theirs. You realize they truly see you as a human being, and not merely a high achieving, production machine whose mettle they will test to the point of breaking. When this happens, 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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Visit Amazon to purchase Jan Jones’ book and visit her website:
The CEO’s Secret Weapon.

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

Jan Jones

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