Servant Leadership is “Low Pressure” Leadership

By John Rue

Low pressure fuels the physics and the chemistry of the most inspired and most sustainable high-performance leaders, individuals, teams, and cultures.

If you are thinking “low pressure” is just something in moderation between no pressure and high pressure – it’s not. Servant leaders believe the kind of low pressure you want is on a different continuum altogether. It’s what you want to build in your core, in your culture, and in your team. Its power is so under-deployed because its definition is misunderstood. I came across this concept looking out the window during practice while a team was writing about what kind of leader they love to follow and why. The morning was a crisp blue with beautiful clouds chasing across the sky.

“Pardon my interruption,” I said, “but look out the window at the sky. What do you see?”

The team looked at me with bewildered expressions but played along. “A beautiful morning.” Another chirped, “clouds moving.”

“So what’s making them move?” I asked them looking with them out the window and pointing.

“The wind, of course,” they replied in unison. Another blurted out, “the earth spinning.” They knew they hadn’t discovered what I wanted them to see. Still looking at the clouds, I prodded them to go deeper. “It’s true the spinning of the earth produces weather patterns in the jet stream, but these clouds are way too low. Think about the song the famous meteorologist Bob Dylan wrote, ‘the answer, my friend, is they are blowing in the wind, not by the wind.’  But WHY?” Smiling, I kept looking out the window.

“There is a connection between the kind of leader you love to follow and why the clouds are moving.”

As they began speaking & listening at their tables, they began to see the connection. Of course, the leaders we love to follow inspire us. They attract us. They draw us through who they are, by what they believe, and by the power of the vision which connects us. Leaders who use high pressure try to push their teams along like driving cattle. No one wrote about that kind of leader. Leaders who use NO pressure have no vision or no spine. No one wrote about that kind of leader either.

When it was time for the tables to broadcast what they learned, one couldn’t contain their excitement. “The clouds are being drawn to the East by a powerful low-pressure system. This is why they remain distinct but move together as one.   The clouds are connected to the wind, in the same way the clouds are deeply connected to the leader and to each other. Together, they are being drawn to the same vision.”

Good work, team. Good work, leaders. As we went deeper, we discovered “low pressure” is the way of the greatest leaders. King Xerxes of Persia used high pressure to make slaves and mercenaries fight, while King Leonidas of the Spartans used low pressure to fight alongside his team as one out of love. Abraham followed God because he heard his call, and he went out to seek Him. Jesus called the twelve, and said “Follow me.”  When Martin Luther King gave his speech, he created dissonance with his dream about what is and what could be if man’s laws were consistent with higher laws.

There is a place for high pressure, but it’s secondary. We need to be pushed to do what we can, but we will dig in our heels if we haven’t already felt the pull of low pressure to leave the comfort zone of our current state to pursue our dream state.

Low pressure speaks a different language. How is it different than the language of high pressure? of no pressure?

The language of “no pressure” is the language of validation – it affirms the team and the status quo with rewards for doing nothing and pushes back against challenge.

The language of “high pressure” is the language of law and compliance. “Have to/should/need to/got to” are the common refrains. It appeals to pride & fear and relies on carrot and stick and incentive compensation systems to motivate people believing there is no way they would inherently want to do it.

The language of “low pressure” is the language of the highest form of commitment. It is the language of the soul, of the heart, of the conscience, of “all-in” want to/get to/must do. It is a language which connects, draws, and inspires others to believe in a higher calling greater than us all.  To inspire is to breathe life into. It is the language of love. When the redeemed Pharisee – the apostle Paul – wrote young Timothy about the goal of our instruction, he said it is “love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5).

What language do you speak when you are trying to motivate yourself? What language do you speak to your team? To loved ones? Learn to hear and speak the language of low pressure.

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