Book Reviews: Farmer Able and The Servant Leadership Journal

art barter books

Art Barter’s book Farmer Able is a story of transformation. It’s the story of a domineering farmer who is fixated on bottom-line results and efficiency. He’s an Industrial Age, command-and-demand manager, constantly basing all of his success on what’s in his bank account. The problem is, the more he pushes those around him, the more they dig in their heels, which is literally the case when it comes to his animals. This state of affairs is the way of Able’s life until one magical day when he hears a voice in the wind that whispers to him, “It’s not all about me.” This is the beginning of a change that leads him to begin considering the needs of others on his farm, which ultimately improves not only morale but also production.

Although I am not a big fan of business fables using barnyard animals, this one, much like Animal House, reveals a profound lesson. In this story, Barter reveals one of the chief dysfunctions in organizations, profits over people, and how striking improvements can be made when leaders instead work to help employees see their real potential and then help them deliver on it.

If you want to be a better leader in a way that creates an ethical, engaging and innovative workplace, this book is a good start. In addition, if, like me, you are tired of “business as usual,” this tale will help you inspire your employees to produce better results and find significance in their careers.

To help you on this journey even further and as an adjunct to Farmer Able, Barter has also published The Servant Leadership Journal where he teaches nine behaviors necessary for becoming a servant leader. Through journaling, Barter shows you how these behaviors can change your thinking about leadership both in your personal and professional life. In this book, you are shown four distinct steps to effective journaling: 1) Educate yourself by defining each behavior, 2) Understand where you sit with each behavior, 3) Be Courageous by being honest with yourself, and 4) Apply what you learn in your everyday life.

With both of these texts, you will learn a better leadership philosophy, learn about yourself, and make changes to become a leader people want to follow.


The Oscars, Guardrails, and a Flourishing Garden


The Oscar ceremony was quite the shocker this year when the wrong movie was announced as best picture, and, as I am often want to do, I found a lesson in it for business.

We all make mistakes.  We all have times when, no matter how much we try to put systems in place or have procedures to avoid them, errors are made, and often they are made in front of an audience.  The systems and procedures we worked so hard to put in place fail us right in front of a customer.  And then what, how do our employees react and respond?  This is really the key, not the mistake, but what follows.

Think about the Oscars, Warren Beatty obviously saw a problem and didn’t know what to do so he handed the envelope to Faye Dunaway and she just went with what she saw without paying attention to the details.  This was an example of a snowball coming down a mountain picking up more potential for disaster all the way down.

How many times have you seen this in your workplace?  A customer is shipped the wrong product, an employee says the wrong thing, the customer goes ballistic and a manager is left trying to mop up the mess.  Not so unusual, in fact, you’ve probably been on both sides of this example.

But what is the lesson?  I think it’s all about making sure we train our people how to improvise and giving them enough room to make decisions in favor of the customer in the moment.  If you are a manager of front-line customer-facing employees, how have you trained them to handle things?  Have you given them any idea of how flexible your “policies” can be or are they left with only one way to go, a way that only serves to make things ugly?  Are your scripts and policies handcuffing your employees to only one solution, a solution that may be no solution at all?

Ultimately, what I am talking about is the need for flexible control.  Managers and business leaders often get so afraid of the “what ifs” that they lose sight of the fact that humans are not machines and need to be able to bend when things don’t go as planned.  As Robert Burns so aptly put it, “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” and we need to give employees the room to improvise and create customer happiness even if they have to do something a bit unorthodox.

I know this strikes fear in the hearts of many a manager but how many games have been won when a player made a decision outside of the game plan when the situation warranted it?  As a business leader, you must decide how wide to make the highway before putting up guardrails.  Some businesses have a very narrow road which, much like the Oscar debacle, ends in the wrong action.  Widen the road, train and trust your team, and always remember that humans make mistakes but it’s the way they handle it that can make the garden grow or wither and die.

Book Review: Leaders Made Here

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Today sees the release of Mark Miller’s Leaders Made Here.  I was privileged to receive a preview copy.  Here is my review.

One of the biggest problems businesses face is leadership, more specifically, a leadership pipeline, a bench that is deep with future leaders.  This is usually due to a lack of focus on building that bench and/or a lack of understanding of how to build that bench.  This lack ends with businesses relying on a hope that leaders will come along when they are needed, but hope is never a good strategy, in fact, it’s not a strategy at all.

Leaders Made Here tells the story of a business knee deep in this challenge and searching for a way to efficiently and effectively overcome it.  Through Miller’s largely realistic tale, we learn the keys to creating a culture where leadership development is central.  He takes us on a journey where we learn five keys to a healthy leadership culture:

  1. Forge a consensus on what leadership means.
  2. Ensure everyone knows the organization’s leadership point of view and has the necessary skills to lead.
  3. Create opportunities for people to lead.
  4. Track the progress of the effort.
  5. Ensure all organizational leaders walk the talk and lead by example.

With these keys, Miller gives us a simple, repeatable approach to creating leaders throughout any organization, department, or team.  The benefits are many here, competitive advantage, long-term sustainability, employee longevity and engagement, and overall business success.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in developing leaders throughout their organization.  Miller’s storytelling ability keeps this short book interesting and engaging and allows for teaching good lessons in culture development.

Some favorite quotes…

“Culture is not what you want it to be – it is what people do on a regular basis.’

“…work to give emerging leaders ample opportunities to lead – as early as possible in their career.”

“Nothing improves without measurement, and leadership is no exception.”

“People always watch the leader. They are looking for at least two things, first and foremost: clues as to what’s really important, and they’re also trying to determine if they can trust the leader.”

“…before I begin any journey, I have always found it helpful to confirm my starting point.  It tends to clarify one’s options.  Without clarity on where you are, you could be making great time – but in the wrong direction.”

“Too many leaders call plays they cannot run.  Effective and doable beats flashy and improbable every time.”

Who’s Being Served In Your Self-Serve Option?

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There are just times when you want to do things yourself.  We all know it.  There are just times when you go into an establishment and you don’t want to talk to anybody.  You know what you want and you just want to get it and get out.

Fortunately, many companies, understanding this need, have set up methods to accommodate this, and I get that.  However, when did many of these companies decide to make self-serve their chief method of providing “service” and why?

Recently, I went to purchase a product and went to a company’s website to do some browsing.   After determining what I wanted, I still had a few questions so I decided to call since I thought it would be easier than sending a query via email or chat box or whatever.  Anyway, I called and was given one of those press one, two, three, or forty-nine menus.  It had layer after layer of “if you need X press 2, if you need Y, press 3” options and none of them seemed to fit my need.  It was like being in some kind of hell where there was no getting out of an endless loop.  The upshot of the whole experience was that I found another company and bought from them.

This got me to thinking, if you have the self-serve option, which many customers prefer, are you doing it for the customer or are you doing it for your business?  I mean, are you responding to a segment of your customer base that want this or are you just saving some cash and cloaking that real intention in crafty mumbo-jumbo?

If many of your customers want a self-serve option, fine, but also give your full-serve customers a path that’s not like climbing Everest.  All of your customers deserve to be helped; I mean that’s why you’re in business to start with, to help people, so help them, all of them!  Saving a penny only to lose customers, as the company in my personal example did, is foolhardy.

Your service should be easy and enjoyable, and if your self-serve option isn’t, figure out a way to make it so.  Make your service about serving your customers and what they need and want, not about serving you and what you need and want.  Go take a walk in your customers’ shoes and see what it is like to use your self-serve website or your self-serve phone line.  If it’s a pain to you, believe me, it’s a pain to your customers.