President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Junior. More recently Cheryl Bachelder, Jerry Stritzke, and Colleen Wegman to name only a few Servant Leaders that immediately come to mind.
A few weeks ago, I was asked to provide examples of servant leaders in a LinkedIn thread. I declined at the time because I knew this post was coming and I wanted to deep dive into the topic. I am truly passionate about servant leadership - so much so I formally studied it as a concentration while getting my Master's from Gonzaga University (Go Zags!). Often when I mention servant leadership to people I'm met with the classic head-tilted, confused dog look which conveys the question of "what did you just say Shaggy?" In our modern society, the words aren't often seen linked together so I can understand the initial reaction. We have come to see the two as separate, and definitely not equal, positions. We idolize "leaders" - professional athletes, CEOs - and marginalize servants - teachers, researchers. The fact is that when these two words are combined they define a rare group of people that I hope you are fortunate enough to be lead by in your life time as I have been.
Simon Sinek builds up to describing servant leaders in his book Leaders Eat Last with explanations of human chemical response and stories of a CEO, a military pilot in a combat situation, and Mother Theresa to demonstrate the diverse arenas in which servant leaders can be found. This lead in culminates on pages 66 and 67 when he makes three noteworthy statements about leadership:
1) "Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank. There are people with authority who are not leaders and there are people at the bottom rungs of an organization who most certainly are leaders."
2) " By the objective standards of leadership, those who aim to raise their own status simply so they can enjoy the perks themselves without fulfilling their responsibilities as leaders are, plain and simple, weak leaders."
3) "The only thing our leaders ever need to do is remember whom they serve and it will be our honor and pleasure to serve them back."
Whoa, I know right!? Leaders serving their people??! What if you began to evaluate the people leading you by how well they serve your need for safety and trust instead of by how well their company fills your need for money and sustainability? Would your current boss measure up? Would your company CEO? Would you, if you are in that position of authority? Simon makes a great point in quote number one that I have echoed in conversations recently - Just because someone is in a position of authority does not mean they are a leader. Repeat that a couple of times to let it sink in. I've certainly had bosses who were not leaders. Leader, manager, and authority figure are not synonymous. They are different words that can occasionally be applied to the same person but, more often then not, this is done out of custom rather than intention.
Quotes two and three shine a light on a reality I know many of you can relate too. You have watched that boss, or friend, climb the corporate ladder burning every rung on the way up in pursuit of personal wealth, accomplishment, fame, and so on while leaving their roots in flames. Ring a bell? These are, according to Simon, weak leaders who have abused the positions they were entrusted with. The CEOs of Enron, Kmart, Mylan (the Epi-Pen people) may come to mind when we think of people who have recently abused their positions. Society wide, we attach the word "leader" to the CEO position and entrust they won't only be out themselves, that they'll have our best interests at heart. Then we are left reeling with horror when their pockets are lined with Benjamins and ours are collecting dust bunnies. Do not despair, there are plenty of awesome CEOs out there leading the people in their companies in a servant minded way. The leadership ranks of these 17 companies are prime examples of people remembering that while the customer may always be right, their real loyalty is to the people serving the customer.
Servant leaders are the people holding the ladders for those climbing up. They are the people who empower those around them, through the feeling of safety and trust they create, to chase their dreams and be the best versions of themselves. They are the teachers, coaches, Presidents, janitors, neighborhood elders, CEOs whose name you remember your entire life because they remembered yours and cheered your success and growth. They may still be the math teacher at your high school decades later, despite numerous principal changes and graduating classes. They long for summer to end so they can greet the incoming class and see who they will be privileged to guide this year. They continually choose to remain in the classroom, inspiring students, rather than seeking the perceived promotion of administrator. I can pinpoint several servant leaders who guided my path where I am today - and yes, one was a math teacher.
What examples of servant leaders color your life? Who made you their priority?
Simon provides several great examples of servant minded leaders in the first 14 chapters of Leaders Eat Last that will help you begin to build your personal definition of a servant leader. I cannot wait to see what the next half of this book will bring; check back on August 3rd for more! In the meantime, check out the links on the pictures to some sites I saw on my recent trip to Germany and visit my Instagram for even more pictures. Happy reading!