Fill a Need, Serve Your Team

servant leadership

Servant leadership is a pretty intuitive concept; in fact you might be practicing it already unawares. "I think the simplest way to explain it would be to say that servant leaders focus on identifying and meeting the needs of others rather than trying to acquire power, wealth, and fame for themselves," says Kent Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, a Westfield, Indiana-based non-profit that promotes education about and implementation of servant leadership. Robert Greenleaf spent dozens of years developing the concept of servant leadership by observing that “there were leaders who were in it for themselves, and leaders who were in it for others…and his conclusion was that those who focused on others were the most effective.”

A former Israeli Army soldier relates this experience in Inc. Magazine, “At one point as a grunt in the Israeli Army, I was assigned to work for a high-ranking sergeant major. This guy had years of experience. He was probably 20 years older than me and the other kids in the unit. You had the feeling that he slept under 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets each night while the rest of us rolled around in dusty sleeping bags on the ground. Anyway, on my first day of work for the sergeant major, I didn't know what to expect. I was sure it was going to be horrible, a suspicion that seemed to be confirmed when he took me to the officers' bathroom and told me I would be responsible for keeping it clean. And then he said something I didn't anticipate.

‘Here's how you clean a toilet,’ he said.

And he got down on his knees in front of the porcelain bowl -- in his pressed-starched-spotless dress uniform -- and scrubbed it with his bare hands until it shined.

To a 19-year-old assigned to clean toilets, the sight of this high-ranking, 38-year-old, manicured, pampered disciplinary officer cleaning a toilet was a shock. And it completely reset my attitude. If he can clean a toilet, I can clean a toilet, I thought. There's nothing wrong with cleaning toilets. My loyalty and inspiration from that moment on were unflagging. Now that's leadership.” That Israeli soldier went on to become a CEO for a software company in New York City. He understands it’s his job to get things out of the way so that “all the great people we’ve hired can get work done.”

He continues, “Not everybody gets it. Not long ago, we had a management trainee who sat around waiting for us to give him a formal title and promotion so he could "get stuff done." Problem was, he had never managed to win enough respect or influence from the development team to actually do things. He didn't work out so well; despite being smart and competent, he didn't earn the leadership position he thought he deserved. He would have been better off thinking about new features we should develop, writing specs to outline the benefits of these features, and winning the developers' trust through action instead of waiting for the title. Another management trainee didn't care what his title was: He came up with a new idea for a program and persuaded the team that it was a good idea. I think he'll go far.”

A few months ago I was conducting a training for supervisors and new managers. I heard one of the "veteran" managers tell a supervisor, "you can't wait for the title, just find a need and fill it. Serve your team."

That's servant leadership.

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