Are You Comfortable With Servant Leadership?

By Tai Anderson, September 29, 2016

On the TAISPEAK podcast, I interview dynamic leaders of business, music, sports and faith. The conversation often ranges from their entrepreneurial drive, key influences, secrets of success, and key leadership strategies.

Often, the discussion will drill down to the concept of “servant leadership.” One of my recent guests, Scott McNabb, Oracle’s Vice President, Global Sales, Marketing Automation Systems, readily embraced the concept and verbiage. However, when we discussed his leadership journey, his affinity for servant leadership was really no surprise. He had been mentored, and practically raised, by Chick-fil-A’s Truett Cathy, the very embodiment of modern servant leadership.

However, two of my recent guests have both balked at the expression. Ryan Pernice, a restaurateur in Roswell, GA, expressed he didn’t care for the expression having witnessed too many guests mistreat their servers under his care. He went on to share that he really didn’t see his role as one to inspire his staff, but rather to hire people that were already inspired, that already believed in the mission. When a server or any member of his staff has that passion, he can then invest in them to help advance their careers. He preferred to refer to his leadership as leading from the front.

Earlier this week, I spoke to Michael Jones, the Founder and CEO of Thrive Farmers Coffee. He too, expressed reservation with the expression “servant leadership.” When I brought up the expression, Michael replied,

I struggle personally with the term ‘servant leadership.’ I’m not sure I know how to define that. What I’ve got is a broken heart for people... We’re doing what we’re supposed to do… by treating people with dignity and with the value that they bring. If the world would just do that more, we would see that it’s a very different place.
— Michael Jones, Founder and CEO, Thrive Farmers Coffee

My leadership journey has been directly informed by my personal faith. As such, I’m very comfortable with the idea of servant leadership. It’s the idea that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. It’s his teaching that “the last shall be first,” and “the greatest among you is the servant.” The whole concept of authentic Christianity is to consider others greater than yourself, or at least to try and do so. It’s why I’m VERY suspicious of anybody that tells you he is a GREAT Christian. It’s a disqualifying statement. Servant leadership and humility go hand in hand.

My understanding of servant leadership was modeled and solidified by Ken O’Kelley at YMCA Camp High Harbour. As a young man, I saw Ken always put his staff, campers and parents first, above himself. You were just as likely to find Ken cleaning out a septic tank or washing dishes as inspiring his staff, caring for a camper, or speaking at a national camping conference.

For me, Ken completely personified the definition of servant leadership expressed by another mentor, Glen Jackson of Jackson Spalding.

Servant leadership for me is about being mindful of the fact that no task is too small or too big for the servant leader. It’s about little things and big things.
— Glen Jackson

What I’m left with is one simple conclusion. Even if you’re not comfortable with the vocabulary, the concept is the same. Great leaders put other people first.

Both Ryan and Michael provided very serviceable definitions of servant leadership in their explanations of why they are uncomfortable with the expression “servant leadership!”

At Leadercast, our mission is to build leaders worth following.

A Leader Worth Following embodies a foundation of core values. In addition, they actively demonstrate key leadership behaviors. It is this combination that produces actions that lead to longstanding results and relationships.

One of those behaviors is what we refer to as “People-First.” People-First leaders focus on individuals over numbers.

Whether you’re comfortable with the expression of servant leadership or not, we’re all left with the same conclusion. If we really want to lead our businesses, organizations, communities, and families, we must be people-first. We must place a higher value on others. If we all make even the smallest effort to do that every day, the world will become a markedly better place. You can be that difference maker. You can be that change agent. You can be the leader worth following.


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