by Jay Hull
Who Could Object?
There is a lot of great discussion these days about “servant leadership.” It sounds so generous and kind; who could object to servant leadership? While many leaders like the idea in concept and want to create the impression of humility and egalitarianism that is associated with the servant leader, some are not really interested in the actual practice of servant leadership (or even in the research showing the benefits of servant leadership). Because, after all, to be a servant leader means to serve. To serve in this context, to really implement the servant-leader model, doesn’t mean simply recommending raises or allowing the team to leave early on a Friday afternoon.
Servant Leaders Empower People.
In his Foreword to Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, Dr. Steven R. Covey writes:
“A low-trust culture that is characterized by high-control management, political posturing, protectionism, cynicism, and internal competition and adversarialism simply cannot compete with the speed, quality, and innovation of those organizations around the world that do empower people… Leaders are learning that this kind of empowerment, which is what servant leadership represents, is one of the key principles that, based on practice, not talk, will be the deciding point between an organization’s enduring success or its eventual demise.”
That’s why I’m all the more thankful when I reflect on the examples of servant leadership I have seen in my career as a lawyer and by one particular example I learned about recently from a client.
Tie on Your Garbage Bags!
First, the client’s story (I’ll leave out some details so as not to embarrass any of the participants). The ”follower” in this story – let’s call him Bob – is very diligent and works on highly-complicated and dangerous equipment; lives depend on the proper operation of this equipment. One dark and stormy night, Bob was responsible to check some new equipment so that it could be put into service the next day. Unfortunately, there was no room for Bob to check the equipment indoors or under cover. So, even though it was off-hours and despite the miserable weather, Bob was set to begin his inspection in the storm.
Bob’s “boss” offered to help, even though his pants and shoes weren’t appropriate for work in the rain. Let’s call the boss “Jim”. Despite Bob’s objections, Jim simply grabbed some garbage bags, wrapped them around his lower legs, tied them on, and got to work! Years later, my client not only shared this story with me, but he also told me he aspires to lead his team of seventy people with this same selflessness and humility.
Jim might not have referred to his actions as “servant leadership”. He may have simply been acting on instinct as a great leader, rather than as a result of reading a book or watching a video about servant leadership, but that doesn’t matter at all. The point is, Jim modeled servant leadership; his simple act of tying on some garbage bags, and walking out into the rain (with his tools and a cheerful attitude) had ripple effects that continue years later and into an entirely different group of people.
A Senior Partner Serves.
A second example comes from my early years as a lawyer. My mentor, a senior partner and the client relationship lawyer for what was one of our firm’s most important clients at the time, asked me to lead a significant financing transaction for his client. My mentor was leading and supervising other transactions for this client and, as a result, had limited time to focus on the transaction I was leading. On the flight from Portland to New York, he read my documents and helped me better understand a few sticky issues in the subordination agreement that I didn’t have quite right. That was no surprise – that’s what senior partners do for junior associates.
But what really struck me was that my mentor didn’t step in to take over my position as leader of the deal at closing, even when he had had more bandwidth. He trusted me to get the job done properly and, of course, he was close at hand to help. And his idea of help was “whatever needs to be done for a successful result for the client”. That included voluntarily creating an officer’s certificate so I could keep my eye on higher-level issues on the transaction. Let’s just say it is unusual among law firms for a senior partner to offer to draft a minor closing certificate because the junior associate was too busy. But that is what servant-leaders do.
This had a huge and long-lasting impact on me and on my understanding of leadership in the following decades. In the words of Robert Greenleaf, “Good leaders must first become good servants” and “The best test as a leader is: Do those served grow as persons; do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become leaders?” As far as I am concerned, my mentor passed that test.
Leaders Serve the Mission and the Team.
Servant leaders don’t worry about status, rank, reputation, or ego. Instead, they roll up their sleeves and draft an officer’s certificate (or they tie garbage bags on their legs, grab their tools, and get to work). They serve the mission and the people working to accomplish the mission. The world has more than enough leaders focused primarily on their own personal ego and ambition — leaders who are stuck in outmoded, authoritarian models of leadership. No doubt, those outmoded models can produce great short-term results, but imagine how much greater those results would be if the leaders also served. What the world needs now, what the business world needs now, what the legal profession needs now, is more servant leadership to empower even greater accomplishments by the people they serve.
Servant leadership is a force-multiplier.
Servant leaders: may your tribe increase!