Servant Leadership

This is the first post in my 4 part series discussing important aspects of leadership.

Early in my career I heard a story about leadership that has stuck with me to this day:

A veteran minister was speaking to a group of one hundred seminary students in their capstone course. The room was theater style with two walkways going up the rows. During the speech the elder minister took out two sheets of paper, crumpled them up, and threw one each in the walkways. Without stopping to explain, the presenter continued.


At the end of the class one of the students came forward to query the reason for the paper throwing. The minister explained that he had been in the business for many decades and wanted to know which of the students would go on to be successful. He said that in his experience about two out of one hundred students would make it long term in the ministry. His simple test was to find out who they were by finding out who was too good to not stop and pick up the trash.


Years later, I cannot walk by a piece of trash on our campus. When I am in a hurry and I rush by something that I know needs to be picked up, the voice in my head gets louder and louder with each step, “Is this the day you become too good to pick up the trash, Shawn?” If so, it would be the beginning of the end of my career. The simple act of service keeps us grounded; it reminds us that we are just one member of the team, here to help. 

Somewhere along the way it became acceptable, even desirable, for the leader to be served, rather than to serve. Many leaders, as their success grows, have the resources to hire people to do things for them. Delegation is also an aspect of leadership, but it does not mean a leader stops serving all together. I think the larger the organization and delegation, the more important it becomes for the leader to demonstrate a consistent pattern of simple service.

Here is the idea: people watch leaders and then do what they do, they go where they go. If the leader pauses to pick up a small piece of trash in the company lobby, then so will others. If the leader steps over the trash, expecting others to do the servant work, then others will follow in the leader’s steps. 

The leader does not need to take out all of the trash, do all of the landscaping, or handle every task. Certainly the role requires identifying the right people to handle segments of an organization and then getting out of the way while they bring their own creativity and passion to their area. However, here’s the paradox: the more managers delegate responsibility, the greater the need for a healthy example. Actually the great benefit of the growth is that the leader’s example is amplified and copied many times over. In the absence of a good example, what then is mimicked?

Give it a try. Offer someone a glass of water and get it yourself. Stop by and pick up donuts for a group in the service area. On your way out of the office swing by the kitchen in your area and freshen it up. This is especially beneficial when nobody is watching you. It keeps you centered. Your leadership on the big stuff is never far removed from your daily actions of service. You don’t reach a place in your career where you are beyond this need so make it a lifelong habit. Get ready to be amazed because your service will be amplified, and your team and your company will go farther than you can imagine.