March 7 – Service and Leadership

“Who has not served cannot command.” (John Florio)

Credibility as a leader (I really prefer that word over “commander”), has to be earned in order for the leader to be successful. A person cannot lead who hasn’t walked in the shoes of the people she or he is leading in one form or another. And, to be effective and successful as a leader, one must learn to serve those whom they lead.

Occasionally I will see stories in the news about some executive of a company who shows up at an employee event and serves their people. Usually it takes the form of working the cafeteria line, or serving up drinks at the bar. Many times the cameras are rolling as the bigwig tries to figure things out to the smile and delight of the crowd. A director I once worked for spent lunch time making burgers and bratwursts outside our cafeteria to support a charity event. For a donation, you could have your lunch cooked by someone several layers up the chain. Everyone enjoyed the event, and some money was raised for the charity of the day.

These events are nice, and they are largely just symbolic. The idea of my boss’, boss’, boss flipping a burger for me is novel, but it isn’t what service as a leader is about to me, and it does little to gain or grow my respect for the person in the long haul.

This quote seems to indicate that first you serve, then you lead, there is a sequential aspect to it. In my mind the quote would more correctly be “Who does not serve cannot lead.” To be a respected and effective leader, service to your employees has to be an ongoing, daily thing. Not the flipping burgers type of service, but service in all that the leader does.

I have had many bosses in my career. Those whom I respect and trust the most share one thing in common, they had a genuine interest in me, and my success. They took the time to get to know a bit about my life, and a lot about my professional desires and aspirations. The best among them took active interest in me, not just because I had something to produce, but because they wanted me to be the best I could be.

I have a lot of respect for the director I mentioned above who flipped burgers at a charity barbecue. That trust isn’t born out of, or even enhanced much by the charity event. This person was several layers up from me in the organization, but he took a genuine interest in who I was, and helped me to grow. I came to work for him at a time in my career when I was struggling. I had some bad experiences with less-than-caring bosses, and my performance struggled as a result. I had a one-on-one meeting with this director once where he told me in very frank terms where I stood in the organization. It wasn’t pleasant. But, he spent the second half of the meeting helping me see the way to repair my performance and be back on the right track. This person had a calendar that was jam packed for 10 hours every day, but on this day he took a half hour to sit with me. In the coming weeks and months, as I worked on assignments for him, he would call me back in and see how I was doing. He would tell me why certain assignments were sent my way, and what he thought of them.

About a year after my time working for him ended, I had occasion to be near his secretary’s desk dropping off a document for another manager in the area. He was in his office having some precious desk time that wasn’t taken up by a meeting. He heard my voice, and called out to me and told me I better not leave without saying hello. I went in to see him, and we had a brief chat – probably just a minute or two. Even though I no longer worked for him, and could do nothing to make his organization successful, he still had that interest in me.

To me, that is what service is all about for a leader, having an active interest in promoting and growing the careers of the people who work for you.

I am blessed to have a team of people whom I have the privilege of leading on a daily basis. My team works very hard, and produces amazing results. I am proud of them and their capabilities and accomplishments. I tell them regularly that my job is to make sure that they have what they need to succeed, and to provide an environment where they can thrive. I work hard to have their best interest at heart with the decisions I make, and the battles I fight on their behalf. I will probably never rise to the level of leadership that director had, but I do my best to emulate his style, and his level of caring every day.

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