To Lead is to Serve

servant leadership Aug 08, 2017

“If serving is below you, leadership is beyond you.” - Unknown

Forty years ago, I was hired for my first management position at the commercial bank I'd joined two years earlier. I worked hard in that position and considered myself an effective leader. The bank promoted me to Branch Manager a few years later and soon I was part of the Western Regional Office.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized the positions I'd held did not make me a leader.

There's nothing like a struggle to open your eyes. I found myself in a leadership position, working with staff who had many years of experience and were reluctant to trust my leadership.

That's when I realized I did not understand what leadership is. I'd been assuming that my job title made me a leader and I discovered it did not.

To earn the trust of my team, I rolled up my sleeves and joined them, putting in effort and time, showing that I understood the value of the work we did together. Gradually, the way I connected with my team transformed.

They trusted my leadership and I worked hard to make their work life meaningful by bringing out the best in each of them. I developed a clear vision for our work together and communicated it often. Every member of the team participated in our operational planning processes. I began to provide true leadership, but that's not where it ends.

It's four decades and several leadership roles later, but I continue to learn.

The difference now is that I learn by teaching others. By sharing the leadership principles I put to the test over my long career, I deepen my own understanding and strengthen my own skills as a leader.

Recently, a young professional asked me to help him become an effective leader. I was excited to share what I'd learned on my journey. And I emphasized my hard-earned leadership lesson--leadership has nothing to do with job titles; it's about how we serve.

To be an effective leader, you must value every member of your team and connect with them in meaningful ways.

I left the young professional with the following story, knowing it would inspire him as much as it inspires me. Take a listen and walk away empowered by the leadership principles this story contains.

I Went on a Search to Become a Leader

I went on a search to become a leader. I searched high and low. I spoke with authority; people listened. But alas, there was one who was wiser than I, and they followed that individual.

I sought to inspire confidence, but the crowd responded, "Why should I trust you?" I postured, and I assumed that look of leadership with a countenance that flowed with confidence and pride, but many passed me by and never noticed my air of elegance.

I ran ahead of the others, pointed the way to new heights.

I demonstrated that I knew the route to greatness. And then, I looked back, and I was alone. "What should I do?" I queried. "I've tried hard and used all that I know." And I sat down and pondered long.

And then, I listened to the voices around me. And I heard what the group was trying to accomplish. I rolled up my sleeves, and joined in the work. As we worked, I asked, "Are we all together in what we want to do and how to get the job done?"

And we thought together. We fought together. We struggled towards the goal.

I found myself encouraging the fainthearted. I sought ideas of those too shy to speak out. I taught those who had little skill. I praised those who worked hard. When our task was completed, one of the group turned to me, and said, "This would not have been done, but for your leadership."

At first, I said, "I didn't lead. I just worked like the rest." And then I understood, leadership is not a goal. It's a way to reaching a goal.

I lead best when I help others to go where we've decided to go. I lead best when I help others to use themselves creatively. I lead best when I forget about myself as leader, and focus more on the group...their needs, their goals.

To lead is to achieve together.

Call to Personal Reflection:

1.     Life is a leadership journey. What stage are you in?

2.     What could you do differently to improve your effectiveness as a leader?

3.     Which members of your team could benefit from hearing this leadership story?

“Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


The best is yet to come. It starts with you.

Your friends,