What Servant Leadership Looks Like in Action

I’ve been talking about servant leadership for years, so I was happy to see that the topic is now trending in business. Maybe people are finally understanding that servant leadership is not a lax situation where the inmates are running the prison. Instead, it’s a two-part process: the leadership part, where the leader plays a visionary/strategic role, and the servant part, where the leader serves others as they help implement the agreed-upon vision.

But what does it look like in real life when a leader turns the hierarchical pyramid upside down and serves others as they work toward their goals? I’ll give you two great examples.

My first example comes from Shirley Bullard, who served as our company’s chief administrative officer and vice president of HR until her recent retirement. In Servant Leadership in Action, Shirley writes:

“In October of 2007, wildfires of epic proportions were racing through San Diego County. People’s lives were upended as they were awakened in the middle of the night to the smell of smoke and a reverse 911 call with a recorded voice telling them to evacuate their home and move to a safer location. For some people in those early hours, a safer location meant our offices at The Ken Blanchard Companies.

“The first call I received was from my assistant, who had stayed up all night watching the deadly paths of the fires and was letting me know that a major freeway had been closed down. In fast succession, call number two came from our facilities manager, reporting that some of our people and their loved ones and pets had taken refuge in one of our buildings. I did not need to wait for a third call. I was up, dressed, and speeding to the office. The first person I met was our facilities manager, who had secured the campus and now wanted to know what to do about those who had taken shelter in our offices. I corrected him instantly—we needed to think about what to do for those people.

“I knew I needed to go to be with them, because I had not experienced the trauma this group had been through that morning: being uprooted by the sound of law enforcement telling them to get out of their homes and get out now. As I remember, there were about fifteen people, including children with tears in their eyes. Some had brought along pets, who were panting and confused. I gave hugs to everyone I knew and got introduced to the others. My next task was to get them food and anything else they needed to be more comfortable. My continuing mission was to put others first—to let them know what we knew, to give them some sense of what to do next, and to give them hope.”

Margie and I lost our home in that fire, yet the tremendous outpouring of love and support from our friends, family, and associates proved to us that it’s people who really matter.

My second example features Southwest Airlines’ cofounder and CEO, my late friend Herb Kelleher. Herb certainly had a big leadership role in setting the company’s vision “to be the world’s most loved, most efficient, and most profitable airline.” Yet he didn’t hesitate to humble himself and serve his people to make that vision come alive. In Lead with LUV, Colleen Barrett, president emerita of Southwest, writes:

“One of the most influential things that ever happened to me … occurred when I was a young secretary working with Herb. We had a mailer that had to get out, and everything that could go wrong with it went wrong. It had to be in the mail the next day. Well, the day before, the copy machine broke down and the postage was somehow wrong. So all of these envelopes that had been stuffed had to be retyped, and this was not when you could just push a button and it would happen. You did it all yourself, manually. So, it was about eight o’clock at night, the night they had to be postmarked, and we had to start all over again.

“Herb sat right there with me until four o’clock in the morning, on the floor, licking envelopes and putting stamps on envelopes, because we didn’t have a postage machine. I’ll never forget it. My gosh. And he could have even thought that it was my fault that the mailing had gone wrong. But he didn’t. He just jumped right in there with me. That was a really valuable lesson for me, so I’ve always tried to remember it and emulate it.”

The important part of Colleen’s story is that Herb demonstrated through his actions that he put the needs of others before his own ego to help Colleen and the company perform as highly as possible.

I’m glad that the business world is finally figuring out that when leaders practice “the power of love rather than the love of power,” they unleash people’s loyalty, motivation, and potential.

If you’d like to know more about the practical application of servant leadership, take a look at my webinar with Randy Conley—coauthor of our recent book, Simple Truths of Leadership—by clicking here: Servant Leadership for a Next Generation Workforce. It’s never too late to become a servant leader!

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