Leading through Service

Every so often a buzz word catches on in the business world. It might be “synergy”, “positioning” or “the long tail” (I kid you not) but somehow, some way, through the magic of pop culture an innocuous word suddenly starts appearing in boardrooms across the nation. Often times the people uttering the words can’t even define them, but that doesn’t stop them from encouraging their adoption. Usually there’s a banner company like GE that advocates its acceptance and business leaders (who are more rightly called followers in this regard) flood to training seminars to learn the habits of those who have proven effective. It’s management by the masses and usually the process leads to nothing but the readiness to adopt the next guru’s cure.

A few years ago, the cause of hysteria in the business world was “servant leadership.” Books from previously unknown authors abounded. Everyone was willing to get in on the act – to help leaders learn how to act like servants in order to further their own causes. This organizational mindset even had religious undertones which carried it further upstream. The idea was that if leaders embraced the notion to give of themselves for others, that they, and the organization would be better off. In certain respects, it worked. Given the choice between leading humbly and leading with pride, the former is bound to beat the latter in the long-run every time.

However, I don’t think the management textbooks completely got the idea right. See – they tried to take leaders and teach them to serve – a worthy endeavor. But I wonder how often we overlook those who are already serving and therefore providing leadership? We try to take those who are exalted and teach them humility. How much more can we learn from those who are already humbled? Whether its the tech guy who’s willing to burn the midnight oil to solve the computer glitch, the cleaning crew who is the last to leave or the first to arrive, or the artist who doesn’t ever get to put their name on a design because its created for another – each of these are already leading, even if their title speaks otherwise.

Maybe leading through service is a higher aim than servant leadership. It’s something we’re all capable of regardless of what our business cards say.

What do you think?