Opinion Columns & Blogs

DR. CUMMINGS: The servant leader

We’ve had many leaders: Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton; our teachers and professors; our preachers and parents. As you look back, who was your best leader?

Last week I had lunch with a friend of mine who has been an outstanding leader here in Middle Georgia for many years. He said: “I just read something about servant leaders, and I didn’t like it; sounds weak and inefficient.” My friend misinterpreted what he had read, and when I finished telling him what a servant leader really means, he said: “I think that’s what I am.” And he was right.

The servant leader is not a wimp. “Servant” in this context does not mean subservient or incapable of making decisions. It does not describe a weak-kneed person with no vigor, no strength and no firmness. Just the opposite. The servant leader -- both a man and a woman -- is the one who makes decisions, delegates authority and leads the followers to greatness. The difference is the servant leader leads by serving.

We know we must serve our customers. If we’re successful as waiters or salesmen or nurses, if we’re good politicians or preachers, if we’re dedicated doctors or attorneys, we’re serving our customers and that’s why we’re succeeding. The minute we stop serving our customers is the day we’ll lose money and go out of business.

It’s the same thing with leadership. Leaders who are successful are those who truly serve their followers -- not the other way around. The minute a leader decides that he wants to come first, that he is the most important person on the team, that his goal and the goal of his team must be to increase his power and prestige, is the day he becomes a loser. I’ll never forget a boss I had at Bechtel Corp. in California who called us all together and said: “Your job is to make me look good.” Two years later, he was fired.

Servant leadership is a timeless concept going back to early Chinese writings in the Tao Te Ching about 500 years before Christ. You remember the great Lao Tzu. You also remember the Gospel of Mark (10:43) who has Jesus saying: “Whoever wants to be great among you, must be your servant.” However, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader,” an essay that he first published in 1970, and his book that followed in the 1990s. Most writers on leadership today use his writings.

Greenleaf lists three categories:

Listening, empathy, healing and awareness of the needs of the people.

Persuasion, conceptualization and foresight to articulate the vision that inspires.

Stewardship, commitment to the growth of others and to the building of community.

If you’re lucky enough to work for a servant leader, you will see these three categories. You will see your leader striving to learn more about you and your needs and what will make your work easier and more efficient. You will participate with him/her in developing a vision for the future that stretches and pulls you into excellence. You will trust this leader because you will see visible evidence that he is dedicating his whole life to the task of helping you and your organization to grow and develop and become constantly stronger and better.

I have known many outstanding servant leaders here in Middle Georgia, men and women whose careers are nearly over but whose memories will live on. A banker whose team carries their company vision and values in their wallets and purses. A roofer who spent his life improving our education system. A general contractor who has shown over and over again his love for his people and for this community. A public defender who gave up riches to serve the indigent. A doctor who answers his cell phone and still makes house calls.

Servant leaders don’t like to be named or honored. They’re too busy serving others. Lao Tzu summarized this when he said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Okay. But we know better.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corp. and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is www.billcummings.org.