by Paula Brown Stafford and Lisa T. Grimes
“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” — Max De Pree
Last month, we began a series discussing twelve traits we believe are essential for authentic leaders and followers. We started with authenticity. As Thanksgiving draws closer in the US, we thought it would be fitting to discuss the trait of serving.
We understand you might think this trait doesn’t apply to you, or that it is beneficial but not essential in your personal or professional position. However, we say it is necessary for all leaders to practice servitude. Leaders must set the example of servant leadership by serving their followers. Some mistakenly believe that an organization is only as good as its leader or leaders. Leaders are highly important to the success of any organization; however, the organization is also only as good as its followers.
A study conducted by psychologists Dr. Jeanine Prime and Dr. Elizabeth Salib revealed that when leaders displayed altruistic behaviors, their followers expressed a sense of uniqueness and belongingness, leading to an increase in work productivity and positive behavior toward their jobs.
An example of a great servant leader is the former CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., Max De Pree, who passed away earlier this year. During his career, he took the family business and turned it into one of the most profitable Fortune 500 companies. For over 10 years, it ranked seventh in terms of total return to investors. The company’s rapid growth wasn’t based solely on their quality office furniture but also on the service and values-centered culture that impacted relationships with fellow employees, customers and investors. It was De Pree who displayed these values in everything he did, and he expected the same from his followers. Brian Walker, current CEO of Herman Miller, shared his experience learning from De Pree’s leadership. “He taught me many things — how to listen, how to ask questions, and above all, the debt all leaders owe to the people they lead.”
Where you work, you may not be able to change the mission or values of the organization, but you can do something to improve the culture around you. Nearly 20 years ago, I, Paula, looked around our organization and was thankful for our many Project Managers who were the heartbeat of the organization. The job was at times challenging and often thankless. I thought to myself, what can we do to show appreciation for our Project Managers who deal with external and internal pressures every day. As a leadership team, we decided we needed to do something to acknowledge and serve them. So, we came up with the idea for an appreciation day where our leaders served ice cream with a smile, and we provided t-shirts with the slogan “Project Manager Appreciation Day.” It may seem simple and quirky, however, we set an example for others that day – those we served and those who served us.
Our society often confuses servitude with weakness, but instead, it is a sign of strength. Leaders serve their people by connecting with them, and in turn, they work hard and serve the leader and the organization well, especially when they feel appreciated. As you return to the office next week, or to a committee meeting, look for an opportunity to serve your followers – they will follow your lead and serve others. And so the cycle begins and continues.