The Servant Leader

I pulled into my parking spot behind the Freeman Building (Part of the Star Tribune complex) at 9:00 a.m. As I got out of my car, a colleague rushed toward me.

“Chuck collapsed in his office. The paramedics took him to the emergency room at Hennepin County Medical Center.”

Only in hindsight were Chuck’s warnings apparent — a persistent headache and soreness in his legs. After some early morning meetings, a day before he was to leave for the Bahamas on vacation, Chuck got up from his conference table and began to walk toward the couch. Suddenly, he put his hand to his head and slumped to the floor. Co-workers rushed to his side and administered CPR. Paramedics took Chuck to the emergency room. We knew his condition was serious. One by one we went to the hospital and stood by our unconscious friend. Some talked to him, some prayed quietly, others wept. Chuck never regained consciousness and died of an aneurysm the next day.

I was stunned by Chuck’s death. I was in shock and denial, and so were many others. Everything felt unreal and moved in slow motion. I woke up in the middle of the first night, went downstairs, sat in the dark with my dog, and wept. The next day a psychologist helped Chuck’s colleagues with their grief. Some who had tried to help him cried out in anguish at their inability to save him.

Hundreds of co-workers attended Chuck’s funeral. I sat in the church filled with pain and anger at the loss of Chuck, the best person I knew at the Star Tribune. This was one of those deaths that felt deeply unfair — to Chuck, his family, and those whose lives he impacted for good every day.

Chuck had worked at the Star Tribune newspaper for over 40 years. People liked being around him, and he had a good personal relationship with scores of employees. Peers, bosses, and subordinates made a constant stream in and out of his office. Chuck was my boss for eight of the almost 18 years I worked at the newspaper. They were my happiest and most productive years. I sensed Chuck’s leadership qualities right away. He was secure and comfortable with himself. He was not threatened by the success of others. Instead, Chuck felt happy to help others succeed. He treated people with respect and dignity and it was easy to see why people loved him. His relationships with people demonstrated that we learn, grow, and develop as leaders through relationship with others. Chuck was testimony that leaders can be healthy, humble, and human.

He wasn’t perfect, and his “niceness” caused some problems. Chuck was patient and took a long time to confront people and to put real issues on the table for discussion. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. He could have used his substantial influence more often than he did to change circumstances that needed changing. In the finest sense of the word, he was paternalistic.

Chuck accepted others as they were. When I was angry, he let me be angry and didn’t become defensive. I could tell him the truth about the organization, and he wouldn’t hold my honesty against me. When I was out of line, he forgave me. I can remember only two occasions in eight years when Chuck lost his temper and yelled, “Tom, we are not going to do that!” A half-hour later, we had patched things up and were laughing. He didn’t like to criticize people, but he would when necessary. When he did, people listened.

He gave me opportunities to grow. When I felt bored and wanted new challenges, Chuck created opportunities for me. On several occasions, he even let me write my own job description. He would read my draft carefully and hand it back to me saying, “Add more responsibilities.” I smile when I think of how we were opposites. He was detail-oriented and wanted the fine points, while I focused more on the big picture and the bottom line. We respected our differences, talked about them, and worked on them. We grew together.

Our offices were next to each other, and our paths crossed several times a day. We both worked hard and walked fast as we went from meeting to meeting. We would smile as we approached one another. I could see the twinkle in his eyes, and he would shake his head in amazement at something someone had done that he wanted to tell me about.

I learned many things about leadership from Chuck. We went to seminars to learn how to coach, mentor, cooperate, and facilitate. On the tests we took, Chuck didn’t score high as a leader; he was a pure manager. The tests were wrong. Chuck was a decent and ethical man and good leaders are good people first. Maturity, judgment, collaboration, and a systemic awareness and understanding of the organization were his hallmarks. Chuck was a good listener, was committed to the truth, and did not play games. He kept us hopeful. Chuck did not need to read about leadership or attend seminars. He became a whole person by learning how to live life. He then brought his wisdom to the workplace. With a leader like Chuck, I was content to be a follower.

Chuck remains a role-model in death as much as he was in life. We converted Chuck’s office to a conference room and named it after him. We hung his picture and a plaque in the room so future employees would know who he was and that he stood for decency, integrity, commitment, compassion, and love for his fellow man. A scholarship fund was established in his name. As his protégés mature, we have moments of insight and become aware of the wisdom Chuck possessed that we had not been mindful of when he was with us. After 20 years, Chuck’s memory endures and his stature grows with the passage of time.

How do we recognize the servant-leader in a world of cynicism, deception, and slick self-promotion? Many people correctly believe their “leaders” lie and manipulate them for personal gain. Many in positions of power undermine others and the organization to meet their own selfish needs. Such betrayals lead to the cynicism so pervasive in organizations. These “leaders” do not leader or serve; they destroy.

The servant-leader consciously and courageously chooses service over selfishness because he or she cares. Servant-leaders exude compassion; they understand that one has to love people to lead them. Every action of the servant aligns with the purpose and values of the whole — even at personal cost. Instead of being out for themselves only, the servant seeks to satisfy higher needs in themselves and in followers. The servant-leader and those served form a symbiotic relationship and evolve together. We must observe the impacts people have on others to determine the true servant-leader. Like Chuck, true leaders help others be the best they can be — all the time. You should trust your heart. If what you hear from those with power conflicts with your heart, reject their words.

Excerpted from: Learning to Live: Essays on Life & Leadership

5 thoughts on “The Servant Leader

  1. Thanks for giving me a chance to “know” Chuck, through your eyes and heart… and to think of those in my own life whose wise leadership enabled me to be a follower, when appropriate, and whose example inspired me to be a leader, when appropriate.
    In loving spirit, Eleanor

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