On servant leadership

The term "servant leadership" apparently first appeared in an essay written in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf.  He posited that this new theory of modern leadership "begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first."

By my recollection, I wasn't very interested in serving anyone but myself when I was a teenager growing up in Kamsack, Saskatchewan.  I resented when my dad asked me to go out and wash the car and I absolutely detested the requests of my mom to go out and weed the garden.  I always did what I was asked, but I did it begrudgingly and not well.  In those days, being assigned a task was akin to getting a tooth pulled out.  The key was to get it done quickly, no matter how messy the end result.

I'm not sure when the pain of work shifted to the pride of work, but I think it happened when I first began working part-time as a bag boy for Shop-Rite, the grocery store across the back alley from our house.  All of a sudden, I was being told what to do by people I didn't know well and my natural instincts kicked in to try and please them, to serve their needs, to earn their approval.

In this period, my dad decided to assign me major projects during the summer - activities that would significantly bite into my time and challenge me.  The one that sticks out the most was painting the neighbour's chimney.  My job was to wire brush and clean the whole thing, from ground level all the way up to the top.  Then I had to paint the surface of the bricks red and the grout lines white.  In my memory, it took weeks.  My father's encouragement, which for some reason or other I ascribe to this project, was "Any job worth doing is worth doing well."  That mantra, above all others, has stuck with me through my entire working life.

I have no idea why I was painting the neighbour's chimney, but my guess would be that my father wanted to serve the family next store, and in the process, serve me a lesson in taking a project from beginning to end and what it felt like to give it my best effort.  It was a lesson that stuck.

Through my high school years, I picked up work where I could: repairing and painting old wooden grain sheds, putting together metal grain bins, working at the grocery store and various odd jobs for friends and neighbours.  I took pride in my work and didn't call it a day until the job was done, and done well.

I left Kamsack and spent a few years at university in Saskatoon.  I didn't take well to higher education and decided, after two years of barely getting by, to enter the workforce.  It was the 1980's and good jobs were scarce, so I took the first one that came along: a donut baking gig at a new Robin's Donuts that was opening up on 2nd Avenue.  I worked my butt off learning how to make donuts, putting in 12-hour days for several weeks in a row trying to get the hang of it.  Over time, I picked up the knowledge, developed the physical strength and skill, and became one of the best bakers in the group.  I took pride in coming out with a great product, in serving my fellow staff members, the boss and the customers.  I even enjoyed cleaning up at the end of the night, leaving that kitchen cleaner than when I found it.

There were two mantras that I picked up during my radio years, a decade of working in communities like Fort St. John, Parksville, Port Alberni, Stettler, Drumheller and finally Fort McMurray.  The one that is most appropriate to a discussion about servant leadership is a sales philosophy espoused by the general manager of what was called the Q Group at the time, Jim Blundell.  He repeated ad infinitum: "You can only get when you want, by helping others get what they want."

"Zig Ziglar," someone yelled from the audience during today's presentation.  Zig might have said it first, but it will always make me think of Jim, because he repeated it often.

The other one that sticks out for me is something that I associate with my friend Stan Taylor who moved up the ladder during my time with the company, from managing one station to managing the group.  As a young program director, he often challenged me to "catch someone doing something right."

"Always start with the positive," he would say.  Serving the needs of the people who reported to me became part of who I was during this formative period of my professional life.

As I shifted into the Fort McMurray chapter of my career, I took on the epic challenge of rebuilding the interPLAY festival, first as a board member and volunteer, and then for 13 years as its president.  These were long and challenging years, of learning the ropes of how to organize a festival, to putting up tents, dealing with inclement weather and setbacks, and overcoming obstacles.  In the back of my mind, every hour served resulted in more people experiencing the joy of laughter, the magic of the arts, the vitality of being among people celebrating together.

Even though I was often admonished for doing it, I loved nothing better than wandering the festival site cleaning things up, emptying overflowing garbage containers and collecting recyclables.  I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty and working alongside our awesome volunteers.

I've been working with people in management positions since about 1991.  When I look back on over two decades of leading in the workplace and in the community, the most fulfilling aspect has been supporting, encouraging, mentoring and celebrating the hundreds of people who have enriched my life as employees, volunteers, or colleagues. They taught me far more than I ever taught them.  Every engagement, every situation - good, bad and otherwise - contributed to the man that I am today. I thank them, each and every one.

Popular Posts