Welcome back to Season 1, Episode 10 of the Convene Podcast. What does it mean to be a servant leader? And why does it matter? How can it make a difference in the way you live your day-to-day life as a leader? How can it transform the lives of others? As the owner and Cultural Architect of Datron World Communications, Inc.,
In November 2008, Tony Lancaster was driven to Southern California by his brother, and dropped off with a change of clothes and a backpack. Fresh out of rehab, having just lost his business and all of his money, Tony was without hope. But later that year, everything changed. He found Jesus Christ, which eventually led him to make a difference in the world by giving back what he himself had been given: hope. Tony started, and still leads, HOPE Café and Catering, which serves fresh, gourmet food to groups of any size (between 10 and 10,000!).
But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” - 1 Peter 1:15-16 (NKJV)
Chick-fil-A Servant Spirit: In Theory
Awhile ago, I read an issue of In Touch, the magazine produced by Dr. Charles Stanley’s church, First Baptist Atlanta. The publication featured an article titled: “Dan Cathy: Leading the Next Generation at Chick-fil-A.” The article mentioned that Mr. Cathy “spends most of his time traveling, helping with grand openings for new franchises, staying attuned to customers’ needs, and modeling a servant spirit for the employees.”
The fact that Chick-fil-A includes “modeling a servant spirit for employees” as a part of their corporate culture and one of their most critical business imperatives speaks volumes for their focus on servant leadership. In the article, Dan states:
God wants to use the local church to make a difference. There are so many negative forces going on in our society. This is a fallen culture that we live in…but if we’ll acknowledge God in all our ways, then not only for us as a family and as a business but even for us all as a nation, God will continue to direct our paths.
Chick-fil-A Servant Spirit: In Practice
I had the unique opportunity to experience Dan Cathy’s humble attitude and servant leadership approach in person when I recently had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with him at a Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon where he was the keynote speaker.
During his powerful presentation, he shared a number of interesting items and artifacts and explained how each symbolized specific leadership principles. One of these articles was a shoe brush. Dan explained how it was used for brushing and shining shoes, but, for him, it also represented the importance of remaining a humble servant and reminded him of how Jesus washed the feet of His disciples.
Well, after explaining this, Dan asked a gentleman from the audience to come and stand beside him. And to our utter amazement, Dan got on his knees and actually rolled up the cuffs of the man’s trousers and brushed and shined his shoes! When he finished, he pulled the cuffs back down, stood up, and gave the man a hug! Dan explained that this is the type of servant attitude that he tries to impart to his employees. Dan’s actions transcended his words in an extraordinary way and left an affirmative, indelible impression that I will never forget.
We must always pray for spiritual discernment in creating a corporate culture that is not only authentic, but also honors God. You should be so much of a positive influence on others that their lives should be enhanced as a result of being under your leadership and authority. I believe the definition of an exceptional leader is one who serves and enhances the lives of others by moving them closer to God and the achievement of their spiritual calling and purpose. If you can create a culture to facilitate this, then you are one step closer to truly transforming the workplace and marketplace.
When my kids were young, I was fully dedicated to my career. I had made it a higher priority than my own family and even my health. On weekends (well, Sundays, which was all the weekends I thought I could spare), all I wanted to do was spend time recovering mentally and physically from my hard work all week.
My kids, Jennifer and Chris, had other ideas. They would often come to me and ask if we could do things together as a family that day. My standard answer was, "We'll see." After getting this response on a fairly regular basis, I overhead Jennifer, the older of the two, tell Chris one day that "we'll see" meant "no." Based on my past behavior, my kids were smart enough to translate what I thought was a non-committal answer into what it really meant - "no."
Recently I spent some time on the phone with a leader I had met just some months before. I'm a member of a select group of leaders who have invested both time and money into learning from some of the best leaders in the world through a monthly conference call. We also spend time one-on-one sharing best leadership practices. On the phone with my new friend, we talked about leadership in our respective companies and discussed our leadership teams. Well into the conversation, my leadership partner asked if she could provide some feedback on what she had observed. "Yes, please do," I replied.
Her first observation was positive reinforcement. She had not heard the word "but" during my entire description of the leadership within our company. She explained how the senior leadership time of her company had thrown their energy into changing the mindset of their leaders. One of their key focus areas was changing the language their leaders used. The first example she shared was their practice of asking others permission to coach them. They use wording that goes something like this:
"I sense an opportunity to mentor you; is it okay if I share with you today"? If the answer is "yes", they share their observation or feedback. If the answer is "no," they say, "Great! Have a wonderful day. I'll talk to you later." I realized she had just done that in our conversation when she asked my permission for her to give feedback.
Her second observation was not as positive. Basically, she "busted" me on using the word "try" when describing our company's leadership. I think most of my talking points had started off with, "We try to..." She very politely helped me understand how the use of this word really provides a basis for not doing something, rather than being a commitment to do something.
This was not my first exposure to the word "try." Early in my career I had been mentored about the same word. It was around the time Nike had come out with its slogan, "Just Do It." My mentor explained that you either do something or not; there is no in between. When you say you'll try, you are not fully committed to the action. You have a safe out to fall back on - "Well, I tried."
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word "try" as:
"To make an effort to do something; to attempt to accomplish or complete something; to do or use something in order to see if it works or will be successful; to do or use something in order to find out if you like it."
There are several phrases that stand out to me in this definition: "attempt to accomplish," "see if it works," and "find out if you like it." When we use the word "try" in our conversations, the people we are communication with could receive our words within any one of these contexts. More likely, though, people will define "try" based on their previous experiences, either with us or with other leaders.
I am a firm believer in servant leadership and have dedicated the balance of my life to living as a servant leader and sharing our knowledge with others. We have implemented servant leadership in our companies and have created the Servant Leadership Institute to help others do the same.
Let's look at how others might receive my comments on servant leadership if I were to use these concepts of the word "try":
"We are going to make an effort to implement servant leadership at our company." "We are going to use servant leadership to see if it works or will be successful." "We are going to implement servant leadership to see if we like it."
Compare these statements to the following commitment:
"We will be a servant-led organization. I believe that servant leadership is the only way to lead and serve others, and we will be known as a servant-lead company."
Early on in our implementation at Datron, our leaders thought that servant leadership was just the latest "fad," and it would be replaced with something else within 12 months. Their reaction was not directed to me as an individual, nor was it directed to the concept of servant leadership. It was based on the fact that the leadership of the company over the years prior to 2005 had spent a lot of money and effort "trying" different leadership styles to "see if they liked it" or "to see if it works." They never committed themselves to operating their business in any particular way. Does that sound familiar?
We have dedicated our lives to servant leadership. Over the past several years, though, the leadership team at Datron has drifted in its commitment to this practice. It's been slight and it's been subtle, but there has been a drift. Several leaders were brought in from outside the company, including a new CEO. The on boarding of these new leaders in a servant-led organization leadership. In reality, this culture or mission drift happens in all companies, but that doesn't mean it has to be permanent. (I would suggest you read a book called Mission Drift by Peter Greer and Chris Horst to fully understand this concept.)
As I was listening to my new friend, who served me in the best way, politely "busting" my leadership language, I realized that this little change in my language - and hence in my thinking and that of my team - was hindering our company's ability to recover from the culture drift that had happened over the past several years. The language I was using was limiting our team's commitment to stop the culture drift by refocusing on our original mission and purpose.
I took over eight pages of notes during out hour-long phone conversation. I am still "thinking about my own thinking" - about the words I use as the CEO, about their impact on others, and about the mindset I have on the language of a servant leader.
Where do you stand as a leader? Are you fully committed to a leadership style? How do those you influence translate the words you say as a leader? Do you use words like "we'll see" or "we're going to try..."?
In the end, leaders need to show their commitment to those we influence. Our message must be clear. When we're in a senior leadership position, our words send messages to others that reveal the level of our commitment to serve them. I am thankful for this leader's servant heart. Those I serve will feel her leadership influence through seeing a change in my behavior.
Servant leaders understand that our learning will never end. Living your life for the sake of others requires a commitment to reflect on your own behavior before you look at others'.