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The Serving Leader

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The Serving Leader
Five Powerful Actions to Transform Your Team, Business, and Community, 10th Anniversary Edition, Revised and Expanded

It's people who make organizations great, so how can leaders best help their people achieve that greatness? As Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert show in this new edition of their bestseller, you can't just demand greatness—you have to inspire it. The most effective leaders don't just stand in front of their people, they stand behind them too. As one of the characters in the book notes, “You qualify to be first by putting other people first.” This concept sounds paradoxical, but it leads to extraordinary outcomes—and The Serving Leader shows precisely how and why.

While Jennings and Stahl-Wert use a compelling fictional story to outline the basics of Serving Leadership, all the characters in it are based on real people, the organizations depicted are based on real organizations—and the results they achieved are what really happened. This edition features a new foreword by Ken Blanchard, a new introduction, and a new chapter checking back in with Mike, the main character, to see what he has learned in the twelve years since he embraced Serving Leadership

On one level this is the most practical guide available to implementing Serving Leadership; on a deeper level, it is a book about the personal journey of growth that real leadership requires. Great organizations are great because they're filled with people who freely choose to do their very best. It's a maddeningly simple concept yet stunningly hard to execute. Jennings and Stahl-Wert show leaders how to earn that kind of commitment.

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Introduction

ePub

This is a story about leadership: leadership in teams, businesses, and communities. It is also a story about personal growth and how good leaders become great leaders through their willingness to face and be changed by the greatest challenges of their lives.

The story comes out of our friendship with Mike Wilson. Mike is a man we both know well. He shows up everywhere in the businesses and neighborhoods we serve. The circumstances of place and vocation vary, but Mike is always there. As a leader, he’s professionally talented and highly motivated to successfully reach his business and financial goals.

But Mike wants his life to be about more than success. He’s searching for the deeper significance of his leadership and for the satisfaction of living a life of real purpose. In this deeper search, however, Mike often feels very unsuccessful; sometimes, he feels completely lost.

As we’ve shared this story with our friends, these questions usually arise: “Is Mike’s story real? And if it is, where can I find him?” Here’s the best answer we have: Mike’s story is real. And the chances are reasonable that you’ll find someone like him occupying the office next to yours. She rides on the train with you each morning. You pass him in the hallway every day. Glance up from your reading and look around; she might be sitting right there in the room with you now.

 

The Fast Track Diverted

ePub

Why am I sitting on this train? If I had taken a flight, I’d already be there. Instead, I’ve got four more hours to sit here and fume about what I’ve gotten myself into.

I feel like I’m eight years old again. Dad says, “Why don’t you ride down on the train, Son! It’ll give you a chance to think.” And so I just do it. Like I’ve got time to sit for hours, thinking. Like I actually enjoy trains.

The thing about trains is this: trains only show you what you’re passing, not where you’re headed. Whatever you can see out the window is already old news. Been there. Regularly, the track bends enough that you can catch a glimpse of the journey ahead, but as soon as the train straightens its aim for the goal, you’re left sitting in the back just watching stuff go past. An hour into this trip and I’m way past bored.

Scratch that last sentence. I’m not bored. And, truthfully, being stuck on this train is not what I’m really troubled about. What upsets me is the fact that I don’t know what’s waiting for me at the end of this track. And I’m afraid to find out. I’m deeply worried about Dad. I don’t know how I’m going to pass so much time sitting here just with myself.

 

A New Assignment

ePub

Day’s end, and what a day it has been. Mom and Dad are in bed, and I’m back in my boyhood bedroom feeling time warped and badly torn between feelings of exhilaration and grief. I’ve got to somehow capture this incredible and tumultuous day.

Amtrak’s Acela Express pulled into Philly’s Thirtieth Street station at 12:05 p.m., five long hours after my Boston departure. Wanting to stretch my legs, I hiked the short thirteen blocks east along Market, crossing the majestic Schuylkill River—the Manayunk, as I insisted it be called in my boyhood Indian phase—to my first appointment of the day.

Dad had arranged for me to plunge right in with a lunch meeting at the famous Pyramid Club, high atop my hometown’s new, art deco skyline. When I walked in, I was stunned by the gaunt and pale face that greeted me, my dad’s wan smile masking nothing of the seriousness of his condition. He must have lost thirty pounds, and that from a frame that had been quite trim to begin with.

Dad saw that I noticed. Not giving me a chance to comment, he hooked my elbow and steered me to a circle of six men and women standing to the side. I saw the unspoken apologies on their faces—they already knew what Dad would put off telling me for another five hours.

 

Action: Upend the Pyramid

ePub

“Look, Son,” Dad said at breakfast this morning, “I know that you and I need to talk. I know it,” he repeated, making sure that I heard him.

Dad really looked at me when he said this, his eyes revealing what they usually keep hidden, a depth of love for me and his understanding of my need. We’d talk. My dad and I would not miss our chance.

“But today, Mike,” he continued, “I want you to go to work. Dive in, Son! Please!”

There it was again. “Please.” I just looked at him for a moment, trying to get my bearings. Dad and I were going to make a connection—that’s what he just promised. Underneath everything else, that’s all I really wanted.

But right now seemed as good a time as any to start that talk. It’s not like we have all the time in the world, right? And there have been other promises—ball games he wouldn’t miss, the speech I was going to give at my high school graduation. He’d get there in time, he had promised.

“Okay, Dad,” I said, nodding my head. It wasn’t okay. But I wasn’t ready, either, truth be told. I wasn’t ready to go to that place I would need to go when we had our talk. Everything was too upside down. The news of last night was too fresh, my torn feelings of love and hurt too jumbled. So, I’d go to work today. I’d try to please, like he asked. It’s familiar ground.

 

Action: Raise the Bar

ePub

“BioWorks is on everyone’s list of hot companies,” Ali began. I started a fresh section in my journal. “It’s an innovative, high-science organization committed to next-generation sustainable technologies. Over the years, it has focused on agriculture and energy, especially in the area of biofuels. The company’s work with biomass conversion points the way to energy sources that are totally renewable, carbon neutral, and biodegradable.”

Puzzled, I glanced over at Ali. I had no knowledge of this field and hadn’t understood a word he had just said.

“No greenhouse gases,” Ali explained. “No global warming. And no dependence on foreign oil. It’s big!” he added with a grin, making sure I saw the size of the frontier BioWorks was exploring.

“What you’re going to find really interesting, though, is the competitive edge BioWorks has gained in this new global market through its commitment to Serving Leadership.”

Arriving at a series of low-slung buildings, we were greeted at the door by Stephen Cray, one of the CEOs I had met the day before.

 

Action: Blaze the Trail

ePub

Dad and Mom headed back to the hospital this morning to review the results from yesterday’s tests. He is resolved about not wanting any medical heroics that will add no real value to the time he has left. They are considering, however, a round of radiation to deal with an intestinal blockage caused by tumor growth—we know now why Dad has no appetite.

I feel I should postpone my schedule. As much as Dad wants me out in the streets, I feel I should be spending time with him. My head’s filling up with facts, principles, and diagrams, but my heart needs—I don’t know what my heart needs. Instruction? Engagement? If I’m learning anything, I’m learning that the Serving Leader model can’t be understood through principles and diagrams alone.

I think my relationship with Dad is a key. I still feel terribly disconnected from him. This is troubling to me because Dad tells me that a Serving Leader focuses on a new kind of relationship. Well, I’d like to have some of this new kind of relationship taking place between us.

 

Mending a Broken Track

ePub

Charlie called me today, wondering how my project’s coming along. He’s been checking in with Dad every few days and knew full well that my project has not been coming along. That is, not my Philadelphia project.

As to the deeper project, the project of myself and my dad, so much has taken place.

For three weeks now, I’ve been spending time with Dad and Mom. His radiation treatments ended today. Three weeks of daily trips to U. Penn., new pictures each day, followed by an hour of setup—all in preparation for each day’s mere seconds of radiation. The pictures look better. The blockage is open. But frankly, Dad’s only weaker. He is eating more, and Mom and I are glad about that.

I guess I was not really surprised to hear from Charlie. As much as he understands the fact that I’m going through a difficult time with my dad, he really doesn’t understand. He’s my boss, and he expects me to show him something for all this time. I think he’s losing his patience. I understand more now about Charlie’s sense of indebtedness to my dad. Dad asked him to do this, so he’s doing it. But I sense the day is coming very soon when Charlie will have had enough. So be it!

 

Action: Build on Strength

ePub

Another week has passed since I made my last notes. Dad has enjoyed a real bounce in both energy and appetite, and he’s bent on putting both himself and me back into play in our Serving Leader project. Mom, Dad, and I all know that this bounce is only temporary, that, in fact, it might be very short-lived. We want to make the most of it.

Yesterday I reviewed with him the work I’ve done so far, showed him my journal, and talked at length about what I’ve been learning. I watched him intently while he read—saw his smiles, his nods, and at times his outright laughter. And I was riveted to his face for a couple of incredible moments when he stopped his reading, tears in his eyes, to look up at me.

“This is really good,” he said simply when he had finished. His face told me everything a son wants to know.

We talked about how personal my journal has become, and Dad told me this was, in his estimate, the best part of it.

“If it wasn’t personal, Mike,” he declared, “it wouldn’t be worth a thing!”

 

Action: Run to Great Purpose

ePub

Dad and I lay low yesterday. Our trip to Greenwood pretty much wiped him out, though he’s adamant about the fact that it was not his last hurrah. To prove it, he set up another appointment for lunch today. “It’ll be a very important visit, Son,” he told me.

We spent part of our day yesterday in the basement together, working on some final track hookup. Dad mostly watched, though he did touch up a few buildings with paint. We turned the whole system on and ran our trains. For a little while, time stood still—Dad and his boy just played with trains. I’ll cherish this memory.

We also talked.

“What’s up with Anna?” he asked at one point, a small twinkle in his eyes.

“Nothing,” I replied a little defensively. “I don’t think anything’s up. She’s nice, though,” I decided to allow.

“Indeed. Like I said to you before. You need new eyes, my boy. ‘Nothing,’ you say!”

I just looked at him, unable to suppress a small smile. Okay, maybe not nothing.

 

The Serving Leader

ePub

Ali suggested I try my hand at writing a job description for the Serving Leader. Though it’s been nearly two months since I finished this journal, rereading it now confirms in my mind that it captures reasonably well the key elements of what I learned from my father and his friends—well, my friends now, too. There is much to flesh out, of course, but I’ve not really had time lately to do it. I think I’m ready to give it a try.

Hey, Dad! Take a look!

SERVING LEADERS

Run to great purpose by holding out in front of their team, business, or community a “reason why” that is so big that it requires and motivates everybody’s very best effort.

Upend the pyramid of conventional management thinking. They put themselves at the bottom of the pyramid and unleash the energy, excitement, and talents of the team, the business, and the community.

Raise the bar of expectation by being highly selective in the choice of team leaders and by establishing high standards of performance. These actions build a culture of performance throughout the team, business, or community.

 

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