Written by Jan Turner Tuesday, March 05 2013
|“Servant leadership is a way of being and a way of leading. I feel fortunate to have been exposed to it because it is incredibly powerful.”
Wendy Collie, President and CEO
New Seasons Market
Two Thousand Cupcakes Can’t be Wrong
Memphis has long been known as the Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll. But it has also provided a home to such wonders as the Coin-Operated Elvis Shrine, America’s largest pyramid and, since 2008, Muddy’s Bake Shop.
Muddy’s sells upwards of 2,000 cupcakes a day, plus pies, cakes, banana puddin’ and pimiento cheese. And that’s just to walk-ins. Meanwhile, Muddy’s founder, Kat Gordon, serves up generous helpings of a leadership philosophy that puts the staff, customers and community first. Is it a winning recipe? You bet.
“Technically,” says Gordon, “my title is ‘president of awesome.’”
Ask the powerhouse proprietor, “What do you serve?” and Gordon’s answer is simple: “We serve the greater good…like a superhero.”
Happier People, Healthier Organizations
Gordon is just one of the thousands of women worldwide who are using something called “servant leadership” to build an organization that thrives and a life that matters. Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of the servant leadership movement and author of a 1970 essay – later expanded to a book – titled “The Servant as Leader,” was an AT&T manager who spent 40 years studying leadership and employee development. His research on the ubiquitous “command and control” approach to leadership led him to conclude that it simply wasn’t working.
Greenleaf proposed the polar opposite: a philosophical framework and a set of practices anchored in service to others – staff, customers, shareholders, the community, family members – anyone impacted by individuals and/or their organizations. He coined the phrase “servant leadership” to describe a fresh approach to human interaction that results in happier and more productive people, more productive organizations of all kinds, and a “more just and more loving” world.
It begins with a person who wants not only to serve, but serve first and who subsequently is inspired to lead.
“Serving the people who serve the customers”
What does a servant leader look like? She looks like Wendy Collie, president and CEO of New Seasons Market, a family of 12 grocery stores – with more to come – based in Portland, Ore.
Collie first encountered servant leadership during her 18 years at Starbucks Coffee Co., where she ascended to a senior vice presidency. She says that the servant leadership model was “imported” to Starbucks by then-CEO Howard Behar. Behar, author of “It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks.”
In business, she says, one of the most important themes of servant leadership is “serving the people who serve the customers.” That means empowering staff to know themselves, to be authentic and creative, and to contribute to making the organization better. The desire to “make things better” inevitably broadens to include serving the community and protecting the earth.
The Distinguishing Features of the Servant Leader
Unlike other “leadership programs,” servant leadership begins with the personal characteristics – both innate and learned – of the leader, rather than with a set of quick-fix techniques. The characteristics range from vision and leading by example to integrity, listening, empathy and encouragement.
For her, Collie says, the real turning point as a servant leader came when she embraced another characteristic: “being present.”
“Like most of us, I was tied up in activity. I was busy getting stuff done. I had to learn to focus my full attention on what was in front of me. This creates an incredible sense of connection, communication and trust with people – and you get so much more out of them,” says Collie.
The reason she chose New Seasons Market (even though she had no grocery experience) was because she recognized the values of servant leadership – which are also her values – at work. At New Seasons, she saw an environment where staff can learn and reach their best potential and where the level of customer service is “incredible.” Collie also observed New Seasons’ commitment to the regional food economy and a tradition of contributing 10 percent of after-tax profits, plus staff volunteer hours, to local nonprofits.
In January, during her opening weeks as New Seasons’ CEO, Collie visited the individual stores as a true servant leader, rubbing shoulders with staff and customers by bagging groceries, stocking shelves and reporting for duty for the pre-dawn seafood shift.
Flexibility and Universality
Much of the beauty of servant leadership rests in the fact that Greenleaf’s framework, rather than being some sort of writ-in-stone leadership cookbook (“Start with vision, add encouragement and marinate”) is more like a set of discussion points that can be adapted to any setting.
Personal interpretations of servant leadership are encouraged. Ask for a list of servant leadership’s key components and the answer will vary by person and organization. In fact, a world leadership conference not long ago ran a “What is Your Favorite Definition of Servant Leadership?” contest.
Because of that flexibility, you can find servant leadership in corporate boardrooms and in storefront shops, in universities and houses of worship, between friends and lovers and family members, and at nonprofit organizations. It’s being used at the Veterans Administration and at the corner deli.
Deidra Wager, who has used servant leadership in corporate and nonprofit settings in the U.S. and abroad, says that the concerns of servant leadership are universal. The personal characteristics of the servant leader can also be found worldwide.
“I think most of it is innate,” she says.
Wager is the president of her own retail-strategy company, DJW and Co. in Seattle, and she serves on the board of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in metro Indianapolis. Like Collie, she is a Starbucks alumna, where during 13 years she worked her way up to the rank of executive vice president for North American retail.
“It is really encouraging how universal servant leadership is,” says Wager, who used the model to create successful outcomes during four years in Tokyo for Starbucks. Now, Wager calls on servant leadership in her work with women and a network of rural Indian banks under the auspices of CARE USA, where she also serves on the board.
She advises, “When you find yourself in a really alien context, use listening, asking and follow-up” – all characteristics of the servant leader. She also believes that the concerns of people are much the same across cultures and religions. “Even when speaking to veiled Muslim women in India, the same issues come out: They are concerned about their children, their community and making things better.”
This makes servant leadership an incredibly powerful tool, Wager says. “It allows you to connect with people at any level anywhere in the world.”
From the Marine Corps to MIT
Servant leadership can now be found at organizations as disparate as Southwest Airlines, Vanderbilt University, Kaiser Permanente and the U.S. Marine Corps. It has also found a home at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, where Jackie Wilbur is the executive director of undergraduate and master’s programs. She says that servant leadership “dovetails nicely” with a Sloan creation called The Contributor Model, which is rooted in the belief that a person who knows who she is will be well-employed and that a well-employed person will be a happy person and thus motivated to contribute to the success of her organization.
Wilbur uses servant leadership in both relationship- and team-building, explaining that the philosophy “speaks to me personally and professionally.” For instance, Wilbur has put the practices to work with the Sloan administrative structure, which has been reorganized several times since fall 2011.
“Incorporating training in servant leadership has been a powerful tool in my creating a newly organized, highly effective team,” she says.
Do Women Do SL Better?
Given their cultural training as nurturers and caretakers, are women more suited than men to servant leadership? That’s open to discussion.
Wager says, “I don’t think that it’s that women are better at servant leadership. But I think it comes more easily to women, in all cultures. I think it’s more natural for women to reach for a shared experience.” She adds, “Men need to think more about how to make it a part of themselves.”
Collie feels that men and women are equally up to the challenges of servant leadership. “In my experience, the individuals – both women and men – who struggle the most are not really good ‘people-people.’ They don’t know how to communicate.”
Gordon believes that women may have an easier time grasping the concepts and that “we are probably more supportive of those who choose to be servant leaders.” But, she says, “I believe that the main obstacle to developing as a servant leader is not gender, but ego.”
Gordon explains, “It’s most difficult to be a servant leader when we can’t let go of that ego. That’s definitely something women struggle with as well as men.”
An On-the-Ground Look at Good Leading
Back at Muddy’s Bake Shop, the signs of servant-leadership success include things both seen and not seen. Among the “seen” are managers covering shifts of staff members who want to attend a child’s baseball game or other family event.
“If a team member feels supported like that by a boss, they know they are valued as whole persons,” Gordon says.
Also seen: Gordon rotating through all shifts – including the 5 a.m. bakers’ shift – in order to experience first-hand the pits and peaks of each job. That means she sometimes has days that begin at 4 a.m. and end at midnight. During odd moments, she sweeps the floors.
The “not seen” is just as important: Muddy’s has no Styrofoam, no advertising, no oppressed eggs from hens in prison. There are no performance reviews (employees evaluate managers and vice versa twice yearly via 360 degree surveys). There is no charge for coffee refills, no “icky ingredients” and no tips.
That’s right – no tips. Instead, all the change goes into Muddy’s “refill our community with positive change” jar to be distributed to different local nonprofits, selected by nomination, each month.
A Lifelong Endeavor
The women all agree that servant leadership is much more than a set of “leadership tips.” It is a way of being in the world, it is a many-layered adventure that can span a life. And, it works.
Says Collie, “I haven’t seen a time when servant leadership hasn’t worked in a beneficial way for me.” It is, she continues, “the best way to tap into the passion and skill of others.”
And that is why a book and a movement are as life-transforming today as they were more than 40 years ago. Servant leadership, Collie says, is about meaning, communication and human connection. “And that doesn’t go out of style.”
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Jan Turner lives and writes in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia. For more than 20 years her articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, USA Today Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor as well as on wire services in the United States and abroad. Turner has written on subjects ranging from leadership and business culture to diversity awareness and faith-based organizations, and she has a nonfiction book underway. Turner has an advanced degree in intercultural communication and has traveled solo on many continents, exploring cultures from Ladahk and Sumatra to Malawi and Turkey, seeing first-hand the contributions and resilience of women.