Servant Leadership Lessons From a 17-Year-Old

I just read a great story about what Servant Leadership looks like. It’s in the new book Stadium Status: Taking Your Business to the Big Time, which is based on interviews with high performers who make the stadium their office — from country musicians, to professional athletes, to coaches.

The author, John Brubaker, aka Coach Bru, a masterful storyteller, writes about an amazing 17-year-old lacrosse player he was trying to recruit, back when he was a college lacrosse coach.

When I read the story, my jaw dropped at the thought that a 17-year-old could think that way.

I also thought, “This is a story every leader should know about.”

Before we get to the story, let’s first get clear on what servant leadership is and why you should care.

Servant leadership, in the words of Robert Greenleaf, who first wrote about this approach to leadership in 1970, is:

…a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.

In the most practical, results and bottom-line focused “Why should I bother trying to be one?” terms, practicing servant leadership helps leaders get the following results far more effectively than old school “You exist to serve ME” approaches to leadership:

  1. Employees have a “How can I help YOU?” attitude versus “What can you do for ME?”
  2. Employees care about what leadership cares about versus thinking “That’s your problem. That’s what they pay YOU the big bucks for.”
  3. Employees give leadership the benefit of the doubt when senior leadership makes decisions that have unpleasant ramifications for employees versus assuming the decision shows leadership doesn’t care about employees, or the decision reveals negative intent by leadership.
  4. Employees feel passionate about doing great work that will please the leader, and want to give 110%.
  5. All the things that leadership teams want from employees: high engagement, high morale, low turnover, great teamwork, and employees who are drama-free and low-maintenance.

Servant leadership is work

Engaging in servant leadership is not easy when you’re hyper-focused on your goals and endless to do lists. It’s not easy when you have YOUR manager or board of directors breathing down your neck, demanding results – often unrealistic ones — and demanding them now.

Given the pressures and demands on you, It’s easy to think of employees primarily in terms of, “What you can do for me. In fact, what you NEED to do, for me to achieve my goals.”

While focusing on what WE want is human nature, this perspective from a leader contributes mightily to the abysmal employee engagement levels that still plague most employers around the globe. Despite literally billions of dollars having been spent on employee engagement surveys and employee engagement consulting, the needle has barely budged in the last 15 years.

Consider the most well-known employee engagement survey, Gallup’s Q12. Five of the 12 strongest predictors of employee engagement involve things that servant leaders with a “How can I help you be your best self “attitude do:

  1. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  2. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  3. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  4. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  5. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?

The story I promised

So here’s the story from Stadium Status: Taking Your Business to the Bigtime that I promised…

When Brubaker took over as a college lacrosse head coach he inherited a team that had done poorly for years. Despite this, a high school standout, Stephen, was interested in playing at Coach Bru’s college, even though he was aggressively recruited by far better schools.

Coach Bru met with this young superstar and attempted to sign him, but Stephen refused, saying he wanted to wait until the following spring. He was, however, willing to give a verbal, non-binding commitment. Brubaker was desperate to sign this young star, and told him he would hold a scholarship for him until the spring.

All fall and winter, other college recruiters came to Stephen’s games to watch this amazing talent and hope he would change his mind. When spring came, Coach Bru and Stephen’s coach sat down with him, asking him to commit and why he waited so long.

To Coach Bru’s astonishment, this is what the 17-year- old said:

“Coach, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a lot of colleges come to see me play each week. Most of my teammates weren’t getting scholarship offers or even being recruited earlier this year but now they are. By me not committing anywhere, all the college coaches who keep coming to see me play get a chance to discover how good some of my teammates really are. If I signed early with you, all the other coaches would’ve stopped coming to the games and none of my teammates would’ve gotten recruited.”

Servant leaders think of others

Think about that. At an age where people are by nature supposed to be self-centered, this young man was already thinking of his impact on others.

He was already thinking about how he can lift up others, how he could help them achieve their goals. He had confidence in his own ability to excel and achieve what he needed to achieve; he wasn’t obsessed with how to make that happen because he knew it would. Instead, he focused on how he could serve others.

Think about being a player and having him as a team captain compared to one who was all about himself and his own success, and who merely saw fellow team members as nothing more than supporting cast?

Rather than seeing employees or colleagues as highly paid extras in our career drama, as poet David Whyte so wryly put it, servant leaders see them as fellow humans with dreams, aspirations, and challenges, who have their own lives outside of work, and who have intrinsic value.

To the servant leader, other people – employees — are not a means to an end. They are who servant leaders serve, and by doing so, bring out the best in them.

Think about supervisors and senior leaders you’ve worked for, and compare your response to those who were truly servant leaders and those who were takers, as Dr. Adam Grant describes in Give and Take. Notice the difference in your commitment, earnestness, desire to be a team player, in your willingness to sacrifice, and desire to please.

With supervisors and leaders who showed they cared about you, you undoubtedly reciprocated by caring about them and caring about what they cared about. With those you felt didn’t care about you, you didn’t care about what was important to them.

You weren’t interested in going the extra mile to please them or help them achieve what they were trying to achieve. That’s because humans are creatures of reciprocity, a principle made famous by Dr. Robert Cialdini’s book Persuasion: The Psychology of Influence. We are hard-wired to want to do good for those who do good for us. The converse is also true.

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Putting servant leadership into action

So, what to do with this story and the research?

1. Practice thinking of your role as a servant, an enabler (in a good way); a person who enables others to do their best, who does everything within their power to remove obstacles that make it hard for employees to do their best work, a leader who does everything in their power to provide the information, technology, resources, and support their people need to do great work and does NOT think, “My job is to say ‘jump’ and their job is to say ‘How high?’ and then figure out how to make impossible demands a reality.”

2. When you find yourself becoming ME focused, and not being interested in how you can help others, remember the law of reciprocity — what you put out is what comes back to you from others. If you want others to care, make sure you care about them — and that you SHOW you care.

3. Ask those who report to you: “How can I help you?” “What can I do — and NOT do — to help you be successful with this project (or in your job)?”

4. Look for opportunities to compliment — catch people doing things right — and show people you “see them.”

5. Be on the lookout for articles, seminars, networking connections, and opportunities that would benefit those you serve. The very fact that you cared enough to “have their back” and were thinking about them says a lot about who you are as a person (and sets you apart from the majority of people who never do this).

6. Be more generous with your attention and time. Don’t only ask, “Would this meeting benefit me?” Be willing to have meetings because they would help the other person. Obviously you need to use discernment so you don’t burden yourself with too many of these, but most people are so much on the “I only meet if it serves me” end of the continuum, they are not in danger of being a people pleaser.

7. Remind yourself when being a servant leader feels like it takes too much time or effort, that what you put out comes back to you multiplied, for better or for worse.