Toward Better Leadership

Toward Better Leadership

When was the last time you were in a Home Depot? Did you ever notice the circle on an associate’s apron? Every retail chain in America has its catch phrases and slogans, but on a recent hunt for light bulbs in Big Orange, I was struck by something an associate told me.

“It’s placed over the heart for a reason,” he said. “It” is what they call their values wheel, and the eight segments of the wheel are labelled with the typical, expected mantras, such “excellent customer service” and “creating shareholder value.” But also included in the wheel are phrases like “giving back” and “respect for all people.”

Whether or not this young man knew it, these principles are the foundation of good leadership. The concept of servant leadership has been a transformative concept in my life, both inside and outside of work. And while the notion itself is ancient, it found crystallization in the late 1970s in the work of Robert K. Greenleaf, and has been embraced, ether formally or informally, by such companies as Toro and Starbucks, and clearly Home Depot.

I’ve heard the concept of servant leadership coming back into conversations lately, after years-long absence, and the implication that decision-makers might be embracing the concept as a guiding light for their own advancement encourages me.

As Greenleaf laid out his principles, proper leadership is not about advancement for advancement’s sake. Or, as he put it, “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

We all know people in positions of authority who have a me-first, rough-and-tumble, borderline-abusive attitude to their staff. What Greenleaf is saying is that real leaders put their teams first and their egos a distant second. They dedicate themselves to ensuring not only their teams’ success, but also their well-being.

It all sounds very altruistic, but it is grounded in good business practices. Clearing a team member’s path of obstacles, such as slap-dash training or departmental conflict, makes it easier for that person to do his or her job, to perform and produce for the company and not expend energy or spirit on corporate dysfunction.

No matter our station in life, we are all servants. Servants of our shareholders, servants of our families, servants of our profit-and-loss statements. I contend that in that service we have the opportunity to understand the humility of the servant and can therefore better relate to the service others perform for us.

Now, I have to make something clear. In no way do I offer myself as a model for the perfect leader. We’re all human and perfection is a concept to be driven toward with the realization that we’ll never attain it. And I am sure I have caused someone’s frustration, just as I have had maddening experiences at Home Depot and less-than-satisfying cups of Starbucks coffee. It’s the awareness of our responsibilities as leaders that is the defining factor here.  

When was the last time you asked a staff member how they were doing? When was the last time you gave a team player a hardy, “Great job, Jenny!”? When was the last time you pulled someone aside to explore why performance has dipped rather than scold them for under-achieving? I ask myself the same questions as I pose them to you.

Leaders need people to lead, and those people follow only by trust and a sense that they are understood, appreciated and encouraged. They follow more willingly in an environment of clear direction and equally clear pathways, where they can be challenged without being overburdened. It’s the rare person who is self-motivated enough not to grow weary of mismanagement.

They who lead best are those who not only enjoy leadership, but whose passion for the position comes from a deep need to serve. It’s a concept we can all learn from.

In addition to her role as IREM 2015 president, Lori Burger, CPM, PCAM, CCAM, is senior vice president of Eugene Burger Management Corp. in Rohnert Park, CA.

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