Servant Leadership Lessons Worth Remembering

By Scott Westerman

I recently had the chance to visit with a group of executives for a refresher on the key components of servant leadership. It was a good opportunity to review the fundamentals. I pulled up one of my favorite Wall Street Journal articles that articulates the difference between managing and leading.

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

“People look to their managers,” the article concludes, “not just to assign them a task, but to define for them a purpose. And managers must organize workers, not just to maximize efficiency, but to nurture skills, develop talent and inspire results.”

And who are our servant leadership role models in this space? I always turn to my Level 5 Leadership mentor, Jim Collins for advice and here are his Top Ten.

10: Dave Packard – Hewlett-Packard
Watershed Moment: Perfected Management by Walking Around.
Our Key Lesson: Dave “Rejected the CEO Club” and put employees first.
The Take Away: “We have a responsibility to our employees,” Packard said, “to recognize their dignity as human beings.”

9: Katharine Graham – Washington Post
Watershed Moment: Took the reigns of her husband’s company after his death and stood behind the team during the Watergate investigation.
Our Key Lesson: Fear is irrelevant to the choices we make in life – Katharine Graham learned to stand firm on shaky ground. Feel the fear, and do it anyway.
The Take Away: “Courage, it’s said, is not the absence of fear,” Jim Collins reminds us, “but the ability to act in its presence.”

8: William McKnight – 3M
Watershed Moment: Fused the innovators with the system builders to create a whole new concept.
Our Key Lesson: McKnight preached disciplined creativity, creating a culture of systematic innovation.
The Take Away: “Without this creative tension—freedom vs. discipline,” Collins notes, “innovation vs. control—all you have is chaos, or worse.”

7: David Maxwell – Fannie Mae
Watershed Moment: Helped the mortgage giant not only rebound from disaster but thrive over the long haul.
Our Key Lesson: A turnaround situation can be an art form, and it doesn’t require flash. In Maxwell’s world, diligence is more important than dazzling.
The Take Away: Frame the rebuilding around an inspiring mission.

6: James Burke – Johnson & Johnson
Watershed Moment: Pulled all Tylenol off the shelves after an act of terrorism, despite the negative financial effects.
Our Key Lesson: Burke acted before crisis hit by getting buy-in from the team on the company’s basic credo: Looking out for their customers. So when the time came, doing the right thing was a natural decision
The Take Away: Know what you stand for before you are tested.

5: Darwin Smith – Kimberly Clark
Watershed Moment: Sold the paper mills to concentrate on the company’s true core competency.
Our Key Lesson: Smith asked questions and challenged paradigms.
The Take Away: “It is better to be right,” Collins admonishes, “than to be impressive.”

4: George Merck – Merck & Co.
Watershed Moment: Supported the development of a an unprofitable drug that saved thousands of lives in developing companies.
Our Key Lesson: Merck put profit second and was committed to attacking fundamental problems.
The Take Away: Do something useful and well and profits ultimately follow.

3: Sam Walton – Walmart
Watershed Moment: Transforming his “personality of a promoter” to the “soul of an operator”.
Our Key Lesson: Walton overcame his charisma and developed a hunger for learning
The Take Away: Jim Collins writes, “He set a goal he knew would be unachievable in his lifetime.”

2: Bill Allen – Boeing
Watershed Moment: Decided to build commercial airliners when the bomber business dried up after WWII.
Our Key Lesson: Allen was always thinking bigger and took the long view.
The Take Away: Don’t be handcuffed by conventional wisdom.

1: Charles Coffin – General Electric
Watershed Moment: The first CEO after Thomas Edison.
Our Key Lesson: Coffin built the stage on which everyone played, systemizing genius.
The Take Away: Created a corporate machine that created a “succession of giants.”

Great leaders understand the essential qualities of an extraordinary team. These include:

  • Self Esteem – Great teams believe they can win. Great leaders inspire confidence.
  • Defined Success – Great teams know what success looks like. Great leaders can articulate it.
  • Preparation – Great teams are always in training. Great leaders provide the tools and teachers.
  • Focus – Great teams overcome distractions. Great leaders remove them.

“Good leaders must first become good servants,” wrote Robert Greenleaf. When you realize that you are serving multiple constituencies, including your team, your whole thought process changes.

Each life experience poses a question:  “How can I change someone else for the better”. These experiences combine over time to become the basis for your personal brand, and the driver for your career progression.

What companies are really saying when they seek a new employee is this: We don’t hire people for jobs.. We invest in solutions. If your pathway is filled with acts of kindness and service, solutions to complex problems will come to you much more easily, right along with the opportunities that come with them.

And what about Passion? Mark Cuban recently wrote that it’s not about passion, it’s about effort. He believes that the effort it takes to become good at something leads to passion. I agree with his thesis if you are in a position where you are struggling to discover your passion. Learn a skill that interests you. Get good at it. And see where it goes.

But beyond that situation, Mark misses the point. History is filled with tales of men and women with a big dream, who put a lot of effort into that dream to make it real. Passion and effort go hand in hand. If you don’t yet know the first, work on the second. If you know where your heart wants to take you, then never give up until you get there.

So let’s summarize:

  • Great Leaders have a passion for what they do and express it with humility and magnanimity.
  • Great Leaders value relationships, attracting, celebrating and developing great people.
  • Great Leaders are inquisitive, yet have a clear vision, take the long view & can articulate what success/happiness looks like.
  • Great Leaders are disciplined, tenacious and have faith in ultimate outcomes.
  • Great Leaders do the right thing in good times and in bad, regardless of the financial impact.

Seek first to serve and leadership will find you. And when it does, you too will have your own watershed moment.

There will come a time when you find a passion that is bigger than yourself.  A challenge so monumental that it may seem insurmountable.  And an environment where reaching your goal will test your courage, your character and your stamina. The decisions you make at that moment will define you for the rest of your life.

Scott Westerman writes about leadership at