Examples of Servant Leaders

Stephen R. Covey

- 3 min read

In many organizations I’ve worked in or with, I’ve seen examples of servant leaders who have really made a difference. For example, when I was just 20 years old, I served as an assistant to the president of an organization. One time I asked him, “Why don’t you ever give me any feedback? You never tell me if you like my speeches.” And he said, “Do you want to be dependent upon me? You know within yourself what’s happening. If you want some help, you just ask me. I’m here. “From then on, I was free of the president. I didn’t have to worry about his reaction. He never praised me or blamed me, but if I wanted help, he’d give it. So I would ask him, “What do you think of this.” He served me as a source of help.

Later in life, I served as a vice president under a benevolent dictator. The servant leader who replaced him was actually tougher. That experience taught me that servant leadership is not soft or touchy-feely. It’s a much tougher style because when you set up performance agreements and become a source of help, people have to be tough on themselves. They just can’t sit around and blame others.

I’ve come to greatly admire the leadership that Horst Schulze, president of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, provides to his management and staff. He’s a very authentic person. His energy, commitment, and service to his people has created a culture of “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” While recently staying at the Ritz-Carlton at Amelia Island, I walked through the kitchen and was amazed to find that it was as clean as the lobby. The people there were in a class of their own. I’m convinced that it’s the culture that has drawn out the best in them.

I’ve also been thrilled to see models of servant leadership in action at Saturn. I recently read that Skip LeFauve, president of Saturn, now heads up the small car group of General Motors. Both he and Mike Bennett, head of the UAW, have had enormous influence in creating a spirit and model of synergistic teamwork. The results speak for themselves.

At the Toro Company in Minneapolis, chairman Ken Melrose has certainly made a difference. Only an exceptional chief executive would subject himself voluntarily to internal scrutiny and external accountability, involving all the stakeholders. Melrose is one such executive. He even posts his personal goals outside his office for all to see, along with an accounting of his performance against those goals. Both his office and his mind are open, and people at all levels are invited to share their ideas. He freely shares information in good times and bad, thus creating a culture of trust.

By inviting people’s involvement, he gains influence and commitment. He empowers others. His sense of stewardship, not ownership, of his resources makes him a model of servant leadership.

I recently attended a football game that demonstrated a magnificent contrast between the servant leadership and benevolent authoritarian styles of management. Both teams had great coaches. But as I watched the game, I could see one coach pacing up and down the sideline, making every decision on both offense and defense. In stark contrast, the other coach only got involved in the pivotal decisions, because he had set up a system of empowerment with his assistant coaches.

Historically, the servant leader tends to have a longer tenure. In many organizations, leaders, like coaches, come and go. They have two or three years to turn things around, or they’re out. Servant leaders, like the second coach I described, often have 200-win careers that span several decades. But often their contributions are rather subtle and long-term. The critics of servant leaders are people who want more dramatic near-term results; however, you don’t get real and sustained success this way. You can manage things, but you must lead people, and that leadership takes time. Remember: with people, fast is slow, slow is fast.

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