Servant Leadership...Literally

You’ve heard of servant leadership, but do you practice it? Check out the lengths to which these leaders at Abbott went to bring the concept to life.


No doubt you’ve heard the term servant leadership buzzing around your workplace. While the concept likely started as far back as 500 BC with Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, others have popularized the notion in more recent times. Businessman Robert Greenleaf started the modern servant leadership movement in 1970 with his seminal essay which suggested that leaders should put others’ needs before their own quest for power or material gain. Pretty radical, right?

In my 17 years as an executive coach and leadership consultant, I’ve discovered how rare – and precious - it is to meet leaders who are as genuinely dedicated to their individual workers as they are to the organization. Or, for that matter, to their own climb up the corporate ladder.

I find myself constantly explaining that servant leadership is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do. When we treat our team members with trust, respect, and compassion – in other words, like most of us want to be treated –that positive experience is often passed along directly to the end user. Zappos, Southwest Airlines and Ritz-Carlton are famous for taking care of staff the way they want them to care of customers. And it works.

But one leadership team blew me away with their commitment and creativity when it comes to servant leadership. I recently conducted a day-long strategy session with the Central Plains Sales Team for Abbott, a global medical device company. From our very first conversation, I could see the level of dedication. Led by Abbott VP of Sales Gray Fleming, the entire senior team was on the phone for every one of our calls in preparation for the interactive seminar. They were determined to make the day meaningful and memorable, and so was I.

As Gray told me, “In our organization, we try to make servant leadership as straightforward as possible: Lead from the back and remember to say thank you.  When the opportunity was realized that we could actually serve our teams, it was a no-brainer as there is no better way to demonstrate that thank you.  In my opinion, the easiest way to find these opportunities is to focus on your “role” in leadership versus your “title” in the corporation.” 

The event was a great success, with lively participation, free-flowing ideas, and solid next-step action plans. But it was what happened after the workshop that really drove home the concept of servant leadership. Gray and his senior team, comprised of Dan Stephens, Charlie Robins, Brent Temple, and Gail Carlock, planned a surprise awards banquet dinner cruise around Lake Michigan.

As the group of nearly 100 sales representatives walked up the gangplank and boarded the boat, they were greeted by the guys – their own supervisors – in waiters’ uniforms bearing trays of wine and champagne. And it wasn’t just for show. Gray and his leadership team waited on their team for the entire cocktail hour and on into dinner. It didn’t stop there: after handing out beautiful crystal awards and bottles of Veuve Clicquot in recognition of the years’ sales superstars, the gentlemen invited award winners to sign their waiter jackets with markers. A wearable wall of good wishes for future success.

While seeing these leaders literally serving was the cleverest demonstration of servant leadership I’ve ever seen, there are plenty of things you can do sans champagne or waiters’ jackets. See which of these expressions of servant leadership would feed your folks:

  • Recognize excellence. In between the big awards functions and formal recognition events, remember to cite people who’ve exceeded expectations. Celebrate even the small wins with flowers, books, or $5 Starbucks cards. Send a personal thank you email, copying the entire team for a job well done. Or do something really special, like Graham Weston, one of the founders of hosting company Rackspace, who used to give not only his parking space but the use of his personal vehicle to a standout employee every month.
  • Offer ongoing education. Nothing says “I value you” more than investing in someone’s growth and development. When time and budget allow, identify staff members to send to conferences, stipulating that they share takeaways with the rest of the team upon their return. Help people chart out their career paths, offering skills training and support to get them to the next level. Remember that life-long learners are the new gold standard for top talent.
  • Nurture your network. Make sure you’re giving back to the people who helped you get where you are today. Along with current employees who’ve had your back, reach out to former bosses, teachers, and coaches who have invested time and energy toward your success. A hand-written card, a friendly phone call, or a lunch invitation are easy ways to acknowledge that others have served you. After I gave a young staff member his first contract and encouraged him to buy the house he was considering, he called me every year for more than a decade on the anniversary of his closing date. Twenty years later, we’re still buddies.
  • Hold informal outings. While the company holiday party or annual retreat are great occasions to have on the calendar, don’t overlook the opportunity for more casual connections. Gather everyone for a Friday afternoon happy hour or invite them to your house for a backyard barbecue. Like Gray and his gang, wait on them hand and foot and they’ll know you really mean it when you talk about service.
  • Remember the small niceties. Finally, just like your mother told you when you were a kid – and Gray reiterated -  a simple please and thank you goes a long way. (Especially in email, where tone is notoriously absent.) As James Taylor sang, “Shower the people you love with love.” You betcha!




I’ve seen it happen again and again. A talented executive is brought into an organization to “shake things up,” only to discover that most people don’t want shaking up. They want to keep on doing exactly what they did the day before.

Here’s what happened to a former client I’ll call James. James was a manufacturing executive who was hired by a global engineering firm to overhaul their supply chain. He was thrilled, expecting the work to be an exciting challenge. What he didn’t expect was that people would be so resistant to change that they actually avoided getting to know him.

What James quickly realized was that he couldn’t just be a change manager, implementing efficiencies and making system updates. He had to be a change leader, creating a compelling vision of the future and helping colleagues connect the dots so they could see exactly where they fit into the picture.

James started his change leadership process with informal walk-around meetings, getting to know people and building their trust over time. Through constant communication and ongoing education, James helped his colleagues see not only where the company was headed, but also the opportunities that awaited them as individuals.It wasn’t an easy process and James would be the first to tell you that change didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. Just eighteen months later, his supply chain overhaul completed, James was moved to another location so he work his magic there.

Here are some tips for all you change leaders:

  • Create emotional connections with formal and informal followers. Spend the time finding out what’s on people’s minds and what changes they feel are important. Once your coworkers know, like, and trust you, change gets a lot easier.
  • Change is not a project, it’s a mindset. While it's okay to acknowledge people’s doubts and insecurities, it’s your job as a change leader to role model that change is not a death sentence, it’s an opportunity for growth.
  • Be patient. Real change takes time and effort which can take a toll on those who are constantly beating the drum for new ideas. But hang in there, stay positive, solicit the support of like-minded people - and let everyone else catch up!

Are you an Inspirer or an Implementer?

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I have a friend who is a font of ingenious ideas, none of which will ever see the light of day. He's a wonderful guy and inspires a lot of people, but the truth is, he's more talk than action. A total dreamer.