In Praise of Selflessness

By Leigh Buchanan / Inc. Magazine

Why the best leaders are servants.

Who are you doing it for? Asked that question, many entrepreneurs would answer, "me." There's nothing wrong with that. Plenty of great companies were built by people for whom CEO is an imperfect acronym for "He who must be obeyed."

Servant leaders, by contrast, put their people and their organizations before themselves. They don't view employees as a means to an end; rather employees' happiness and satisfaction is the end. A former AT&T (NYSE:T) executive named Robert Greenleaf introduced the concept in 1970 (although the authors of the New Testament had laid the foundation a bit earlier). In the movement's argot, servant leaders "wash others' feet." Some of the most successful entrepreneurial companies--including Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) and Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX)--are servant led, buoyed by the contributions of trusted, respected employees.

Servant leadership is enjoying renewed currency now--which makes sense, given the tight labor markets and widespread mistrust of chief executives. (CEOs like Home Depot's (NYSE:HD) Robert Nardelli and Morgan Stanley's (NYSE:MS) Philip Purcell weren't shown the door for excessive humility.) It is also the natural model for the growing number of companies that compete for human capital.

Still, adopting servant leadership is a tough psychological adjustment for many entrepreneurs. Just how tough depends, in part, on the entrepreneur's motivation. People who start companies out of passion for a product or the desire to create opportunities for others adapt well, says Mathew Hayward, a professor at the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business and author of Ego Check: Why Executive Hubris Is Wrecking Companies and Careers and How to Avoid the Trap. But founders panting to run their own shops make poor foot-washers. In addition, untested leaders may worry about appearing anything other than alpha-ish. "Founders in the early days have a profound need to establish their credentials," says Hayward. "They may look on servant leadership as something to evolve into--later."

Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw understand the challenges better than most. The co-founders of Zingerman's Community of Businesses have built their $30 million food, restaurant, and training company on servant leadership principles. In the process, they've wrestled with three paradoxes. First, the higher you rise, the harder you must work for others; no kicking back in the Barcalounger of success allowed. Second, although you hold formal authority over employees, you must treat them like customers and, when reasonable, do their bidding. Third, when your desires and the needs of your organization conflict, your desires draw the low card. "It's a big change from the way we're socialized to think about success," says Weinzweig. "When you've put so much energy into getting to a leadership position, this is hard."

It was certainly hard for David Wolfskehl. When he launched Action Fast Print at age 24, he believed presiding and deciding were the essence of leadership. "I thought I had to have all the right answers," says Wolfskehl, who built the business to $1.5 million before selling it last year. (His new venture, Business Advisors International, is a consulting firm in Bridgewater, New Jersey.) Wolfskehl recalls years of weekly meetings during which he would stand before his 16 employees and tell them what to do. "I would go in with my agenda," he recalls. "We were talking about my issues, not the employees' issues. I would leave those meetings thinking we had accomplished something. But the employees wouldn't buy into what I said we should do.

"Those meetings stunk," says Wolfskehl. "I thought they stunk because of the employees. But really they stunk because of me."

Wolfskehl's epiphany arrived after he read Change Your Questions, Change Your Life by Marilee G. Adams, who advises leaders to stop telling and start asking. The prospect of upending the dynamic at his company scared him. "I worried that everyone was going to tell me all the things I was doing wrong," he says. But Wolfskehl steeled himself, and at one meeting he opened the floodgates with these words: "Today we're going to start talking about your problems and how I can help you." "Once I started asking how I could help, amazing things started happening in my organization," he says. "In a two-year period, we had a 30-plus percent improvement in productivity. The solution was so obvious. It's just sad that it took me 15 years to get there."

Servant leaders also often do things that seem less than leaderish. Wolfskehl, for example, would clear the snow from employees' cars on wintry days. Other proponents step in for absent staff rather than expecting others to shoulder the burden. At the Ward Group, a $34 million advertising agency in Dallas, founder and CEO Shirley Ward filled a vacant media buyer position for several weeks; she and her son Rob Enright, the agency's president, have been known to man phones in the reception area to give a secretary a break. Similarly, Chris McKee, managing partner of Venturity, a $2 million accounting outsourcing firm in Dallas, has been performing some of the duties of an assistant controller who has been on extended sick leave. Although McKee has 25 employees he can call on, "I don't want the weight of the world on their shoulders during difficult times," he says.

Ward and McKee choose their humble tasks; the leaders of Zingerman's have humble tasks thrust upon them. Weinzweig and Saginaw practice what might be called reverse delegation--constantly asking employees, "What can I do for you?" and usually doing it. "People give me assignments all the time," says Weinzweig. "Sometimes I'm the note-taker. Sometimes I'm the cleaner-upper. Sometimes I bring food to the meetings. Sometimes I'm on my hands and knees wiping up what people spilled." When Weinzweig visits the company's Roadhouse restaurant, busy wait staff don't hesitate to request that he serve patrons or bus tables. "We have to learn to be good followers," says Weinzweig.

Still, Weinzweig is quick to point out that "servant leadership doesn't mean you just do whatever they tell you to." Weinzweig says: "People try to take advantage of it. They'll say 'servant leadership' as a reason why you should do their work. Sometimes I do it. Sometimes they do it."

Given that humility isn't core curriculum at most executive education programs, how do you develop servant leader skills if they don't come naturally? Volunteer work can be an excellent autocracy neutralizer, suggests Jeremy Brandt, founder of, a $1.35 million company that generates leads for real estate investors. Shortly before launching his business four years ago, Brandt was asked by the pastor at his church in Grapevine, Texas, to lead a fellowship group of about 15 people. Brandt, a get-it-done kind of guy, soon found himself in charge of 25 such groups. His big-stick approach fell apart. "It's very natural as you manage more and more people to let your ego get in the way," says Brandt. "It's illuminating to manage volunteers because if you act that way, no one listens to you. They don't have to." Instead, Brandt began asking questions. What problems do you have? How can I help you? He drew on the experience to shape his performance as CEO. "At the company, I solve people's problems," he says. "I give them what they need so they can blossom."

Perhaps the best way to learn to wash the feet of others is to take the injunction literally. Eliot Swartz is co-founder of Two Chefs on a Roll, a 180-employee private-label food manufacturer in Carson, California. Every Monday evening for 10 years, Swartz traveled from his company to Torrance Memorial Medical Center. He wasn't organizing a fundraising campaign or serving on the board of directors. He was helping out in the emergency room. "I did whatever they asked me to do," says Swartz. "Held the hand of a mom whose child had been in a car accident. Changed sheets. Took people down to X-ray. Took labs where they needed to be."

Servant leadership isn't about being a great boss; it's about accepting that bossing and leading aren't synonymous. There's nothing like changing a few bedpans to bring that lesson home.