"You're gonna have to serve somebody.” ---Bob Dylan

(Editor’s note: This is Part 7 of a 10-part series examining the building blocks of effective L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. This time? S = SERVICE.)

Success. Solitude. Sacrifice. Satisfaction. What to do with one of the most popular letters in the English language when there are so many leadership qualities we could identify that start with “S”? A lot of tempting choices, but S = Service best expresses another inescapable quality of great leaders.

You’ve probably read something of the body of work around the servant-leader. Robert Greenleaf is generally credited with coining this term, and while he never proffered a definition, in his 1970 essay, "The Servant as Leader," he offers this description:

"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….”

In short, it is the service mentality of great leaders who recognize that their principal mission is to serve their constituents and to support their activities in every way possible. By starting from this premise, servant-leaders provide resources, counsel, direction and, yes, protection for those working to serve their organization's purpose.

Thirty years ago, and even today, we lived in more of a command and control culture. I freely admit I was front and center in that culture, in part nurtured by military service, but as well by the demanding and dictatorial bosses with whom I worked in my early career. My good fortune was that my next boss was the polar opposite of the previous leader with whom I served, and was the epitome of the servant-leader. He made sure that his people were supported, nurtured and challenged -- but only in ways that served the individual and the organization and never in a threatening or intimidating manner.

This should be an easy concept to grasp since we all operate in a service business of some sort. If you have customers or clients of any type, shape or size, whether in a commercial or not-for-profit organization, serving them is your principal mission. In fact, serving all of your constituents is really the ultimate measure of your success and will reward you and your organization more than any other single thing you can do.

Companies like Zappos and The Container Store have focused on creating employee-centric cultures, and I’ve come to believe that the “customer first” mentality is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The evidence is compelling that by taking care of our employees first and foremost, they will, in turn, take care of the customers and the other constituents that make our organizations run effectively.

I frequently invoke the phrase "I'm only here to serve,” and while it’s sometimes rendered with an impish grin and a little hyperbole, it does represent the essence of our roles no matter how it’s stated. Yes, it may sometimes sound a little gratuitous … but by relentlessly validating that approach with our deeds and conduct -- by walking the walk -- it creates an infectious attitude that’s always welcome.

To serve also means you're on call. It doesn't mean that you must have an open door every minute of the day, but it does mean that you stand ready and willing to serve your troops, and recognize their needs don't always come in handy doses delivered at a convenient time. The test of a true leader is the ability to be present, to be reliable and disciplined about how to serve her team, and her willingness to go the extra mile to make sure that she’s serving her team, when, and where needed.

So when you get up in the morning, serve your family. When you arrive at the office, serve your employees. When you're in the field, serve your customers and suppliers. Don’t get run over, lose money or make accommodations that are unreasonable. Bring a positive “service” attitude as your sidekick and be willing to go the extra mile to serve everyone in your universe.

Think “service” in your dealings with your employees and other communities, and you’ll find that it empowers everyone to find ways to meet the organization’s goals. As you become a better servant-leader, the people around you will notice and celebrate your service to them by extending that service mentality to your customers while delivering superior performance.

What’s not to like about that kind of service?


Lary Kirchenbauer is the president of Exkalibur Advisors, providing practical business strategies for middle market businesses. Exkalibur works closely with senior executives and their businesses at the intersection of leadership, finance and business strategy. You can subscribe to his newsletter at the Exkalibur website at www.Exkalibur.com. You’ll also find a library of valuable resources, including a new video and podcast library as well as articles and insights related to middle market businesses.