by Mike Morisi

In this age that we live in, the societal issues we face are more challenging than ever. We struggle with them, debating the different sides of each one and challenging one another to validate or justify the positions we take in how to address them. Whether at church, at the office water cooler or at dinner with friends, we have all been in this position and what I have noticed is that as much as we try to remove personal judgment from the process of solving the world’s problems, it is simply not easy to do.

I have often wondered wonder why it’s so difficult to remove judgment and what I have realized is that as a society, we have inadvertently been conditioned to look at people in terms of their profession, education, wardrobe, car, home etc. We then use these things to place people into a “pecking order”. Such judgment and unfair treatment is not a new concept. Examples of this behavior date back to Jesus’ time. Addressing the Disciples on their own attempts to set up such “pecking orders”, Jesus rebuked them as it is told in the Gospel of Mark:

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

The relevance of this passage is very clear in business today. The Biblical account cited demonstrates that as Christians we need to take a closer look at the principle of Servant Leadership and how by embracing its philosophy and practices–as Jesus instructed the Disciples–we can personally improve the world in which we live, by improving the lives of those we lead and over whom we have influence.
So what is Servant Leadership and what does it mean to be a Servant Leader? Simply put, to be a Servant Leader is to put the needs of customers, employees and communities first. It’s a style of leadership that is focused on inspiring people through empowerment rather than a command structure.
In the corporate world, for many years the environment was traditionally one of command and control processes and hierarchical structures designed to enforce rules and policies, or to keep employees “in line”. It was a structure that did little to motivate employees to much other than seek more tolerable employment and to aspire to a less oppressive existence. Time and time again, studies have shown that unmotivated employees do not deliver a quality product nor do they strive to deliver a level of service that requires any more than a bare minimum effort on their part.

The way that corporate leaders treat the team members who they lead is in large part the factor that determines how those team members will deliver their value to customers either internally or externally. Let’s face it, employees who are treated well and led by inspirational leaders (think of Steve Jobs at Apple or Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines) deliver a product that is embraced by the public, while company’s whose employees are treated poorly and who are managed (rather than led) are much more likely to deliver a sub-par product or customer experience, because they themselves are dissatisfied with their treatment by the company. In effect, they are perpetuating the same experience externally that they experience internally within their organization.

So, how can Servant Leadership make a difference beyond simply providing a better customer experience? It’s simple… Servant Leaders are committed to improving the lives of others. Now, at first it might sound like a form of corporate charitable giving, and in a way it is, but not in the traditional sense. You see, employees (or team members as we call everyone at my company) who are happy, and feel respected and satisfied in their careers are more likely to spread those good feelings with others. Think of it as a sort of spiritual “trickle down” approach to spreading the behaviors that we as Christians aspire to in our day-to-day lives.

Servant leaders are more likely to take the time to help mentor and develop members of their team. Think of how that impact will continue to pay dividends in the world. The team member who benefits from this extra attention will be more likely to do things ranging from mentoring others who they will lead as they advance within the organization, which in turn institutionalizes a culture within the company. As the team member rises within the organization, and their compensation rises accordingly, it places that team member in a position to give something back through increased charitable giving, creating opportunities in their own communities which might not have otherwise been there.

Many companies that have embraced the Servant Leadership model have also set up structures to provide corporate charitable giving. This giving takes many forms, from helping employees deal with excessive medical bills in the case of serious illness, offering scholarships to the children of team members, or even direct financial support for charitable causes outside of the company that are in line with the company’s charter. And many of these programs are funded not only by the company, but by the company’s employees who, inspired by the Leadership that serves them, make donations either for specific events or often through ongoing payroll deductions.

In a real world example of how a culture that embraces Servant Leadership can make a difference, I have to look no further than our experience at the company I founded, PEOPLExpress™. It is no secret that the airline industry is one of the most competitive and challenging industries to succeed in. It’s an industry where differentiation can be difficult… each airline flies what are basically very similar airplanes to many of the same destinations. Often, the only differentiators are price and service. At PEOPLExpress™ we chose to make both points of differentiation a focus.

Pricing differentiation was simple. Controlling costs is something that’s a matter of planning and mathematics, however, Service differentiation is a greater challenge. To successfully differentiate our service it meant attracting and retaining the right team members. It is critical that we demonstrate to them that our leadership team is committed to their success as Servant Leaders, in the same way that we want them to be committed to one another and to our customers. Most important is that all of this has to come from the heart, because in today’s world customers and colleagues are much too savvy not to know when the commitment isn’t genuine.

Was our approach successful? Overwhelmingly so. Actually, the feedback from our Servant Leadership approach exceeded our wildest expectations. Even as we hit speed bumps in our launch, with delayed flights or service irregularities that resulted in frustrations and inconveniences, we regularly received e-mails and posts on social media praising our team members for the service and treatment of distressed customers. These comments are not common in our industry, and the fact that we received them consistently and regularly can be readily attributed to our culture of Servant Leadership.
As you can see, Servant Leadership has the power to make a difference in our world today, much as it did in Jesus’ time. Just as it made a difference in the business world for all of us at PEOPLExpress™, it has the power to make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. It can indirectly take the stress off of public assistance, charities and religious groups whose budgets have seen cutbacks due to the economy and an overall decrease in donations. As Christian Leaders, embracing Servant Leadership provides us with an opportunity to proudly hold our heads high, walking a path that Jesus lovingly blazed for us and serving as a positive example to our peers as we each make a difference that is greater than the effort invested.

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