The concept of servant leadership was originally coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay “The Servant as a Leader.” Tomorrow’s leaders actually start today, as service needs to be engrained in the core of any leader. Most leadership styles reflect not only what we know but our individual character as well. Servant leadership is not about material wealth. It focuses on 10 specific characteristics: empathy, listening, awareness, healing, conceptualization, persuasion, stewardship, foresight, community-building and commitment to growth.
I’ve seen different traits of servant leadership in mentors and leaders I admire, but it was not until recently that I saw all 10 characteristics of servant leadership exhibited during the same event. I planned a retreat for a group of college students to create an atmosphere of team building. When I decided to bring my five-year-old niece, Millie, with me, I had no idea that it would change my perspective of leadership, especially servant leadership.
As one of the team building exercises, I developed an obstacle course for the group of students to get through together. After Millie mentioned that she thought she recognized the route, I decided to appoint her as the leader of this group of college students to guide them through the obstacle course. I explained to the students that Millie was the leader and that there was only one rule to finishing this course: In order to win, they had to accomplish it together. Only one student seemed slightly annoyed by this rule; everyone else seemed willing to follow the instructions.
Before the activity started, Millie gathered the group together to tell them that she remembered this course and where the hard parts were. Calmly, she told them that she knew how to get through it, but they had to stay together, because she had a plan.
I thought, “Wow. This kindergartener has a plan to get though a course she has been through only once?!” I watched how measured she was in her approach and how she communicated with the group of college students she was leading. Millie, who is meek, quiet and stands at about 3 feet tall, was not easily intimidated. She was determined to do what was best for the group.
There was one student who consistently challenged Millie’s decisions. I was impressed by her ability to fully listen to him and then persuade him to follow the path she was taking them down. Even though she would not be shifted off the path she knew, she was dedicated to hearing the ideas and thoughts of the students she was leading. Millie even surprised a few of the college students by saying, “We can try it your way too, but we’ve got to stay together.” She was reinforcing and building upon the community around her.
When they had almost completed the course, one of the students stepped in a hole and twisted his ankle. Millie had no intention of leaving the injured person but told a different student to temporarily lead the group, displaying faith and stewardship in that person and empathy and concern for her injured participant. At this point, I thought “Dang. Millie almost got them all the way through the course while following her leadership.”
Millie knew that in order for her team to win, they had to reach the finish line together. She immediately called on the student who had previously challenged her for help. Even at the age of five, Millie recognized instinctively that he would help her, and when she asked for his help, he followed her lead and helped the injured student get back up so that they could move again as a unit. When the injured student was up and moving, Millie returned to the front of the group and led them to the end of the course. Leading from the back, she instructed them to go before her to finish the course so that she could ensure that everyone was safe.
Maybe everything we know about leadership does not come from our education, background or even experience. Maybe it comes from someplace deeper. I have no doubt that any of those college students would have been an excellent choice to guide the rest of the group through the obstacle course. Not one of them expected a kindergartener to be able to navigate the course and lead them effectively. I doubt that Millie understood the weight of her own actions. She knew the rules: She had to lead the group from the beginning to the end. Even when challenged, she did what was best for the group.
That is what servant leaders do: They put the needs of the team ahead of their own desires. By serving the people around her first, Millie succeeded. It was not about what the team could do for her. It was about how could she adapt to the needs of the team. When leadership changes from being focused on the individual to being focused on the group, and the group functions as a team, they generally succeed.
Not only did Millie learn a few lessons that day, but so did the students she led. That day, they learned that sometimes, the most unexpected individual is actually the most suited to leadership. They also learned that when a group functions as a team, the whole team succeeds.