My Personal Path to Servant Leadership

“You are being downsized.”

Those four words changed my life forever. Not only were they an atom bomb within my soul, but also a knife through my heart. Blood and sweat had been spent building a team around me to help my company be as successful as possible. I had given years of loyalty and dedication, all through the recent recession and more, and it had all come to that point. My late father’s words ran through my head as I thanked my vice-president for his time, and started the long 20-minute journey home to my wife.

“Do not give a company loyalty, as it will never be given back.”

And while this problem pales in comparison to the dangers that plague the world every day, this one rocked my universe. 11 years prior, I had decided to go all in with my career, and focus on being the best leader I could be, devoting many extra hours of training and work to help build my teams around me, and make them as successful as possible. I had been through three mergers of the company, and named Leader of the Year for my region. And it was all boiled down to those four words.

As I came home to my family, I wept. I felt like I had failed them, as a father, husband, and means of support. My confidence had been swept away, and I felt I was laid bare for the world to heap its abuse and criticism upon. I began to look back at my career, and go over every possible mistake I made, and over analyze each decision. We had moved to a different city for this position, and the weight of all those family events missed, and more, bore down on me as I sagged against the side of my bed. I did not know how I was to go on, and a choice before me seemed overwhelming.

Choices

I had been given a choice by my vice-president; a choice to either resign with a small compensation package, or be demoted to a basic position, and I had three days to decide. The decision was not easy one to grapple with. Emotionally, I was drained and hurt. I had gone against my father’s advice, paid the price, and wanted to lash out at those I felt were responsible. So, I began to look at my options of moving on.

Years had been spent focused on leadership, and team-building, and I had forged strong relationships with my team. We truly had each other’s backs, and had built up an openness and willingness to communicate, that many of our meetings were filled with my leadership team venting, and then coming together to overcome any obstacle, including personal ones. We had begun to move beyond a team structure, and began to operate more as a family. Many people had been promoted, or moved onto other careers, and with each new member, we grew. While we were part of a company, we felt our team had grown beyond the borders of each of our locations. We had become stronger. And I was proud. Proud of what we had become, and of what we had accomplished. Many of the promoted leaders of our company came from my team, and we were all proud. We had achieved our goal to become the team that everyone wanted to be, constantly hearing of others wanting to join. And I felt that it was gone.

The Team by Matthew Cook CC BY 2.0

Servant Leadership

Much to my surprise, although in hindsight I am unsure as to why I was surprised, that team is why I chose to stay. After opting to stay and take a small vacation, I came back. It was not an easy journey, and one that is not yet complete. My confidence was gone, and needed to be built back up, plus I was trying to prevent the bitterness of my demotion from creeping into my daily life, and destroying my outlook. My team and family helped me. They were there to listen to me, to help me, to cry with me, and to cheer me on. The friendships that I had spent time working on from a leadership viewpoint were more than just business relationships. We had all truly become friends and family. We had all been there for births, deaths, weddings, and divorces, and we had all been on this journey through life together. For what I had thinking of as a waste of my time, I was beginning to understand that nothing had been wasted. My team was still there, and still going strong. I realized we had achieved a goal I had wanted to achieve, to become stronger than just one part of the team, to truly create a high-performance culture that was beyond the limits of a company, that stretched over into each of our lives, and had become nestled in our hearts. To have been able to succeed without me.

Leadership Team by Matthew Cook CC BY 2.0

You see, what I found is that leadership is more than is what happening right in front of me, at that very moment. I had a hard time seeing beyond the immediate moment, and failed to fully understand what had truly happened. What I had stumbled upon was Servant Leadership. Larry Spears defines a servant leader through his journal article called Character and Leadership: 10 Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders, as a leader who shows empathy, healing, awareness, foresight, and commitment to the growth of people. Those ideals I found I had stumbled upon when I realized that leadership transcends the individual to the group. The culture we created allowed for others to step up, and lead, so that if any one part of the group is removed, the culture is still sustainable. Plus, the culture allowed others to be ready to step forward at a moment’s notice, and fill any gap left open. And what I found was that the definition of a high-performance culture I felt had evaded us, had been achieved without knowing it.

Onward

And now with their help, I have been taking the next steps. I have refocused my time and energy, keeping my family first now and my father’s advice top of mind, while working to achieve my personal goals for my career, including finishing my college degree. My family and I have moved back to be closer to our extended families, changed, yet a little older and wiser. I found myself still in a leadership role, regardless of being formal or not, and our team still works to be more than we can be as individuals. For this story is not about how a leader is defined, but how those leadership traits were found already there, in the team I thought I had left behind. This is not the end, but merely a beginning, a point at which I am stopping to take a personal inventory, to recognize those around me, and be ready for whatever happens next.

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