“I am the Servant of All.”
I once attended the BRIDGES dinner, an annual event that recognizes the achievements of the BRIDGES program, a non-profit organization affiliated with Marriott.
The largest American corporations and banks were all present and had pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund BRIDGES (although these donations were likely drops in the bucket compared with the profits, bonuses and dividends earned each year).
BRIDGES is a long-running and successful venture that works one-on-one with persons contending with disabilities. The goal: to foster personal growth, esteem and independence by connecting each person to a job opportunity best suited for him or her. As part of the process, each BRIDGES member receives high-level coaching and support, focused on practical skills that have limited their ability to find rewarding work in the past.
I was seated next to a stranger at a table in the back of the massive ballroom at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C.
I soon learned that he was a founder and director of a leading alarms and security firm.
A Japanese-American who traveled frequently between countries, he had founded the business with his father, a first-generation immigrant to the United States.
Intrigued by his unique life story, I asked him if he continued to be involved in the company.
“What is your role — are you the CEO?” I asked.
“No, I am not the CEO,” he responded softly.
“I am the Servant of All.”
He went on to explain his job and why he felt the enterprise would never have succeeded without this philosophy of leadership.
I could not help but reflect that his conception of how to run a company was the polar opposite of what most American corporate giants take for granted.
Executive after executive on the center stage accepted awards for contributing money to fund BRIDGES that year and even claimed “victory” for donating the most. I eyed my new friend. His gaze did not waver from the speakers accepting awards. He listened intently, snapped a few photos, and applauded as each man (for they were all men) held a aloft new trophy for their company’s donations.
They most often thanked only the powerful, senior executives in charge of the company— the CFO’s, CEO’s, and CTO’s. These individuals were sometimes, but not always “available” to accept the award in-person. The honor of the award belonged to those at the top; it could not be contended otherwise.
The pyramid of leadership of that the man beside me believed in and upon which he had built his life was by contrast inverted, I reflected.
I can not help but wish that this model of leadership were more prevalent in the companies I had worked for.
To my mind and to the minds of many American citizens, it is also sorely lacking in our representative democracy. In point of fact, each member of the House, the Senate, and the President has the sworn duty to serve the will of the People and advance the common good.
How far have we strayed from that fundamental principle, which is most American of all?
Service of whatever form is not an ancillary burden of leadership, nor is it a prize meant to be waved around like an Oscar.
It is the humble duty of every leader to be the Servant of All.