Jim Hunter – Servant Leadership Interview Series

We continue the servant leadership interview series with a real treat. I was honored to have Jim Hunter sit down for an interview on Servant Leadership. Jim has over 30 years of experience teaching and consulting on servant leadership principles. He is the author of two best-selling books on the topic: “The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership” and “The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle“.

We met in front of a group of students from Hope College’s Center for Faithful Leadership. Immediately below are highlights from our conversation, followed by the transcription of our entire discussion. For the full interview, see the video at the bottom of this post. Enjoy!

Interview Highlights

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Full Transcript

Ben: Hi everybody.

Audience: Hi

Ben: It’s good to be here. So I’m thinking most of you are from a class, what class is it again Steve?

Steve: It’s Leadership 291, it’s called, “Becoming an Influential Leader”.

Jim: Becoming an Influential leader….

Ben: Well today’s about servant leadership and of course, that ties a lot into influential leadership. If you look at some of the companies with the strongest results and the best reputations, you’ll find that servant leadership is at the heart of them.

The world’s largest online shoe retailer went from 8 million $ to 1 billion $ annual revenue in 7 years. Then joining and remaining on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list, Zappos.com’s motto is “We’re a service company and we just happen to sell shoes”, achieved these results and more behind their successful servant leadership.

You can also consider a business that awakens a massive industry then dominates the market shares globally at the same time, busting misconceptions about the way the food service industry must treat employees. $16 billion dollar a year Starbucks did this by offering a higher than average salary, health insurance for part-timers and free college education for employees. This caffeine giant that former president Howard Behar wrote a book entitled: “It’s Not About the Coffee”, drives success through servant leadership.

Also consider how a company in an industry notoriously difficult to make money in, has managed to be wildly successful, where others have failed. America’s largest airline and the most profitable – the airline that love built. Southwest Airlines, has been touted as a servant leadership company as well. In fact they remain on the top 20 of glassdoor.com’s “best companies to work for”. These are only some of the celebrated examples. Every day, in every community, every industry and field there are organizations practicing servant leadership and driving great results. Servant leadership has proven successful and has a positive impact for the long term, time and again. So why is it not more common? Why is it not THE leadership model that every organization aspires to?

In part because too few people know about it, or they misunderstand it. With us today is Jim Hunter one of the few, who has done many great, tremendous things to spread awareness and understanding of servant leadership. Jim is the author of the best-selling book, The Servant, a Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership – which I believe that some of you have read. And also The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle, How to Become a Servant Leader. Through speaking engagements and consulting Jim has advocated servant leadership to hundreds of organizations and thousands of people. It’s a real honor to have Jim here with us today and talk to us a little bit about servant leadership. Thank-you Jim.

Jim Thanks for having me, Ben. I appreciate it.

Ben: So Jim I like to kind of start off with just kind of a getting to know you thing. You know I’d like to understand who you are, where you came from. So… and also about your childhood, where were you born, where you grew up and maybe a little bit about your family.

Jim Yeah, so I went to Grosse Ile High school on a little island that sits at the bottom of the Detroit River. Then I went Valparaiso University at least for a year and a half and then I didn’t do so well there – they kicked me out. I still can’t believe they did that. But true story I flunked out of Valparaiso. In fact, I was so clueless, I went and talked to the Dean of men – it was just before Christmas – and he said, “You’re done”. And I said “I was just voted social chair of my fraternity,” and the amazing thing is I was dead serious! I really thought that he couldn’t do that.

Well anyway, I was done, so I went to work in a factory for couple of years and decided school wasn’t so bad, so I ended up going back to Valparaiso 2 years later they took me back. so they took me back and ended up graduating there and the irony of that is that I graduated back in 1979 and 20 years later – almost to the day – the president of the university invited me to be [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][unclear] Ben so when I was talking to the comencees, the ones graduating, I told them that story and they kind of get a kick out of it. I said, “What’s with you guys? You love me, you hate me, you love me hate me and so school was not, really something I did well at.

But anyway after college I started working in Detroit at a steel fabricating place and I worked in human resource, they called it personnel management back then and I spent a couple of years doing that before I got into labor relations and then I opened a consulting firm and started working with some messed up companies. Really messed-up experiencing strikes, union drives, turnover absenteeism, low commitment, low morale. “The kids are acting out”, right?! What began to dawn on me over time was the issue was leadership. But the symptoms which I was fighting was not the issue, the issue was leadership and everything rises and falls on leadership so.

I started to teach leadership and then late 90’s I wrote “The Servant”, my first book. I was the most surprised of anyone that pretty well, *it kind of launched me into that world and that was almost 20 years ago and then wrote the second book about how to implement servant leadership and I’m on my third now, so I just go to places and try to teach them about how to treat people.

It’s so basic, I was talking to a group in Boston earlier in the week you know and I said I got nothing to do for you today. Everything you need to know you already know. Back when I first sent the first manuscript to my first publisher I thought he would send me one page, one sheet with 300 font, one word like, “REALLY?!” Who doesn’t know this right? I can’t believe companies pay me to tell them that stuff, Ben. Because really all it is, is just doing the right thing. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Be the boss you wish your boss would be. Be the father you wish your father could’ve been more fully for you. Be the mother you wish your mother had been. Be the neighbor you wish your neighbor would be. Be a co-worker you wish your co-worker would be. So really everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten. Don’t hit. Share. Meet needs.

So that’s what I do. I teach people about stuff that they learned a long time ago. So I don’t instruct, I remind. I remind people. Everything I write about, I talk about I stole all that stuff that has been around for centuries. I’m a thief, I admit it.

Ben: We learn it in kindergarten and somewhere along the line something changes.

Jim: The world’s a crazy place. The stimulus keeps coming. The stimulus is relentless. This world is relentless. Then we gotta choose our response. So the world between stimulus and response is the world of character you know doing the right thing even when you don’t feel like it. Winning all those battles between what you want to and what you should do. That’s what leadership is all about. All leadership is, is just doing the right thing.

It’s the right thing to do to have patience and self-control with people. It’s the right thing to do to be kind. It’s the right thing to do to listen. It’s the right thing to be humble. The right thing to be respectful. To meet needs that’s what you signed up to do dad, mom, boss, coach, you signed up to meet needs. The right thing is to be honest.

It’s all leadership is – it’s just doing the right thing. Character and action. So this stuff’s been around a long time. That’s why I tell people I’m not here to instruct them, I’m here to remind because we do…I’ve been teaching servant leadership for 36 years, all over the planet, and I need to be reminded of it. I need to recalibrate almost daily, because it’s a crazy world coming at us. I mean my wife’s sitting over there she’d tell you. I’ve known her since the first grade. She’d tell you, “that guy’s not where he needs to be.” Right hon? But I’m pretty sure she’d tell you he’s better than he used to be. And that’s what’s it all about. It’s not about being the perfect leader, it’s about moving the ball up the field. Are you raising your game?

Ben: So you. Back when you started leadership development working with those unions, how did servant leadership come to you? How did you learn about it? I mean you talked about the symptoms and that you addressed the symptoms. When did you recognize it was this concept of servant leadership?

Jim Yeah. So you can learn a lot about a disease in a hospital right? So you can learn a lot about leadership by being in a sick environment, by being in a working labor relation, you’re in hostile, sick environments. And I would just meet a lot of these command and control Nazi dictators you know, “when I want your opinion I’ll give it to you” type leaders you know and I’d just watch the fruit they’d get from it. It’s not sustainable.

Sooner or later the fruit’s gonna come and you are not gonna like the symptoms much. But even in the most dysfunctional environments and I was in some bad ones – we used to do climate surveys and ask questions about the climate. There would always be these pockets of tranquility, this second shift vending – good scores, third shift shipping and receiving – good scores. In this sea of chaos there would be these pockets of tranquility.

So I made it my business to go down there in the bowels of the ship on third shift and find out what was going on in the vending room and guess what I found? I found a leader. I found a leader who would say something like this to me, “You know, the dude that’s running this place, somebody needs to shoot that guy – he’s outta control. But when I come in at night, I’ve got these 10 people working for me, I can do something about this right here. I could make a difference right here.” And so they were taken responsibility right where they were. So I started to realize the impact one person could have so that was a big part of the transition.

The other was I was in a really, probably the most violent labor relation situation in the mid 80’s – people were getting shot. It was a place where they permanently replaced the workforce. UAW wasn’t too happy about that. In southeast Michigan – arguably the toughest labor market in the world. And there was a plant superintendent that had been fired. As I was working the union drive there, I kept hearing his name, over and over again, “Jim Eaton”, “Jim Eaton – best supervisor this company ever had, but they fired him”. So I convinced the plant manager they gotta bring this guy back.

So in the middle of night they brought him back to his old shift, and I saw the most amazing thing that I’ve never seen in manufacturing. When he walked out of the office, grown men, in the middle of the union drive – a hostile environment – literally ran to this guy. Literally ran to this guy. He was walking through the building, three people deep, He looked like the freaking Pied Piper. I’ve never seen anything like it – this kind of influence, this kind of mark this guy left.

So before he left, I said, “can I just have couple of minutes with you?” You know, I wanted to pick his brain, I’ve never seen anything like that before – or since, on a manufacturing floor. So I asked him, “What’s that about? How did you build that kind of influence”

He said, “You know, all I did Jim,” he said, “the first day I came into this plant, I didn’t know anything about manufacturing, so I had a shift meeting. It was the middle of the night, a hundred men – all men,” he said, “half the shift ship was turned, facing the wall,” he said, “so I told them, I don’t know much about what you guys do here, but I’m expecting you to teach me. You guys are the experts and I’m expecting to help me to learn this process. Over the next hundred days I’m going to come to each one of your work areas. They can be asking you some couple questions, someone asking you what I can do to make job better, make your job better. If there’s anything within my power, what can I do to help you and what you do – that’s what I’m here to do.” He said he did that for the first hundred nights.

So I’m sitting there, writing. Okay, let’s get to the big punchline! So then what? He said, “that’s it. That’s all I did.”

Ben: He repeated the same message, over and over again?

Jim: Well he went and did his work, he did his homework and then he fixed it. I mean, he served the. Then he said, “I also fired ten percent of the shift, 10% of the toxic people that needed to go. “And there were some people that needed to go. So I made sure I got the right people off the bus because they did – you know, they were toxic. They were affecting the shift, and I had to do that”. He said, “so I just met the needs, the needs of the plant and I guess that built some influence in the process”. And that got me thinking – back to your question, “how did I discover servant-leadership”? Boy, that’s a different kind of fruit, than I’ve been seeing at other places. Serve your people.

Ben: It’s an incredible story, I can’t imagine. How long – were you there in the organization for a while? Did he play a role in turning around the broader organization?

Jim: No. No they actually fired him. Remember? The people in the plant said, “they fired the only good one they ever had.” Because power people are generaly threatened by authority people – those with a lot of influence over people. So the plant manager didn’t understand how they could be getting such good results, if he wasn’t beating them or kicking them. So they no, they actually terminated him. He was down the road in a new career a couple years later. But I kept hearing the name, “Jim Eaton, Jim Eaton” so that’s why we brought him back.

Ben: I wonder if it was a competitor who ended of benefitting from him. It happens often enough… So how do you define Servant Leadership after all these years?

Jim: Yeah, it’s really a misunderstood term – servant leadership. People hear, “servant” and they get all wacked out on what that word means – just to serve people. In fact, Jim Collins – best selling business book ever, “Good to Great” – on page 30 in that book, he says, “you know we debated calling these great leaders ‘servant leaders’”, he said. “But in the end, we chose ‘Level 5’ leaders, because if we call them ‘servants’, people are going to get the wrong idea.” And I think that’s true.

People hear the term, “servant” and that just conjures up a lot in people’s heads. But for me, I break it up into the two words. So leadership is first. There’s leadership in the macro and leadership in the mico. In the macro, everyone’s a leader. Why? Because everyone influences people.

Herb Kelleher who built Southwest Airlines on servant leadership, Kelleher used to say my most important leaders are my flight attendants. And that used to drive the analysts in New York crazy. They’d say, “Flight attendant?! That’s about as low on the food chain as you can get!” And Kelleher would say, “not on my airline. They’re influencing thousands of my customers every day – people I’m never gonna talk to.

So, “who’s the leader here?” That’s an ancient, 20th century question. The great organizations now are trying to create a group of all leaders. Where everyone’s influencing people. We just have different responsibilities and the job market pays those responsibilities differently.

So leadership in the macro is influence. The mark you leave. We all leave a mark. You leave a mark on your family. The only question is, are we going to be glad you were there? Is Hope College going to be a better place because you were here? Do people raise their game as a result of being around you? That’s your mark. We all leave a mark. Is your church going to be a better place because you worshipped there? So, you don’t have to be the boss to be a leader. We all leave a mark.

So leadership in the macro is about influence. But in the micro, leadership is about the people entrusted to our care. Being a parent, being a coach, being a teacher, being a boss. Then the servant thing comes in.

Leadership then is how do we inspire and influence people to action? And excellence? How do you inspire and influence people to action and excellence? “Do it, else” isn’t real effective these days in case you haven’t noticed. These you millennials will look at you and say, “what planet are you from, pal? That’s the best you got? ‘Do it, or else’? My 2 year old sister can run around the house ordering her parents and grandparents everywhere.”

You can hire any dope to come in and order people around. But can you get a group of young people to line up and march through that wall because you asked them to do it? Because the person you are, Ben, inspires them? So that’s what leadership is – Can you inspire and influence a group of people to excellence? Can you get them to own the mission? Can you get them to create excellence in your organization? If you got that skill – and there’s a lot of organizations willing to pay really big bucks for people who know how to do that. We’ll teach you our technology. We’ll teach you how to fly airplanes. We’ll teach you how to do coffee. We’ll teach you how to sell shoes. We’ll send you to class and teach you how to be a manager. How to plan, how to budget, how to problem solve, how to organize a balance sheet. We can teach you all that stuff. But can you get people to own it. Can you create music? Can you be the orchestra leader? Can you get people to pull together and create excellence? That is a skill that is in demand in a big way.

So, what gives you the right to inspire and influence? That’s where the servant comes in. When you serve and you sacrifice for people. When you identify and meet their needs. Hug them when they need a hug, spank them when they need a spank, help them to be great.

I told a group just a few days ago, I said, you know these young kids coming up today – they can’t even spell character, let alone know what it is. But you can teach them. You can teach them about excellence. You can teach them about customer service. You can teach them how to shake somebody’s hand. You can teach them. And that’s what serving is – is identifying and meeting people’s needs.

It’s not about being a slave. It’s not about doing what people want. What my children want is different than what they need. What my employees want?! I’m not here to be your slave. But I am here to meet your needs.

What do you need? Well, people have a lot of needs. People need respect… appreciation. Mother Teresa used to say people crave appreciation more than they crave bread. That woman saw some hungry folks. More than bread?! They have a need to be held accountable. They need to know what the rules of the house are. So leaders get in the game and they meet needs.

And the test is – when they leave you are you better than when they got there? That’s the test. When your children leave your home, are they ready? Are they going to be good mothers, good fathers, good husbands, good wives, good neighbors, good employees? When your employees leave your department, do they get promoted? When they leave your classroom are they better than when they got there? Are they gonna build upon the character things that you taught them?

So that’s always the test of leadership. Do you leave stuff better than you found it? Your mark.

Ben: Yet, in those organizations, some of them you’ve been addressing some of these you symptoms – you talk about some of the hardest work environments. Serving your employees is not easy. Some – he’s trying to do the old 20th century leadership style of the crack and the whip approach. You must have seen a lot of really big challenges for people trying to practice servant leadership over the years?

Jim: Oh, it’s really hard. Building relationships is hard. It’s much easier to sit in my office and say, “do it or else, Ben!” Now I can get back the internet. But if I’ve got to get out and build a relationship with you?! Get to know you? Get to know what makes you tick? Hug you when you need a hug, spank you when you need a spank, help you to be great?! Now I gotta get in the game. That’s going to take some time. Right? That’s going to take some effort.

And I think that’s one of the biggest hindrances to servant leadership that I see, is laziness. It’s hard to be a great servant leader. Laziness is one of the barriers. Ego is a barrier.

Ben: Wow. That’s powerful. I hadn’t heard the laziness before. It makes sense.

Jim: Well, I talk a lot about in my books about love. Because in the end, service is about loving people. Years ago, when I was putting my books together and my seminars, I thought, “oh man, I can’t talk about love! HR people – I’ll never get hired”, right? Because you talk about love and HR people, their eyes start to glaze over.

“Mr. Hunter! We’re trying to get sexual harassment OUT of the building. I mean what are you talking about LOVE for?!” Right? “You’re killing me!”

But I couldn’t be intellectually honest to talk about servant leadership and not talk about love because all the great servant leaders all talked about it. I don’t care whether it was Jesus, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines – “the airline that LOVE built”. You read it yourself. All the great servant leaders all talked about love.

But they didn’t talk about it as a feeling. They talked about in the classical sense, the classical sense of the word love – agape love is a verb. It’s not something you feel. It’s what you do. It’s an extension of yourself.

I mean, I can assure you, there are times when my wife doesn’t like me very much. It hasn’t got a thing in the world to do with whether or not she loves me. Whether or not she’s still patient, kind and forgiving (thank The Lord!), committed. “I’m still in the game, hon. Even though you’re acting like a jerk this week, I’m still in the game.” See, love is a verb. Love is as love does.

So if you don’t get the love thing, I don’t think you’ll ever, ever get servant leadership. And the way I got on that was once I understood that leadership was influence, once I got that, the, I thought, “Okay, who’s had more influence than anyone who has ever lived? Who would that be, Ben? Jesus! There’s not even a close second. I don’t care if you’re a Hindu, a Buddhist, an atheist, a Muslim or from the church of what’s happening now, here in Michigan. No intellectually honest person could deny Jesus inspired and influenced more people than anyone who ever lived by far. They isn’t even a close second.

Now, 35 years on the road, I’ve never had anybody raise their hand and say, “I disagree,” anywhere in the world. I’ve had some people say, “Is that a fact or an opinion?” I’ve had people say that. And then, I’ll say, “Well, what’s the difference between a fact and an opinion? Evidence!”

“What evidence do you have?”

“I can prove that.”

One-third of the planet today calls themselves Christian, 2.3 billion with a B. Far and away the largest faith system on planet Earth. The next largest, Islam, is one half the size of Christianity. And even the Muslims call Jesus a great prophet.

So before we even start, we’ve got 60% of the planet that says for the last 2000 years, this guy left a mark, right? 2015, our very time is divided according to the number of years since he lived. Many countries around the world including our country have national holidays based on events in his life. That guy left a mark, a really big mark.

So it dawned on me a long time that if leadership is influence (which we know it is), maybe I should take a look at what Jesus had to say about leadership because He was pretty good at it! And you know, I can only find one definitive statement about leadership that he said.

Deep in the Book of Matthew, he says, “You want to be a leader? You just sign up to be the servant. You want to lead? Now, it’s time to serve.” And I totally didn’t get that.

I thought, “Serve? They’ll walk all over you. You’ve got to be in control. You’ve got to be in-charge. Can the military, serve? Come on! Really?!”

“I mean, I’ve been working in the bowels of this factory for ten years kissing all these higher-ups’ rear ends. I finally get to be a supervisor and you’re telling me I’ve got to serve again? I don’t think so. Now, it’s your turn to serve me. Now, I get to call the shots. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? What do you mean ‘serve’? Give me a break.” I totally didn’t get it.

But then I learned the difference between power and authority. I talk a lot about that in my books. I talk about it in my seminars. If you don’t get power and authority, the difference between having power over people and having authority with people, you’ll never get servant leadership.

Our power is “do it or else”. We can hire any dolt to order people around. Authority is influence, the skill of getting people willingly to do your will because of your personal influence. Well how do you build authority?

Well, that gets back to what Jesus said. So when Jesus said “to lead is to serve,” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about leading with your power. He didn’t have any power when He was here –even if you think He did, He chose not to use it. Herod, the chief priests, those dudes had all the power.

I think what Jesus was getting at – you want to get people from the neck up. You want to get hearts and minds and spirits and creativity and excellence. You want to get people to come along with you, then you’ve got to serve. There are no shortcuts. He said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw people to myself.”

And that’s just the great universal truth, that when you serve and sacrifice for people, you build influence. It’s the Law of the Harvest. So when you serve and you sacrifice for your people, guess what? You’re getting my attention now. I’m listening now.

The UAW in Detroit had an old expression for that. And I used to see it on bathroom walls a lot. It comes out of the thirties when they were organizing Henry Ford. It’s directed at bosses. It goes like this:

“Hey, boss, my pay is my right. I earned that. Your praise, that’s your gift. You’re starting to get my attention now.”

“My pay is my right, your praise is your gift… I’m listening now”

So when we serve and we sacrifice, we give people what they need – hug them when they need a hug, spank them when they need a spank, help them to be great, appreciate them, recognize and respect them, listen to them – then you start to build influence. That’s the Law of the Harvest.

Then servant leadership starts to makes sense when you understand the distinction between power and authority.

There are still times that a servant leader exercises power. I’m not saying power is bad. But there are times, “You don’t get to work here anymore. Ben, I love you and I’ll miss you.” In my home, I may have to apply the “board of education” to the “seat of learning”.

But any time a servant leader has to exercise power, that’s a bad day for a servant leader. Why is that a bad day? Because your authority is broken now and you had to resort to your power.

And sometimes that’s what’s needed. And certainly, leaders do what’s needed. But the downside of power is it’s not sustainable. So, if your style is power, it’s a house of cards. If you power your kids around the house, after a while, “Dad, I’m not listening anymore. We’re done now.”

Ben: I’m seeing a link between power and authority for the servant leader. Going back to the gentleman at the plant had to fire people who were toxic and had to go.

Jim: Yes, because that was needed. Exactly right.

Ben: Now, Jesus went places where he wasn’t wanted or desired, right? Similarly, with servant leadership, have you seen places, an industry or a field that servant leadership just won’t work in?

Jim: I have not come across one yet.

There are some fields where people are a little bit intimidated by it. Detroit, arguably, the toughest labor market in the world. I mean, the reason Detroit is in such a mess, when I was in the ninth grade, I went to work with my dad. He worked at the Ford Motor Company Dearborn Assembly Plant – Henry Ford’s original Rouge plant. He was building Mustangs down there in the body shop.

I spent half a day with him down there in that shop. You got to be supervisor of the day if you can publicly humiliate the most frontline employees. Get the most F-words in one sentence; you’re an up-and-coming supervisor.

That’s the way we did leadership in Detroit. I don’t want you to think Ben – I want you to do. When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you. We even called them ‘hired hands’ to dramatize the point. “You’re not here to think, boss. You’re here to do.”

And after World War II, in Detroit, neck down was good enough. Just getting people’s hands and legs and backs was good enough. Henry Ford, he could say, “You can have any color of car you want as long as it’s black.” I mean, that’s pretty easy to say when you’ve got no competition, right? After World War II, Japan, what Japan? Germany, is it still there? You talk about a level playing field – we had no competition.

But then the world changed. Over the next 30 years, we started to get some competition. What we found out was “neck down” wasn’t good enough anymore.

The whole challenge of leadership is how do you get people from the neck up? We can hire any dope to come in and order people around. How do you get hearts and minds and spirits and creativity and excellence? How do you get people to own it?

Like a Southwest Airlines, you know what separates Southwest from everybody else, the reason why they’re the most successful airline on the planet when everyone else is failing or merged or chapter 7?

You walk on a Southwest Airlines plane, the flight attendant looks at you and says, “Welcome to my airplane. Welcome to first class, Ben. Welcome to my living room. You’re going to have a little different experience today, bud. Now, sit down and shut up while I bring your crayons in a minute. But you belong to me, this plane belongs to me.”

How do you get people to own it?

Herb Kelleher who started Southwest, he’d tell you it’s simple. Just take care of your people. Serve them. Hug them, spank them, help them to be great. And they’ll take leadership in your company.

The data is in now. This isn’t even arguable anymore. Back from when I first started talking about servant leadership 30 years ago, we didn’t have a lot of data like there is now. There’s so many data everywhere now. I used to think, “You need data just to do the right thing?” But people like their data – because all servant leadership is, is doing the right thing. But people like their data.

So we have lots of data, now. The data is in. The only question is how are you going to choose to lead? Are you going to lead with your power or are you going to lead with your authority?” If you’re all about power, good luck with that! Let me know how that works for you. Let me know how you do.

Ben: We’re seeing it. That’s the thing. To be honest, there’s so many – the handful of how companies – the ones we talked about, the ones who do get it are excelling. But unfortunately, I think there’s still – in America, they have the challenge where they’re facing global competition like never before.

Jim: And you know who’s driving this? It’s young people. Young people are driving this because they won’t put up with a toxic boss for 20 years. My generation, my dad’s generation, even the X’ers, they put up with a lousy boss for 20 years. These Millennials… “If you’re my boss and you don’t get it, I’m out of here, pal. I’ll go work for Google or I’ll go find somebody who gets it.”

The mediocre ones might stay. But the great ones? They take their stuff on the road. And that is just driving a lot of change in HR suites across the land because what HR people are starting to recognize now is having good managers isn’t good enough anymore. Just having people who can plan and budget and problem solve and organize? Now we’ve got to start growing leaders. And that’s changed the whole landscape.

That’s why servant leadership is exploding everywhere now because how do you create leaders? How do you create people who can inspire, influence people to walk through walls? How are you going to do that? Send them to another management class? Teach them how to read a balance sheet?

Ben: Nope.

Jim: You got to teach them how to serve.

Ben: You mentioned the Millennials. Are there any other trends right now that are driving servant leadership that seems to be either making it easier or harder? I’m assuming easier based on our conversation so far. Or, not easier, but more common – or more in demand I guess?

Jim: You know, I think it’s always been effective. And I do. I’ve seen it my whole career. But with these Millennials, it’s even more so. Millennials, those born after 1980 or so roughly, mid-thirties or younger.

This is the broken relationship generation coming through now. If they’re not from a broken family, most of their friends probably are. They’ve been lied to their whole lives by old people like me telling them, “Oh, we love you. This divorce is in your best interest. Oh, blah-blah-blah…”

They’re very cynical. They don’t trust people in power or positions. They are not impressed by your corner office. They’re a bit jaded.

But the neat thing about this young generation is when they meet the real deal, they meet a real servant leader, somebody who really will hug them when they need a hug, spank them when they need a spank, help them to be great and are really willing to help them, they can be almost fanatical – not almost, they are fanatical.

Howard Schultz is a great example. He built Starbucks on servant leadership. And all he does is he just takes care of them. My niece, what is she honey? An assistant-assistant manager at Starbucks? There might even be 3 “assistants” in there.

Well, we were at Christmas dinner last year and she’s talking about – I mean, she gets maybe $12 an hour or whatever it is. You could double her pay and you can’t get her out of there.

“Uncle Jim, I just love going to work. People there care about me. They’re sending me to school. They know my stuff. I’ve got friends. I’m connected.” She had a pretty tough life growing up and she’s connected there, right?

And contrast that to Devon’s son who got out of college, chemical engineering degree, six figures. He tells me, “Every time I leave work, I feel like I need to take a shower. The talk, the sexual innuendos, the stuff that goes on in that place, I feel dirty every time. I feel dumber every time I go to work.” And he’s looking.

I mean, these young people are expecting a whole lot more than a paycheck. They want to be connected.

Ben: So how do they find it? I mean, we’ve got a roomful of college students, any advice on how they find those organizations? How does one spot an organization that values servant leadership?

Jim: Yeah, well, with the Internet, that’s pretty easy these days. You can go online and start by finding out what their mission is and what their values are. And usually, if they’re a servant leadership company, those things are spelled out pretty clearly.

But that can be illusory too because sometimes they can say they are and they aren’t. But there’s other websites like – what’s the glass door? They go to places and find out whether or not they walk their talk, because a lot of places don’t walk their talk.

But there are ways to scope out and find out what the culture is there. But the best way is to ask people who work there. “What’s it like to work there? What’s the culture like? What are their values? Is respect a value?”

Ben: Do they live it?

Jim: Yeah, do they live their values? Is respect the rule of the house or is it just a punchline? Continuous improvement, excellence, do they really believe those things? Are they really going to help you to be the best you can be or is it just something they have on their website? So you’ve got to do a little homework.

Ben: Yeah, definitely. What if they go to an organization and they find that it’s not being practiced, servant leadership isn’t really valued? It might be that they’re not walking the talk? I don’t think there are any organizations out there today that say, “We don’t really want to care for our people.” Nobody says that.

Jim: That’s the crazy thing. Thirty-five years of teaching this stuff, I have never had anyone in the world – even in some command-and-control companies, raise their hand and say, “I disagree with servant leadership. I’d rather have a boss who is impatient, unkind, arrogant, disrespectful, selfish, unforgiving, dishonest, uncommitted and corrupt. That’s who I want to work for. That’s who inspires me.”

I mean, the principles are self-evident. Which parts do you disagree with? This “apple pie and the flag”. The difficult part isn’t getting people to agree, Ben. It’s getting them to change.

See, the challenge of teaching this stuff, how do you move it from here to here, how do you get it from here into your game? Head-to-heart, heart-to-habit. That’s the challenge. And it’s a long way from head-to-habit.

And that’s why character is so important because character, that’s that person you are in the dark when nobody is looking, the real you. And in the end, leadership development and character development are one. You want to be a better leader? You got to work on your character.

What’s leadership? Leadership is just doing the right thing even when you don’t feel like it. What’s character? Doing the right thing even when you don’t feel like it. Especially when you don’t feel like it. I’m not sure it can be an act of character unless it costs you something.

So it’s the right thing to do to hold your employees accountable to excellence, to grow them, to listen to them, to appreciate them, to encourage them. All of the things that we’re talking about, those are character.

Ben: So you think it can happen. The head-to-heart, the heart-to-hand, I love that. If somebody doesn’t have that mentality, doesn’t have that servant leadership in their heart, you think they can change?

Jim: Yes! Gosh, people can change. I get humbled by how much people can change. Man, I’ve been witnessing it for 3 ½ decades, people that I’ve totally written off. This just happened. The good Lord has to remind me regularly.

A couple of weeks ago, there was this operations officer and I said to the COO, “You gotta fire this guy. He’s never gonna get it. I mean, you got to shoot him because he’s stinking up the whole process here, right? We got to get him off the team” and he ends up being the poster child for servant leadership six months later. He changed the most.

Ben: Wow! Six months later?

Jim: Yeah, six months later.

Ben: Wow!

Jim: I have seen dramatic – I’ve seen Nazis become servant leaders. I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff. You know, it’s not common. A lot of them don’t make it. The company has to make the decision. Oftentimes, they get cut loose. But it does happen.

And whenever that’s happened, I’ll always ask them, “How did you do that?” If you had to write a book, on how you went from Nazi to servant leader? How did you do that?

And they all say the same thing. “I just got to the end of myself. One too many divorces, kids leaving, the company hates me, the employees hate me, I finally got to the end of it. And I decided I needed to change.”

When people get to that point – this kind of sounds like the alcoholic and the last straw kind of thing. I’ve seen that happen many times where people just get to the end of it and then they say, “You know what? I’ve got to change this thing.” And they can.

Oh, people can change. If you don’t think people can change, go to your local library and pick up one of the thousands of volumes of books of people who changed their lives. Some of them changed the world.

We’re wrong to think people can’t change. People can change. But we’re wrong to think it’s easy. It doesn’t happen reading books and watching Powerpoint slides. It doesn’t happen watching a guy like me come in and give a seminar to your company. You can learn about leadership reading books. You can learn about leadership while watching Powerpoint slides. But you’re not going to become a better leader. Nobody ever became a better leader by reading one of my books.

Leadership is exactly analogous to being an athlete or a musician. It’s exactly analogous. Anybody ever learned how to swim by reading a book? I think you can learn about swimming. Anybody ever become a great golfer watching Tiger Woods videos? Well, you can learn about golf. Anybody ever become a great musician studying piano history?

I mean, if you want to be a better golfer, what have you gotta do? You’ve got to start practicing this stuff over and over because you can’t improve unless you change by definition.

I ask people in my audience, “How many of you believe in continuous improvement?” They all raise their hand.

“I believe in continuous improvement.”

Second question: “Can you improve if you don’t change?”


“So what you’re saying is you’re going to change this year, is that correct?”

“Well, that’s a little tougher, right? Other than a wet baby, who likes change, right Ben? Who wants this? Now, we’re starting to get personal here.”

“Change?! You mean I’ve got to start listening to people, actually appreciate them, actually have crucial conversations with people about their performance? Oh, my goodness! I’m going to have to get in the game. That’s effortful.” It takes a lot of effort, that’s right. But you start practicing that over and over and over and guess what happens? You change. We are creatures of habit. We become what we repeatedly do. Character is habit.

Ben: Wow. Powerful. So if I’m hearing it right though it does take that sort of, what you’ve seen from your experience, it does of take that sort of rock bottom experience.

Jim: Friction.

Ben: Friction.

Jim: Yeah my second book – my first book was about, The Servant was about unpacking servant leadership, explaining what it is like we just went through. And far and away the greatest response I got from executives and supervisors is – they sent me emails and letters that said:

“Hey great book, The Servant, nice story, awesome. But Jim you missed the point. I got ten crazy supervisors in my building, they read your book, they liked your book but they’re still crazy. How do I get them to change?” Right?!

That’s the challenge. And so that’s why I wrote my second book a few years later about how you help people change. And again you’ve got to lay a foundation. Then you’ve got to identify the gaps, that’s the second step, get some feedback, how am I doing against that high bar or servant leadership, but identify the gaps, but the third step is friction.

You’ve got to create some friction to eliminate the gaps. And so the greatest change we see when people start getting after servant leadership is when the boss says, guys we’re going to excellence. Change is not an option here. It’s a condition of employment. If you’re going to be working in our organization we expect you to grow as a leader. You could be the worst leader in the building. That’s fine, but I expect you to be better 6 months from now than you are today.

We’re going to get you some data about your gaps, and we want to know what your plans are. What are you going to do to raise your game this year Ben? And I want it specific and I want it measurable and once a month you’re going to stand up and talk to it about it in front of a group.

Now there’s nowhere to hide, right? Now you’ve either got to get serious about your stuff or you’re going to get so uncomfortable you’re going to have to leave. Right? There’s nowhere to hide now. So we get pretty radical about this stuff. Why? Because it’s not easy to change Ben. Because you’re already on the right track here – it’s hard to change. You don’t change reading books or watching PowerPoint slides.

Ben: No.

Jim: Again, 35 years teaching stuff I’ve never anywhere in the world had somebody raise their hand and say I disagree. The principles are self-evident, which parts do you disagree with? Respect, that’s a bad idea right? Honesty, bad idea. The difficult part isn’t getting them to agree though, the difficult part is how do we change. You haven’t been appreciating people for the last 20 years of your career? You really think that’s going to change because I show you a PowerPoint slide? You haven’t been counselling people, coaching people, creating excellence in your organization for the last decade, you think it’s going to change because you read a chapter out of my book? You already know what the right thing to do is, now you’ve got to start hitting the ball differently than you’re hitting it today. And you got to hit it a lot, right?

See that’s the problem. Most leadership development stuff we do in America and even teaching our colleges, because we think if they agree intellectually they’re going to become better leaders. You don’t develop leadership, you don’t build character intellectually. You don’t build – Jim Collins in his book Good to Great said the most important lead quality of leadership is humility… focused on other people. Do you think you develop humility reading books? Patience, kindness, respect, honesty, commitment, you think you develop those things reading books? You can learn about those things.

Ben: Right.

Jim: You gotta practice those things.

Ben: That’s a great way to sort of wrap up here, I think, as students are going out to their classes – finding opportunities to practice leadership. This has been fantastic! But if people want to follow up with you later and read more about what you’re doing and your book and learning ways that you encourage practicing, not just reading, how do they find you?

Jim: http://jameshunter.com

Ben: Jim this has been fantastic – and Denise! Thank you. I do really appreciate it guys. Thank you.

Full Length Video



Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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