By Ray Chung, Senior Consultant
My earliest lessons in servant leadership didn’t come from a textbook. As a child in Malaysia, they came from my parents and friends, and when I moved to the U.S. to attend college, they came from a guy named Dennis. Dennis started working at Messiah University roughly around the year I was born. By the time I began my undergraduate career and work study program, he had been steadfastly serving the campus community for nearly two decades, and he’s still there to this day. Dennis operates largely behind the scenes, and for years, he oversaw groups of students who set up and tore down tables and chairs in preparation for campus events. I don’t know what formal leadership training Dennis may have received over the years, but I know he is the best model of a servant leader I’ve ever come across.
Here’s how one former student employee who now leads large teams at Microsoft describes him:
“Dennis taught accountability, empowered us, and trusted that we were going to get the job done. He was the first to teach us to be team leaders.”
Another former student who now coordinates resource mobilization for the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) reflected, “Dennis kept the work environment lively and demonstrated to us the importance of trusting each other to accomplish assigned tasks.” Both of these former students have gone on to manage teams and departments, and they attribute their leadership skills to Dennis.
It didn’t matter whether Dennis was coordinating event logistics or setting up chairs, he was leading. He showed up, and his faithfulness could not go unobserved by his team members. He modeled what he valued, and he let his coworkers know they mattered to him. To serve alongside Dennis was to know that you had someone in your corner. This was a gift to his employees 20 years ago, and it may be an even greater gift today.
In an 82-page report released earlier this year, the Surgeon General declared loneliness the new public health epidemic in the United States. The effects of loneliness on our health are akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s not just an isolated few who experience these effects. According to the Surgeon General’s report, a staggering 58% of Americans feel lonely: On average, more than half the people we walk by each day are lonely. And when last compared to rates among the general population, leaders experienced even higher levels of loneliness. “At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making,” the Surgeon General writes. “For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.”
Could it be that the way we lead—set apart from our teams and isolated from community—is not just hurting our companies but slowly killing us? We can do far better for ourselves and our teams.
The mantle of leadership can persuade us that we can’t be vulnerable or honest, but we’re invited to live and lead a different story—and servant leadership lays the foundation. Servant leadership empowers us to help find solutions without claiming to have all the answers. It allows us to invest in our team members as human beings, not just workers. It opens the door to relationship rather than dictatorship. Servant leadership is, fundamentally, a less lonely way to lead and a gateway to workplace connection.
This fall, I had the privilege of sharing about servant leadership with student leaders at Messiah University. Their strong instincts toward connection and collaboration will serve them well in the working world if they refuse to buy into the lie that leaders must be elevated and isolated. It was my joy to remind them that a different way of leadership is possible, for those about to enter the workforce and even for those who feel entrenched in old and unhelpful patterns. As Stephen M.R. Covey wrote in the foreword to Rising Sun’s The 10 Keys of Effective Supervision, “Servant leadership is not necessarily always the easiest route to take, it is always the right route to take. Treating people with dignity and respect, building people up rather than tearing them down, and leading from your intent rather than your position absolutely pays off in ways you can’t even imagine.”
Rising Sun’s 10 Keys of Effective Supervision™ lays out actionable steps to help every supervisor cultivate healthy organizational cultures. If the change feels overwhelming or intimidating, start small.
Here are three practices of servant leadership you can embrace today to make leadership less lonely:
- From Key #2, Uniting Your Team: Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General, notes a small tweak to regular staff meetings that brought his team together. For five minutes, team members were invited to share something about themselves through photos, fostering connection among team members. “The impact was immediate,” he attests.
- From Key #3, Praising Others: Take the time to praise (at least) one of your employees today, calling out the good work you see. Strive to “catch” your team members doing the right things.
- From Key #6, Sharing Continuously: Talk to an employee about his or her performance, whether good or in need of improvement. Practice active listening during the conversation.
Dennis, thank you for modeling what it means to be a servant leader.
Who is your Dennis? We’d love to know. And if you, like many, can’t think of this example among the leaders you’ve known, don’t just wait for a Dennis to come into your life. Go out and be a Dennis to someone else. We’d love to help.