The Path Towards A Vibrant Culture – Servant Leaders: Walk the Talk

by Ray Chung, senior consultant

“I wish this weren’t the exception” I’ve said on repeat since joining Rising Sun last July. Aspects of our culture, corporate values, and operations have defied my expectations of a servant leadership development firm, and as I’ve gotten to know Jim Rowell, our co-founder and CEO, as a friend and business partner, it’s become clear that Rising Sun is who we are because Jim is who he is. The more I get to know Jim, the more grateful I am.

In the 10 Keys of Effective Supervision, Jim wrote in a chapter titled “valuing what you believe” of the importance of leaders “walking the talk”—modeling the values and behaviors they hope will permeate the organization. It’s valuable advice for any leader: Our organizations will become who we are and what we value.

I’d love to illustrate what this looks like, using Jim and Rising Sun as a case study.

1. Jim is respectful, so Rising Sun values people regardless of role or title. “Growing up, my family just didn’t value people much unless they did something for us,” Jim told me. But from an early age, Jim intuited this was the wrong approach. He believed people deserved respect simply because they were people. Jim’s belief in the inherent dignity of every person means he engages each person with the same level of respect, whether he’s interacting with a CEO, board chair, line worker in a factory, or a member of our team.

I’ve seen Jim live this out as he goes into companies. It’s the leaders who hire and pay him, but Jim doesn’t automatically side with them. For example, when a client failed to inform employees of scheduled maintenance to their parking lot, staff arrived at work with nowhere to park. They were understandably upset. Jim didn’t toe the company line but rather agreed with team members that they should have been informed in advance. Simply by communicating that he could see how this oversight was inconsiderate and hurtful, these team members felt heard, seen, and respected—and tensions began to ease.

2. Jim is authentic, so Rising Sun clearly communicates and lives who we are. We aren’t trying to be all things to all people. If a potential client’s need is outside Rising Sun’s expertise, we won’t be chasing their business, no matter how lucrative. Before we engage, we ask questions. If we aren’t the right fit, we say so and try to point the organization toward someone who will be a better match. After all, it is about truly serving our client’s best interest.

3. Jim is fearless, so Rising Sun speaks hard truths. Jim once told me that he’s not sure he’s ever been afraid of another person. Honestly, it shows. He walks into companies, listens well, and then respectfully says what he feels needs to be said: even if there might be reason to fear repercussions. Jim has earned a reputation as a trusted guide and truth-teller who balances candor and care. He once encountered a CEO seeking training for his team on the principles of servant leadership—but the CEO himself was modeling something very different. After working together a short while, Jim told him, “Here’s the bottom line. I can keep training your folks; I love doing it, but they’re not really going to change until you’re willing to change. You’re behaving inconsistently with everything we’re teaching, and that undermines it all. They don’t believe it.” Although the CEO was initially angry, he was open to continuing the engagement, and it became a meaningful time of learning and growth for CEO and his team alike.

4. Jim is a person of integrity, so Rising Sun cares deeply about client satisfaction. If a client isn’t satisfied with Rising Sun’s services—or if Jim doesn’t feel our services are having their intended effect—he offers to discontinue services and return clients’ money. In one company, Jim arrived to conduct a prepaid training, but when leaders seemed unreceptive to new ideas, Jim paused the training and offered to refund the client’s investment. As it turned out, that was all the encouragement the team needed to realize that this consultant actually cared and to become more open to his perspective on the challenges they were facing. As a person of integrity, Jim is after changed hearts rather than padding his paycheck—and his personal integrity spills over into how Rising Sun does business.

5. Jim is a servant leader, so Rising Sun seeks to serve. Jim is always looking for opportunities to serve. He and his wife have opened their home to provide childcare, an after-school hangout, and even a safe place to stay for those in need of temporary shelter. His willingness to serve permeates the culture of Rising Sun. When companies offer to have workers bend their schedule to ours as the “outside experts,” Jim staunchly refuses. He is one of the only consultants I’ve met who will show up at 4:30 a.m. to conduct training sessions for staff who work the night shift. He truly seeks to serve, whether that means extra travel time, an interrupted schedule, or waking up and reporting to work in the middle of the night.

If you want to know where your organization is headed, look at the leaders’ values. Like most worthwhile pursuits, there’s no shortcut to valuing what you believe. Rising Sun can’t offer a quick-fix, party trick, or “best practice” for cultivating a thriving company culture while undervaluing your team, disrespecting others’ opinions, and seeking to be served rather than to serve. But for those truly looking to grow as servant leaders and operationalize their values, I believe you’ll find what I have found in Rising Sun: An exceptionally committed partner who understands that caring for people and results are not mutually exclusive pursuits. If you’re interested in fostering a servant leadership culture, we’d love to help.

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