Meaningful Work: The Role Of Servant Leadership

April 18, 2011

I’d like to share with you one of my favorite descriptions of meaningful work. Don’t miss the fact that the leader in this example learned the power of purpose from her employee. This passage can be found in Richard Daft’s textbook “The Leadership Experience”:

Servant leadership can mean something as simple as encouraging others in their personal development and helping them understand the larger purpose in their work. When Linda Burzynski became president of Molly Maid International, she learned about servant leadership from one of her cleaners. Posing as a new member of the cleaning crew, Burzynski entered a home with her partner, Dawn, to find dishes piled high, food spilled on countertops, clothes and magazines strewn about, and pet hair everywhere. Surveying the mess, Burzynski was ready to walk out, but Dawn explained that the woman who owned the house was going through a divorce and dealing with three rebellious teenage sons. “She’s barely hanging on.” said Dawn, and having a clean house gave her a sense of order and control. Burzynski noticed that Dawn seemed to take extra care because she knew she was helping the woman with more than just her household chores. Burzynski says she learned that day about the power of being a servant to her employees and helping them find larger meaning in their difficult jobs. (pp. 232-233, 3rd edition).

People like Dawn both inspire and challenge me. As much as I know and write about leadership, I wonder if I have the character and presence to behave as Dawn did when similar situations present me with the opportunity to give myself permission to be excellent.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (4)

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  1. Keith Graham says:

    Thanks so much for the Blog post on servant leadership. The referenced example from the President of Molly Maid is excellent. It is so hard for me to keep my eyes and attention on the needs of others; my human nature is to think about how what I do makes me a better me. In my case it is not a matter of giving myself permission to be a servant leader – I have done that. I have to routinely refresh my belief that being a servant is the higher responsibility and has the greatest reward. Servant leadership is about growing quality relationships, not just the task or product under my responsibility.

    I fondly remember the YouTube videos you did several months ago that were included with your daily postings. Please consider creating some more videos to go along with the blog. The audio-video addition to the blog material exponentially enhances application of the oganizational behavior you encourage.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I find it’s too easy to lose focus and become self-absorbed, Keith. Thanks for the kind words on the videos. The weather is getting nice here, so I hope to be making some new videos soon. Thanks! Bret

  2. Beth says:

    Hi Bret,

    Your story is a wonderful example of an executive who did the three things necessary to become a servant leader:

    1. Linda inhabited the role of employee. By actually becoming a cleaning crew member, she mentally unplugged from the usual symbols that normally fed her self-worth: the college degree, the corner office, the cozy home in the upscale neighborhood. In the process, she was forced to realize that the trappings that shaped her everyday identity were as much related to luck as to accomplishment.

    2. Linda observed the employee’s challenges from the employee’s point of view. She experienced the same environment, made herself accountable to the same rules, and required from herself the same level of effort that was expected from an average worker. In doing so, she learned to look for and value the characteristics that enable humans to endure honest, demanding work.

    3. Linda interacted with “fellow” employees as an unbiased peer, not as a boss with an agenda. Removing as many of the usual filters as possible that separate the back office from the front line experience, she made it her business to observe how the work environment affects workers, and how workers respond to the work environment.

    The very fact that Linda put herself through this exercise was, in my mind, a predictor of success — because it was anchored in humility. Lots of execs will don an apron and do the burger-flip photo op. They will learn nothing. But if bosses approach the role of worker with respect, curiosity and gratitude, I think they will always gain key insights and spark ideas that will lead to greater harmony, efficiency and productivity. Beyond that, I believe they’ll spark a deep process in their own development that will drive personal growth.

    One of my earliest role models in that regard was a guy named Bill Hill. He headed a Salvation Army summer camp where I was a counselor. He took on the dirtiest jobs, did the humblest errands, and engaged the thorniest inner-city kids with respect, humor and grace. With no resources to speak of except a staff of misfits, Bill not only put together a memorable experience for the campers, he also made every single counselor blossom that summer. He did this through servant leadership. I have never forgotten.

    Keith, as you pointed out, being a servant leader is its own greatest reward. Bill went on to achieve further remarkable accomplishments in his later career. I also agree with your request about Bret’s video posts — I’m an East Coast suburbanite who gets a boost from their scenery as well as their content. 🙂

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Beth, you rock! I really appreciate the time and effort you take offing your experience and insights. Thanks! Bret