“I’ve been a big believer, that if you’re going to lead, you have to serve and support,” 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto said in a 2016 interview with Army magazine, “That gives you the permission and credibility to lead.”
And not only did Mr. DePinto talk about servant leadership, he demonstrated it when he walked into a 7-Eleven on Long Island as Danny Rossi, a junior level employee with his real identity unknown. He then worked in the corporate bakery, delivered food to franchise stores, struggled to keep up with rush-hour coffee drinkers, and fell behind on the conveyor belt as he worked the night shift – all captured on the hit TV show “Undercover Boss” in 2010.
If you read the biographies of great leaders, you’ll see the word “serve” throughout the narratives. General Colin Powell, for example, served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989-1993. The word connotes a very important distinction between just performing leadership tasks, versus serving others. One of the most important aspects of serving others is to lead by example…to do the right thing. A commitment to servant leadership is absolutely necessary in order to become a Level Five leader.
The fundamental truth is you can’t have it both ways. We’ve all seen them — the chameleon-like leaders who think they are getting away with something, and no one will know. We’ve seen them in politics, government, religion, business, sports, entertainment, and the list goes on. In the end, they destroy an organization. There is no servant leadership in these examples, only selfish conduct. They fail those they were supposed to lead.
A good friend and colleague, Colonel (retired) Bill Smullen, USA, wrote in his recent book Ways and Means for Managing Up, a powerful message on the accountability of leaders to those they serve:
“As a professional, regardless of rank or position, you must be accountable for all you do or fail to do to uphold the reputation and credibility of the organization. That may come naturally to those who were raised to uphold the highest of ethical and moral standards. Others may have to learn it.”
It’s our responsibility as leaders to serve those we lead by doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. And in doing so, we teach others what’s right. We set the example and demonstrate accountability. We cannot assume that everyone on our team will just “get it.” Our legacy will be in growing leaders who do the right things, who serve others as leaders.
In one of the most storied battles of ancient history, some 300 Spartans fought to the death to hold a rocky mountain pass in northern Greece for 3 days against over 10,000 Persian attackers in 480 B.C. Their King, Leonidas, perished with them, and the amazing thing about this display of courage is that the Spartans knew they had been betrayed by another Greek and virtually surrounded by the enemy — yet they refused to yield. Ultimately, their courage and tenacity inspired the entire federation of Greek city-states to rise up and defeat the invading Persians — a victory that likely changed the course of history. Today there is a memorial on the site which simply says: “Go tell the Spartans, ye stranger passing by, that here, obedient to your laws, we lie.”
It’s our duty to those we serve to lead by example. Doing the right thing when nobody’s looking is the practical means of servant leadership. Challenge yourself to become that kind of leader. Remember the Spartans; enjoy the journey!