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Making The Transition to Servant Leader

July 7, 2009 - Business Skills, Leading People, Personal Skills, Valuable Skills

Good service is hard to find, and it is even harder to understand. Beyond equitable treatment of others, what does good service look like? What are the truths that underpin the service mindset?

Old timers around the campfire will often tell you that service is not what it used to be. Service, long ago, was the product of genuine care and concern for consumers as people. Sometimes, service meant giving away a product, or offering to spend extra time with a customer or person in need. Other times, service meant trying new things to solve individual concerns, and going out on a limb without a guarantee of reward. Either way, the general consensus around the campfire is: “Customer service ain’t what it used to be.”

Chances are good that you patronize places that make you feel good as a consumer, places that respect you as an individual, they may even remember your name. These people and businesses thought about what you needed as a consumer and before you asked. Service businesses looked out for you, and built a foundation of trust. They thought about you both when you were around (and buying), and when you weren’t. Good doctors have it, good lawyers have it – but what is the service mindset?

The service mindset is the result of internalizing three basic truths. Once inside, they become part of who you are – like language. These beliefs, like all beliefs, influence and inform everything you do. Looking around at the public servant professions, exempting politics of course, you can see your librarians, police officers, firefighters, social service people, and volunteers exemplifying the service mindset. What are the truths that lead to gaining the service mindset?

Truth #1: You aren’t alone in life AND no one else is either
Look around you. Life abounds. All creatures and plants share the same quality of being alive as you do. You share this same quality with every other living thing. People around you are alive, embroiled in the dramas of their own life. The quality of being alive puts us all “in the same boat” so to speak. Being alive means you aren’t alone – every other living thing is experiencing life, just as you are – ups and downs, turns and shifts.

People often look for what makes us different rather than what makes us the same. Differences between people create uniqueness, but they also create isolation. Celebrate what is the same in you, as in everyone else. Being in service to other people, and other living things, requires an appreciation of sameness.

Truth #2: You need other people AND other people need you
If all living things have life in common, then they all have needs in common as well. Basic biological needs like food, safe environment, and resources exist across all domains of life. Even getting the basics tended to often requires help. A baby, for example, does not start with the ability to feed itself. A baby comes with the ability to suck, and a mother comes with the ability to nurse. When the mother can not nurse, others make formula for the mother to buy to feed her child. Biological needs quickly expand into people and places you do not know, and may have never been. You need people that you don’t even know to keep doing things that you don’t know how to do. You need to keep doing what you do so that people you don’t know can keep living. By being a contributing part of the community you are contributing to the life of everyone in it.

Apart from the basic biological needs, skills and life lessons are also needed. They are hard to learn, and life is not a level playing field. Some of us can’t read, are bad with money, or don’t know how to be accountable. On the other hand, some of us have learned things that we can share with you. (No one was born a doctor, or with an understanding of how a checkbook works.) Other people need the things that you have learned.

Your family, friends, and even complete strangers can use what you have learned to thrive and make better lives for themselves and others. Others may need time, knowledge, or other resources to live and thrive. This need of ours to learn and grow is perpetual. You will forever be in need of knowledge, and forever providing what you know to others. The same holds true with time, love, energy, money and every other commodity upon which human life is reliant.

Truth #3: No one is “better” than you AND you are not “better” than anyone else
If all living things share life in common, and all living things have needs, then all needs are part of life. We all need. Because my need may be for discipline, and your need may be for money, or my need may be for safety, and yours for comfort does not make any one of those more important than any other. There is nothing inherent in the nature of ones needs that makes them greater or lesser. The nature of our neediness makes us all the same.

There is nothing inherent in people that make them greater or lesser. People are people, needs are needs. You grew and learned in a way that made you good at math or English, they grew in a way that made them good at social engineering, or solving problems. Everyone has a gift and everyone has a need. We are all the same – in that way – but each combination of gifts and needs is unique and special. Each unique individual has something that they can teach you, and you can teach them.

You may be smarter than someone else. That does not make you better than them. You may be stronger, or more emotionally capable, or more eloquent. These strengths are to be celebrated as a gift. They should not be used to demean or oppress others. Intellectual and emotional bullies are still bullies. Think of others like you would a child who hasn’t learned much yet. Their behavior is a best guess, just like yours is in domains of your weakness. Use your strength to cultivate and grow others. In the same way, don’t beat yourself up over percieved shortcomings – no one gains anything from that.

The application of these truths combined with a sense of accountability as discussed in the article on personal accountabilitydemonstrate a service mindset. Going the “extra mile” is what this feels like to others, but when you have the service mindset and hold these truths as part of your reality, it won’t feel particularly special at all. These truths compel action in ways that respect the connections between all of us, regardless of circumstance or situation.

Having the service mindset doesn’t mean that you don’t say no. Being exploited or abused is not part of the service mindset because it violates the third truth. No one is better than you. Saying no, while holding the service mindset and being accountable is done in a very special way. It is a “no” that people can walk away from and feel whole and understood. A customer is always right – until being right hurts someone – including themselves.

Having the service mindset costs nothing! Cultivating a personal understanding of the truths above will influence your actions. It will not to change them completely, but it will influence them to be more considerate, more charitable, and more understanding. Consideration, charity, and understanding, are all free. They cost nothing, and they mean everything in times of need – and we all need sometimes.

By applying these truths in your daily you begin cultivating the service mindset. In thinking about the truths above, think about someone who nurtured you and helped you grow. Imagine life without them. Imagine what life would be like if none of these truths were true? If we were kicked out of the house as infants, if no one helped pick us up when we fell down, if no one shared the secrets and gifts of knowledge with you that you now know. The service mindset is a great part of what makes this world and society happen. Be a part of it. Serve yourself and serve others.

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