Vail Valley View: Leading by serving? |

Vail Valley View: Leading by serving?

John Horan-Kates
Vail, CO, Colorado

At the Vail Leadership Institute, we have come to define serving as the act of helping others. It also entails a holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community and shared decision-making. From a leadership point-of-view, the principle of serving is realized when others grow and become more effective.

Servant-leadership has become more and more common in today’s management and organizational development literature. While being of service to others is seen as a worthy and effective strategy by more social sector leaders, there are still many in business who find it too soft. Why is that? Ask yourself, What attitude must I embrace to find this approach valuable?

Robert Greenleaf, the oft-recognized advocate of servant-leadership, wrote prolifically about serving in the 1970s, and then founded the Center for Servant Leadership in Indianapolis that was subsequently named in his honor.

He said, “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. … Then conscience choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

It’s interesting to note that servant-leadership is not really a new concept. It’s been around a long time, and many of our most exemplary leaders have followed this approach.

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Greenleaf refers often to the example of Jesus of Nazareth, who “came to serve, not be served.” And you could add Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Who else would you add to the list?

Larry Spears, a former president of the Greenleaf Center, identified the following 10 characteristics of servant-leadership: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, communication and community. One could also easily add caring, compassion, love and genuine interest in others as hallmarks of this philosophy of leadership.

This principle of serving parallels the Golden Rule by focusing on how you would like to be treated. It is a giving approach that puts others ahead of ourselves.

Stephen Covey described a servant-leader as “one who seeks to draw out, to inspire and develop the best within people from the inside out.”

But how does one actually implement this thinking? Mentoring is a great way of serving in which we share ourselves with others and help them go beyond success to realize significance. As a mentor, you can share your gifts, your experiences and your personal journey.

One of the best approaches is to ask honest, probing questions, and then just listen. When the time is right, encourage them to live up to their potential.

On a more personal level, say “thanks” often.

Or think of small acts of kindness, like sending a hand-written note or dropping by to see someone rather than sending an e-mail. And don’t forget that flowers still work.

But understanding servant-leadership is not enough.

A relevant biblical passage recommends, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” So follow the Nike headline and just do it.

Given all of this, how do you hold the notion of serving?

This column has been written in connection with Exploring Potential, a character-development program offered in Eagle County high schools. John Horan-Kates is the president of the Vail Leadership Institute. He can be reached at

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