In my formative military years, I learned a valuable and lifelong lesson: Leaders eat last. I was a Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet in college, and our summer camps integrated active-duty troops into our day-to-day training regimen. We were sleep-deprived, the days were long, our training was rigorous, and our appetites constantly soared! Standing in the chow line was a welcome reprieve to humping around in our simulated battlefield environment, especially if steak was the main course.
However, on several occasions, active-duty troops would file into line behind us, and our drill instructors would bark out, “Leaders eat last!” Their bark, of course, was directed at us to forgo our place in line. It didn’t matter how long we had been standing there, how hungry we were, nor if we missed out on being served steak. Our military custom was leaders eat last, the troops always go first, and we were aspiring leaders.
I practiced this custom both literally and figuratively for all the decades since, in uniform and as a corporate executive. You’ll find most veterans leading organizations have this attitude. It’s what leaders do; they place the interests of those they serve before their own. They do it with their troops, employees, family, friends and community.
However, this doesn’t mean leaders go last when encountering a challenge or obstacle; quite the contrary. If you’re a stick leader with 30 paratroopers in the belly of a C-130 Hercules turboprop, and the green light comes on over the drop zone, you’re the first one out the door with jumpers in tow. The same if you’re a CEO and your team is working the weekend to finish a critical proposal. You’re the first one to turn the office lights on and the last one to turn them off at the end of the day. The leader’s behaviors and actions express this attitude of eating last.
Robert Greenleaf, in the 1970s, coined the term servant-leader, crystalizing a mindset that the goal of a leader is to serve his or her followers. What sets servant leadership apart from other leadership styles is motive, mode and mindset. The leader’s motive encapsulates two premises: I serve because I am the leader, and I am the leader because I serve. The mode of the leader is to prioritize the followers’ needs before that of the organization. And most critical, the leader’s mindset is as a steward who purposefully reorients their follower’s focus toward the others in the organization, not the organization itself. Greenleaf’s servant-leader idea gained momentum at the turn of the century, and now many Fortune 500 companies practice this mindset.
Leaders use different leadership styles to advance the organization’s goals: authoritarian, participative, delegative, transformational and transactional. The use of these styles often is situation-based and limited to the circumstances that present themselves. Leaders may move from one style to another, employing behaviors and actions mastered through study and experience that create positive results. As organizations grow and evolve, leaders’ styles often do and will change.
However, employing a leadership style doesn’t preclude you from being a practicing servant-leader. Many of us pride ourselves on being servant leaders and, because of circumstances, have at one time or another exercised an authoritarian, participative, delegative, transformational and transactional style to get the job done.
If you’re aspiring, emerging or in a leadership position today, enroll in the Valley Industry Association Leadership Program. I co-chair, with Nola Aronson, the Leadership Committee, and the committee created a dynamic, two-block program with six two-hour sessions in each block. The program theme is “Reaching Greater Heights,” and the first block starts May 7 and ends June 18. The sessions are immersive, hands-on, and as a participant, you will learn essential business and leadership skills in interactive, vibrant, small-group settings. Experienced, multi-generational leaders will facilitate each session and share their best practices with the cohort. The first block culminates in the last session with a four-person panel sharing their thoughts on servant leadership.
Leaders connect with their followers emotionally, and there is no better way to connect than as a servant leader. Servant leaders share power. They put the needs of the employees, troops, team and family first and help people develop and perform as highly as possible. According to Greenleaf, servant leadership inverts the norm. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.
As our drill instructors barked, leaders eat last! When you practice this mindset, you will have loyal followers exceeding your expectations in achieving organizational goals. So, are you first or last in line? This is how you lead, think, plan and act. Now let’s get after it.
Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions.