A Servant and a Debtor

Card you envelope thank nobody copy paperAccording to Max DePree, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.”

Most leaders understand that part of their job is to define reality for their organizations and, at least as we approach Thanksgiving, will pause to say thanks to their staff. However, many of us in positions of leadership would do well to consider how we could redouble our efforts in the middle — by focusing on being a servant and a debtor in our organizations.

If the first thought that popped into your head after reading that last sentence was that you are too busy for all that warm and fuzzy stuff . . . that it might sound good but you need to make sure there is a clear return on investment for your efforts . . . I would simply point out that you might be surprised at how small actions on your part can have a significant impact on the culture of your organization, and its ultimate success. What exactly do I mean by small actions?

Ask your people for their opinion, and then really listen to what they have to say. So often as leaders, we listen to respond, to make a case for our position, rather than to hear what our people are thinking. You might be surprised at what you learn when you listen to hear. As an added bonus, your staff can tell the difference, and they feel valued when you truly seek their opinion.

Make it your priority to help your staff, rather than just expecting them to help you. When you help your staff — whether by removing barriers, helping them tackle a problem, or finding ways to make their job easier — you create reciprocal energy that ultimately moves the organization forward. Really . . . it is not all about you and your goals.

Take a few minutes each day —not just at Thanksgiving — to say thanks. It won’t take a lot of time, I promise. Noticing and acknowledging a person’s effort virtually guarantees you will see more of that behavior. Even better, take two minutes and send a hand-written note. Such simple yet uncommon actions leave a lasting impression. (Ever saved a note that you received?)

Those suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. Help clean up after an event . . . call or text someone to let them know you have their back . . . laugh with people . . . model organizational values . . . you get the idea. Long term, your people probably won’t remember this quarter’s goals. They will remember how you supported their efforts . . . as a debtor and a servant. And you will have even more reasons to give thanks.

Leadership in a Nutshell


I was recently asked to summarize my personal philosophy on leadership. (Yes, it did occur to me that I have been writing blogs for two years trying to do just that . . . but I think they were looking for the 30 second synopsis.) Like so many things, the more you immerse yourself in the topic, exploring the many layers and variables, the harder it is to feel like you can sum it up in a nutshell. Nonetheless, in an attempt to honor the request, I turned to Max DePree, one of my favorite “common sense” authors on leadership. In Leadership is an Art, he states, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.” Leadership in a nutshell.

Cracking that nut apart just a bit, I see a leader’s first responsibility, defining reality, as a two part process. As noted in last week’s blog, there is the need to define the current reality with brutal honesty, but a leader also has to define, clearly and succinctly, the new reality the organization is working to achieve. These two realities, and the vision to get from point A to point B are a core component of leadership success.

Saying thank you? I have shared my thoughts on that multiple times, but it bears repeating. It. Is. Not. About. You. There is no such thing as a leader without followers. Returning to the wisdom of Max DePree, he notes, “The measure of leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body.” Leaders need to both understand and appreciate that fact. Ideas don’t get you anywhere. Only the committed actions of those who are willing to implement those ideas will propel you toward your ultimate destination. And their efforts deserve your thanks . . . sincerely and regularly.

And then there’s that messy stuff in the middle . . . the whole servant and debtor thing. Let’s tackle the debtor aspect first. While I’m assuming you don’t actually owe your organization money, I do think that by accepting a leadership role you become indebted to the organization to leave it better than you found it. And in my experience you don’t get a better outcome by just doing things the way they have always been done. Part of my “debt” to the organization is the responsibility to find new ways to extend our mission reach. How? That’s where the servant concept comes in.

Just because you get people fired up to achieve the vision, that doesn’t mean getting there will be a straight or smooth path. A leader has to serve his or her staff by removing the barriers that impede progress toward the ultimate goal. Maybe that means changing systems and processes. Maybe that means moving people into roles that are a better fit for their gifts and graces. Maybe that means approaching external variables in new and different ways. Whatever the challenges, a leader needs to serve his or her staff by creating the conditions where they have the best opportunity for success.

Defining reality. Saying thanks. Being a servant and a debtor. Leadership in a nutshell.