The only way to lead

My first year of college, I was walking down my school’s main plaza during the student involvement fair looking for clubs that interested me. As booth after booth of complete strangers flew by, I noticed a group that stood out from the sea of red and white.

These were people wearing canary-yellow shirts and bright red noses. Every word they spoke radiated energy, drive, and positivity. Their message instantly resonated with me; so much so that when the club was at risk of dying the next year, I stepped up as president to salvage the organization.

Today, the Clown Nose Club at NC State; a sister chapter to the original Penn State group, is under new leadership and is going strong planning activities designed to make the campus community a more open, positive environment.

It was out of that club that I learned the most important lesson when it comes to working with people; one that I apply every day with my team:

Servant Leadership

America’s university system is fantastic, and through its network of various student organizations does encourage students to take leadership roles. But those roles can barely hold a candle to the pressures of leading people positively in the real world.

In the real world, there are so many more variables involved with leading a team; so many more pressures that all have to be accomplished and stretch goals that can make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

I’m not perfect. In no way do I apply this perfectly all the time or even apply it at all all the time. But servant leadership makes the difference between feared, loved, or having people fear how much you are loved.

The term was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, and basically comes down to choice.

Choice is a recurring theme in my work, and servant leadership is something I got close to defining a little over a year ago:

Being a manager is about managing–it’s taking the time to get to know the people you work with–above and below you. It’s knowing what everyone expects from you and setting out to accomplish those things. It’s acknowledging that they are your customers just like your firm’s customers are your customers and making the decision to be obsessed with their success.

Being a manager is using your actions to build the trust of every single human being on you team, energizing them, and encouraging working together to face the world.

“The Purpose of a Manager” Raul R Gonzalez on Why Mondays Are Cool. July 24, 2015

It’s basically defined as going out of one’s way to make sure that those one leads do not want. It’s making sure that they have everything they need, anticipating any issues before they arise and addressing those that do.

Servant leadership creates an environment of trust in a leader because actions match words to the best of the leader’s ability.

It’s the servant leader who will go into work on their day off to address an issue even though there’s no expectation to do so. It’s the servant leader who helps develop those under him or her and who gives credit where credit is due.

And it’s all driven by one key principle.

It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru

It’s also what makes a servant leader a good manager.

At its core, a servant leader is driven by more than ambition and a desire to look good in front of one’s bosses and followers. Because this form of leadership converts the followers into bosses in and of themselves, it relies on another, more complex emotion to keep the train rolling.

The fact that this emotion is the same one that Voldemort couldn’t understand is no coincidence.

It’s love.

A good leader has to do more than care for their team. They have to love each individual member as an individual worthy of respect, time, and effort. In part, because of that, this is one of the more challenging styles of leadership to exhibit. However, those challenges lead to big rewards in gaining the respect, trust, and love of others.

I’m a leader of people

At the fresh age of 23, I manage 44 people directly under me, and up to 120 when I run the shift balancing the needs of the processes with demands and expectations from higher ups, productivity needs, coachings, fighting small breakdowns with the processes, and handling the concerns of my team.

In a given minute, I could have three people all calling my name at the same time asking me three different questions while my manager is calling for me on the radio asking to talk to me about a change to our production plan.

It’s up to me to decide how to divide my time and how to respond to everyone’s questions so that everyone has what they needs.

Situations like these happen to me all the time and require a good amount of mental juggling and prioritization. In every case, looking through the situation as a servant leader helps me see exactly what I need to do. I create alarms and keep a to-do list dedicated to my team to ensure that I follow through on my promises to them.

I must. There’s too much to be able to rely on memory in such a fast-paced environment. It’s one of the things I love–and it’s an environment that puts servant leadership to the test. Having lived it, now more than ever I’m the strongest supporter of servant leadership. I’ve made my decision.

Where choice comes in

There’s no obligation to be a servant leader. The idea is just starting to gain traction in managerial and leadership circles, in part because it redefines what it means to lead. There are definitely other models that may be appropriate in certain situations, but due to its difficulty, servant leadership cannot just be done casually.

There has to be positive intent and conscious effort.

Without those two elements, along with that of love, every single thing you and anyone attempting to try out this style will do will just seem fake, forced, and unauthentic. It takes commitment to the principles and resolve to turn those principles into action to have it feel authentic.

As I said before,

Ultimately, it’s our choices interacting with those of people around us that dictate our luck.

“I didn’t run around the block with a suitcase this year” July 4th, 2015

It’s our choices to care about those we lead and having a vested interest in their success that can turn us into phenomenal people, and even better leaders.

All we need to do is make the decision.

And the ball’s in our court.

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Cover photo by Joanna Kosinska

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