It was the middle of the night. Outside, the rain pelted against the windows. An elderly man and his wife entered a hotel in Philadelphia.

“Do you please have a place for us to stay?” the man asked.

There were conventions in town. They had been to several other hotels and all the rooms were full.

The clerk looked at the couple. “Every room in the hotel is filled,” he said. “But I can’t send a nice couple like you out into the night like this… Would you stay in my room?”

The next morning as the man paid his bill, he said to the clerk: “You are the kind of manager who should be the manager of the best hotel in the world. And, one day I am going to build it for you.”

The clerk smiled and forgot about the incident.

But two years later, he received a letter along with a round trip ticket to New York and a request that he be the guest of the elderly couple.

The old man led the clerk to the corner of 5th Avenue and 54th Street where he pointed to an incredible new building and declared, “This is the hotel I have built for you.”

The young man was George Boldt, and he accepted the offer of William Waldorf Astor to be the manager of the Waldorf Astoria, the greatest hotel in the world at the time.

I heard this story from James Blanchard, the now retired CEO of Synovus Bank. Jim explains: “This is a story of simple virtues – willingness, readiness, alertness, courtesy. The heart of a servant leader. A person who would give his own room in the middle of the night. It’s not rocket science. It’s not advanced calculus. It’s not formulas that are difficult to discern. But these virtues will carry a leader further than knowledge.”

This week we are will be exploring lessons and learnings from Robert Greenleaf‘s The Servant as Leader. Only 39-pages long, it is my favorite book about leadership.

Robert begins The Servant as Leader with the story of Leo from Herman Hesse‘s Journey to the East about a band of men on a mythical journey. Leo goes on the trip as a servant who does menial chores for the group. But he also “sustains them with his spirit and his song,” Robert writes. “All goes well until Leo disappears. The group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned.”

Years later, the narrator is taken into the Order which sponsored the journey. “There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as a servant, was in fact the titular head of the Order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader.”

Robert writes: “This story clearly says – the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness… His servant nature was the real man, not bestowed, not assumed, and not to be taken away. He was servant first.”

As Leo illustrates, the servant-leader is servant-first: “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

And how do we know if we are showing up as servant-leaders?

“In the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served,” writes Robert. “We must know whether the net effect of our influence on others enriches, is neutral, or diminishes and depletes.”

The best test?

“Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

A powerful question to ask ourselves…


Reflection: What impact do I have on those with whom I work most closely?

Action: Journal about it.

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