When most people think of servants and servitude the last thing they think of is a leader. But often times the best leaders are servants to those that they lead. A servant leader is a leader that is “attentive to the concerns of their followers, empathize with them, and nurture them. Servant leaders put followers first, empower them, and help them develop their full personal capacities” (Northouse, 2016, P. 225). These kinds of leaders are actually very common among people in leadership roles today. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that unless a leader is willing to be a servant, they can’t be a good leader. However, even amongst servant leaders it is difficult to find leaders that truly serve with their whole being. I was lucky enough to get a good example of a servant leader as early as my senior year of high school. My high school football coach was an exemplary servant leader. He was hired to take over the head coaching position my senior year, and he embodied all the most important characteristics of the position: He put, his players first, he empathized with us, and he worked to develop us beyond football.
My coach would put the health and well-being of his players first above all else. He made sure we had water readily available so we wouldn’t dehydrate. He made sure we would take whatever time to recover we needed if we were injured, and he made sure we had time to study our playbooks so we could be prepared for practice. But he didn’t just stop at our physical well-being. He also made a point to care for our mental well-being. He realized we were all in school, and made sure that we understood that school came first. At our school a 2.2 GPA was the minimum to play sports. A personal policy he had was that he wouldn’t let you play if your GPA dropped below a 2.5. He wanted to make sure we were all succeeding academically. And if for some reason we were struggling in school, he would talk to our teachers for us. He would get us the help we needed to do better. He did just help us in and give what we needed to succeed in football, but also what we needed to succeed in school.
Empathy was one of the traits I admired most about my coach. My coach worked hard to foster a sense of brotherhood amongst the team. He tried to build a community where we could all “identify with something greater than themselves that they value. Servant leaders build community to provide a place where people can feel safe and connected with others, but are still allowed to express their own individuality. “ (Northouse, 2016, P. 229). He treated all our individual concerns with care, but even when he addressed them he did so in a way that would bring the team closer together. And because he worked so hard to foster that attitude amongst us players he became a part of the atmosphere too. He became part of us. When we were happy, he was happy. When we were hyped up, he was hyped up. And when we were sad and in tears, so was he. My clearest example of this was when we lost in the playoffs that year. The whole team had worked hard to get back to the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade, and he could tell. So, when we lost there was no shortage of tears, and even he had to wipe his eyes. Out previous head coach seemed to just take losses in stride, but this coach felt the same as us players, and it really showed. His empathy for us and our work was “confirming and validating for the followers. It makes the followers feel unique.” (Northouse, 2016, P. 227). The fact that he was not there for us, but there with us made him us all feel as if our response was valid. He made us feel special that whole season with a firm belief in us, and that had culminated to the best season our school had seen in more than a decade.
My coach didn’t just want us to be good football players, he also wanted us to be good people. My coach placed a “premium on treating each follower as a unique person with intrinsic value that goes beyond his or her tangible contributions to the organization. Servant leaders are committed to helping each person in the organization grow personally and professionally. “(Northouse, 2016, P. 228). The motto for the season was “accountability, toughness, love”. And he wanted us to grow in all those categories. He would try to help us grow in each of these categories in several ways. To foster love, he tried to build a community amongst us. He would do this by having us engage in team building exercises. And not just exercises like icebreakers, or other things like that, but through service. He would have us do service together so that we not only got closer to each other, but also to the community. To make us tougher he would put us through a grueling practice every day. He would push us all to our limit, so that we would be physically and mentally stronger for it. And the thing he placed the highest value on was accountability. He insisted that we finish whatever job we had started to completion. And if we didn’t finish it, then he would punish up with some sort of physical punishment that was harder than the original task. Eventually we had all learned that finishing the original task was in our best interest, and we all improved to not leave task unfinished or finished poorly. Through all this he had made us not just better football players, but better people.
My coach was a wonderful example of a good servant leader, and even more than that a good leader overall. He put his players first, had empathy for us, and worked hard to help us grow as people. And much like any good leader he got us to get results. Sure, we didn’t win the state championship that year, but we made it to the playoffs, and that was farther than we had expected to get. He served us and because of that we served him. He cared for us and helped us grow not just as football players, but also as people.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership theory and practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.