January 7, 2021
My dad has been studying servant leadership before the phrase was coined back in the 1970s, so I grew up with the concept. Putting others’ needs before our own sounds simple, but it takes dedicated effort. Both for individuals and organizations. But it has become our secret sauce.
Last fall, we embarked on a journey with subject-matter-expert and author James C. Hunter to help us double-down on servant leadership. To make us more accountable for our actions. To help us build a culture of trust. To empower each team member to speak up and do the right thing. I’d like to share a few of our key lessons learned – and relearned – from this latest effort.
A Way of Life
This isn’t a one-and-done exercise. It’s a mindset that affects every decision, every part of your life. As an MRO, for example, we have opportunities to take care of problems we see while we’re in fixing something else. Our team members are empowered to use their judgment. That may well be to go ahead and take care of it rather than pointing out the issue and making the customer reschedule to address it later. Customers appreciate that we’re watching out for them and treating them like we ourselves like to be treated.
Hearts and Minds
Culture drives behavior. Delivering excellence only happens when the full team pulls together in a unified manner toward common goals. One of my favorite Bible verses is, “Love is patient, love is kind.” That’s the attitude servant leaders take toward one another. Service is love in action. That means we give each other the benefit of the doubt. We don’t look for offense, assuming the other person means well even if he or she somehow fell short. Goodwill completely changes the dynamics of interactions. You don’t go into conversations to win or prove the other person wrong, but to find common ground and how to move forward together.
People Before Profit
Southwest Airlines Founder and longtime CEO Herb Kelleher, a mentor to my dad, famously said, “The business of business is people – yesterday, today and forever.” If you put your team and customers first, everything else falls in line. Once you’ve earned people’s trust, your ability to lead comes naturally. People give authority to you willingly through your ongoing inspiration.
A sense of humor puts things in perspective. Teams that laugh together pull together. You don’t have to go as far as we sometimes do – donning wigs and gowns and lip-synching tunes as “Keith and the Kingettes” at a BBJ owners conference. I’ll tell you this, putting a former football player like myself in a red-sequined, strapless cocktail dress, isn’t pretty. But it steals the show. No one forgets you – or how you made them feel. People still tease me about my time on the stage. In a good way. Shared emotional moments, especially joyful ones, build relationships.
The Right Team
We’ve all heard, “Hire for attitude, train for skill.” There’s truth to that. Our people have deep experience, training and certifications, but at the core, they have character. Someone who doesn’t want to give 150 percent will not be happy here. Serving others requires meeting their needs. That requires accountability. At King Aerospace, team members earn their wings based on peer reviews, people who work alongside of them. Peers can also determine if wings should be lost. This protects the wings’ integrity and makes them an ongoing source of pride.
We keep our mission and Cornerstone Principles front and center. Our purpose is clear: to make a positive difference in the lives of those we employ, we serve, we encounter and earn a fair profit. That keeps priorities clear and facilitates decisions large and small. Being a servant leader doesn’t mean being a doormat. The best servant leaders are warriors. They go to battle for others with passion and commitment.
Our training in servant leadership continues. We’ve hired hundreds of new team members and are eager to share what we’ve learned with them. Think what we can accomplish with a team of people that treats each other with dignity, deals honestly, consistently strives for excellence and proactively, patiently problem-solves.
We can all be servant leaders. I for one intend to be.