Inside the Soul of a Servant Leader

It was a gorgeous day in downtown New Orleans. The streets of the French Quarter were very busy readying for the upcoming Mardi Gras parades. I was walking with my client to a nearby restaurant for a quick lunch before I was to deliver an afternoon keynote at his high-tech company’s leadership conference. At the morning break, his colleagues had said of this charismatic leader, “He doesn’t just walk the talk, he runs it.” The company had finished a year of spectacular growth by all measures. And I had listened to his opening remarks focus on humility and honor, not just on profits and prowess.

As we briskly walked toward the restaurant, we approached a dirty and disheveled street person sitting on the sidewalk leaning against a building. In front of the broken man sat a cigar box containing a few quarters with a handwritten sign on its open lid that read, “Please Help.” It was a too familiar big city scene.

But this scene took on a special significance when my client stopped, took a dollar bill from his pocket, smiled at the man, and dropped it in his cigar box. As we continued down Bourbon Street, I callously commented, “You know that dollar will likely be spent on drugs.” He just kept smiling and walking as he replied,

“I am here to serve and he needed someone to serve him right then. And why should I judge a fellow child of God?”

I dismissed his “too good to be true” comment and continued to talk about the afternoon’s agenda and logistics. But his unexpected gesture and surprising philosophical statement stayed with me a long time. I thought about the many times I had judgmental thoughts when confronted with very similar scenes. I recalled how many “random acts of kindness” moments I had missed because I was in a hurry, or preoccupied, or too lazy, or whatever. And I considered the lives I could have positively impacted with a tiny gesture.

That day I started thanking the folks in TSA at the airport security check point for their service. I paid the toll for the car behind me in a toll booth. I elected to never pass up a beggar or panhandler on a sidewalk without providing a coin or bill. And I sent short notes to people I had not talked with in a long time, just to thank them for their impact and influence on my life.

It is a calloused world in which we live today. School shootings, bickering law makers, indifferent frontline service people, and wait staff with no interpersonal light on inside can easily turn optimism into despair and hope into who cares. But we can opt to not be a pedestrian or passenger in this life; we can be a servant leader who encounters each “child of God” with courage, passion, and respect. We can ignore custom, tradition, and protocol and just serve. Servant leaders serve, not because it is what they are supposed to do, but because it is who they are.