Commentary

August 16, 2013

Lesson learned from bag of peanuts

Lt. Col. (Dr.) SHAYNE STOKES
56th Medical Operations Squadron Family Advocacy

Life lessons are sometimes learned in the most unexpected places.

Like most, I’ve worked for and learned from leaders and mentors with different leadership styles. I’ve learned that there is a time and place for all styles of leadership.

However, John Maxwell was spot on in his “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” when he stated that, “If you don’t have influence, you will never be able to lead others. True leadership cannot be appointed or assigned. Leadership must be earned.”

As I’ve thought about the leaders who made the most significant impact on me, without exception, each has “earned” their influence by the way they lead. The most successful leaders with whom I’ve worked have been those whose leadership style made it clear they were in it for others and not for themselves. While working in Africa a few years ago, I met a young man who showed me firsthand how much influence and success one can have by using a leadership style that focuses on benefiting the followers and not the leader (another Maxwellism).

I first met Bwalya while doing volunteer work in Lusaka, Zambia. He was only 12 years old and had lost both of his parents to AIDS. He lived in an orphan care center with other kids who had similar backgrounds.

As I spent time in the center, it became obvious that Bwalya was a leader. The other kids seem to naturally follow him. When something needed to be done, he was the first to jump in, after which other kids would quickly follow his lead. Kids who had lived on the streets and had significant behavior challenges would completely change when they started to hang out with Bwalya. He was definitely a leader amongst his peers. It was clear that he had earned the respect of every kid in the center and had significant influence (for good) over them.

We decided to go see the spectacular Victoria Falls and arranged to take Bwalya and some of the other kids from the center with us. During one of our bus stops, we bought bags of peanuts for the kids from the center. As I handed Bwalya his bag, I could tell that he was surprised and excited. He told me that this was the first time he’d ever had a bag of peanuts or any “treat” for that matter. I watched him closely as he looked down at his bag of peanuts and then looked up toward the front of the bus. I could tell that he was looking directly at a little boy who was staring back toward us with his eyes fixed on the bag of peanuts. It was clear that the little boy couldn’t afford his own bag of peanuts. Without hesitation and without eating a single peanut, Bwalya walked to the front of the bus, handed the little boy his entire bag of peanuts, and returned to his seat as if nothing had happened. I looked at him inquisitively and asked why he had done that. He looked at me and with a tone and expression that communicated “well duh!” and simply said, “He’s probably never had a bag of peanuts.”

I had just been schooled by a true leader. His actions and response said a whole lot more than who had gotten a bag of peanuts. At that moment it became very clear why he was such a leader amongst his peers, why he had such influence over them and how he played a significant role in the success of the center. Bwalya had never had a bag of peanuts but didn’t think twice about giving it away to benefit and advance someone else.

As John Maxwell said, “Leadership is about advancing others, not about advancing yourself.” Bwalya clearly understood that “people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” He was a true servant leader.

Like Bwayla, the great leaders and mentors in my life have put the needs of others first and have made it a priority to help their subordinates develop and perform to their maximum potential. They have each inspired those within their organizations to learn more, do more and become more. Each one has been a true servant leader.

Some of the biggest and most successful companies in America are famous for promoting a culture of servant leadership, companies like Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, FedEx and USAA, to name a few. No one would argue with their success. Servant leadership works.

So ask yourself, how are my servant leadership skills? Am I willing to sacrifice my own self-interest for the good of the group? Do those I lead believe that I’m interested in hearing their ideas and that I will value them? Do they follow my instructions because they want to or because they “have to?”

Servant leadership is not about being submissive, not about bowing down to others to get results and not about accepting poor performance. It’s about creating a culture that promotes teamwork, builds a sense of community, and values and involves each individual within the organization. It works. Servant leaders get results and succeed.

In the words of President George W. Bush, “Use power to help people. For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people.”




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