My first experience with servant leadership was watching my grandmother serve as an usher in our small rural Baptist church in Gibsland, Louisiana. I am reminded of that usher protocol through moss+ross’ work in executive search, strategic planning, and fundraising counsel as well as my service on nonprofit boards. Through my grandmother’s example as a servant leader, I witnessed her preparation, setting of the tone, and anticipation, and can trace it through all the stages of organization engagement.
My grandmother spent a few hours each Saturday washing and ironing her uniform – a starched white dress with
matching stockings, shoes and gloves. This first step in her process was a labor of love to meet the crisp uniform standard. Similarly, when the moss+ross team assists an organization with executive search they come to the assignment very well prepared. Extensive research identifies numerous potential applicants. The team is prepared well before the search is launched to position the organization for success in talent placement.
Setting the Tone
My grandmother arrived at the church door 45 minutes before the congregation. I can still see her smiling and greeting everyone by name. Regardless of the challenges she faced the night before or that morning she put those challenges aside to meet the needs of those looking for a place of healing and solace. The second step of the leader is to set the tone of the organization. Particularly in strategic planning it is the executive team led by the Executive Director or Board Chairperson who leads the charge and encourages the team to stay the course. These leaders must smile in the face of situations other staff may not be aware of and move beyond the challenges – of the balance sheet, personnel, or external concerns – and keep the team focused. Servant leaders stand at the door welcoming staff and stakeholders to move from what is to what can be.
Finally after the church members were met at the door it was time for the ushers to join them inside the sanctuary and move into the aisles. Often my grandmother and her fellow ushers would have handheld fans or boxes of tissue ready if needed. I would be amazed at how quickly the ushers would anticipate needs and silently offer someone the tissue or fan just when a hand would reach for it. Similar to a dance in midair. This step is characterized by anticipating what is needed and being eager to provide it. The fundraising team is encouraged to seek out what is waiting for the organization around the corner; the fundraisers must be two steps ahead. As in the dance: Knowing the needs of the organization have outgrown the current budget or championing a board to live into an ambitious goal. These are the activities that mirror the usher’s anticipation.
A Servant’s Honor
As a board member, I consider it an honor to walk alongside organizations at some of their most vulnerable moments. Moments where transformational leaders are welcomed, influential plans are developed, and fundraising goals are exceeded. As I reflect on my grandmother’s example as a servant leader, I encourage each of us to consider how we can incorporate these traits to greet each relationship with our colleagues and families as the gift it truly is.