By William F. Brandt, Jr.

For organizations to become exceptional, they need “servant leaders” at their helms—that is, those who serve cause greater than their own self-interests and who inspire their members to do the same. Celebrity CEOs need not apply.

What do Ken Lay of Enron, Bernie Ebbers of Worldcom, and Dennis Koslowski of Tyco all have in common? That’s right – they went from being honored in a 1999 book as among the “very best business leaders in America,” to each being found guilty of criminal behavior regarding their business conduct. In a 2008 article they were further distinguished as among “The Seven Most Crooked CEOs of All Time.”

While these three displayed some of the worst behavior, the public is continually outraged with headlines about other CEOs who negotiate outlandish compensation packages – then go on to oversee the demise of their corporations, and still garner excessive exit pay or, if they stay with the corporation, excessive “retention bonuses.”

Such behaviors exemplify “Self-focused Leadership,” where the primary motivation is to serve one’s own self-interests. For such leaders, acting in pursuit of their organizations’ purposes is not an end in itself, but rather a means to a rich-end. If they become celebrities in the process, it is because they have created a focus upon themselves, rather than their organizations.

Institutions led by such individuals are characterized by behaviors to “Please the Boss.” Pleasing the boss garners rewards. Failure to please the boss leads to punishments. Such behaviors may be motivated, but they are not inspired. Furthermore, pleasing the boss may have nothing to do with actually achieving an organization’s purpose. Finally, self-focused leaders have little interest in grooming competent successors because any benefits of doing so would fall on someone else’s watch. Someone else would get the credit.

The antithesis of the “Self-focused Leader” is the “Servant Leader.” Servant leaders are motivated to pursue causes greater than their own self-interests and when necessary make sacrifices to do so. Their orientation is to serve rather than be served. And they can blend extreme personal humility with intense personal will so that their ego needs are channeled first and foremost to the institution, and not to themselves like those of the self-focused leader.

Servant leaders tend to be humble. They are good listeners and are more likely to seek the truth than to assume they already know it. They are also effective delegators, good mentors, and tend to be results-oriented.

These are just a few of the traits of a Servant Leader. I will expand on these and show the benefits of Servant Leadership over Self-focused Leadership in Part Two.


William F. Brandt, Jr., is cofounder and former CEO of American Woodmark Corporation—the third largest producer of kitchen cabinets in America. His books include the winner of 22 Book Awards COMPASS—Creating Exceptional Organizations: A Leader’s Guide and COMPASS TOOL KIT, the teaching companion to COMPASS ( ).

Copyright 2015 © William F. Brandt, Jr.

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