By William F. Brandt, Jr.

Rarely in the headlines is this type of Servant Leader: an individual that I first met at a hotel near Boston’s Logan Airport. He had overseen the creation of a unique high-performing organization and, since his retirement, had worked as a consultant helping other organizations do the same. At the end of our discussion, I indicated that I would like to engage his services, but that I needed to wait until American Woodmark, my company which at the time was struggling through a severe recession, could afford them. He responded that he would work for us for free.

I was stunned. I have served as a director on a number of for-profit and non-profit boards. During my tenures, there were only five occasions where different CEOs declined higher pay when offered. In each instance, they were concerned that the higher compensation, or simply the receipt of a pay increase at all, was inappropriate given their organizations’ circumstances at the time.

To describe behaviors such as these, Robert Greenleaf, in his book, Servant Leadership, coined the term “Servant Leadership.” Servant leaders are motivated to pursue causes greater than their own self-interests and when necessary make sacrifices to do so. Paradoxically, their orientation to serve rather than be served is completely counter to the popular perception of what leadership is about—that is, self-interest.

Jim Collins, in his bestseller, Good to Great, reinforces the importance of servant leadership when he characterizes the traits of corporations that successfully transformed themselves from being good performers within their respective industries to being great. Each of these organizations was led by what Collins calls a level-5 leader—“an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense personal will.” Level-5 leaders fit the description of Servant Leadership in that their ego needs are channeled first and foremost to the institution, and not to themselves.

As I mentioned in Part One, servant leaders are humble. They are good listeners and are more likely to seek the truth than assume they already know it. They are effective delegators and good mentors. They can also be strong-willed and results-oriented. Organizations characterized by such leadership are more likely to have inspiring visions, better understanding of reality, greater alignment of behaviors in support of their visions, stronger results and better development of their people for the future.

Self-focused Leadership and Servant Leadership are two ends of a spectrum. While many people have the potential to move up the spectrum toward greater servant leadership, there are others so egocentric that they cannot and never will.

The owner of the predecessor company to American Woodmark created a culture to “please the boss,” in which self-focused leadership was the norm. However, through selective hiring, promotions and either voluntary or involuntary departures, American Woodmark gradually changed and created a culture of servant leadership. This transition began with the choice of co-founders of the company who fit the servant leadership mold.

A second, more conscious stage at American Woodmark was the inclusion of integrity—doing what is right—in our mission statement. Since doing what is right is almost synonymous with servant leadership, using “integrity” as a criterion for personnel decisions naturally led to the advancement of servant leadership and the discouragement of self-focused leadership.

We can create cultures that foster servant leadership where those who have the potential for such behavior are nurtured and those who do not either quit or are asked to leave. While not the only step, a culture characterized by servant leadership is fundamental to the creation of exceptional organizations.


William F. Brandt, Jr., is co-founder 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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