Success Through Servant Leadership - It Starts With You

Sept. 2, 2021

This MTD exclusive was provided by tire industry veteran Jeff Morgan, the executive director of TEN (Training and Education Network). 

Competition is everywhere in our industry. As such, the ability to attract and retain talent is even more of a challenge, particularly with a limited talent pool. For some, this is a daily struggle.

Yet there are a few out there who seem to be doing very well.  

While there certainly isn’t any magic recipe here, I believe that a key commonality you will find in the success of any organization is the leadership behind it.

In the movie “Remember the Titans,” a player was asked by the team captain why he had such a poor attitude. The player responded, “Attitude reflects leadership.” This is absolutely true in any business!

There is often confusion between being a manager and being a leader. Let me explain. A manager effectively maintains the operations of a business. I have often compared this to being the captain of a ship. That person’s job is to take that ship, its cargo, crew and passengers from Port A to Port B efficiently, effectively and on time, keeping it off the rocks in the process.

Conversely, a leader takes his or her business and people to higher levels of performance. Using the ship captain analogy, this person recognizes that “Port C” is much more beneficial for the sale of goods and the betterment of passengers. He or she then leads, coaches and motivates the crew to take the ship where they thought wasn’t possible before.

It is very possible to be a very good manager and a very poor leader. I have seen this a lot over the years. While occurring less often, it is also possible to be a very good leader and a very poor manager. The secret is that the best do both!

Please understand, I am not suggesting that poor leadership skills are an indictment of those people. Many have worked extremely hard to get where they are and want to be better leaders, but they simply do not know how. While they may have invested a lot of time in learning to run and manage a business, often the same amount of time has not been invested in learning how to effectively lead people.

Now, if you tried to read all the books on different leadership philosophies and techniques, it is safe to say you may not see the light of day for a long, long time! The ideas found in these books may work in certain instances and may be very valid approaches. 

But I am a firm believer in the power of servant leadership.

Many books have been written on the topic of servant leadership, but Robert Greenleaf is often considered one of the founding fathers of the concept, with his 1977 book titled — not surprisingly — “Servant Leadership.” In it, he shares that leaders should place the needs of their followers before their own by helping them mature and develop.

In a simple sense, it is letting go of just being the person in charge and being recognized as a true resource whom employees can count on. Too often, we think we need to be authoritarians. We think this is the only way to ensure things get done. But we can still hold people accountable, while we also invest in their success.

Ultimately, we want our people to be successful because that leads to our own success, right? So why not help them do so?

An easy step to becoming a servant leader is to do a better job of listening to your people. Do you really hear what they are saying? If you let something go in one ear and out the other, your people will soon recognize this and will stop trying to talk to you about their concerns. This is not healthy for your business nor for the morale of the people in it.

If someone takes the time to bring something to your attention, even if you think it is small or pointless, it is important to them in some way. Take the time to hear them out. Ask questions to clarify and confirm your understanding.  

If it is something that you can or should act upon, do it. If it is something that you cannot or should not act upon, first thank them for sharing their thoughts with you! Then, explain why you will not act upon it at that time. This demonstrates that you did hear them and that you value their input.

This approach will encourage people to share their ideas and thoughts with you.  Before you know it, you will uncover productivity barriers and other issues that you may have not been aware of before. You may also uncover new processes or procedures that will improve productivity, as well.

Additionally, when listening, do so with empathy. This means that you understand the emotion behind what your employees are trying to tell you. This will be particularly important when an employee comes to you with a personal request.  

For example, if an employee comes to you asking for a specific day off in order to attend a special family event, understand what that means to the employee. In this case, you should look at every way possible to accommodate the request rather than quickly dismissing it. This does not mean that you will be able to accommodate every time off request. It does mean that you sincerely look for possible ways that you could. If you are able to accommodate from time to time, employees will be more understanding when you cannot.

Another key to being a servant leader is a willingness to help employees grow. Again, this starts with listening. What does the employee want or need to learn? Where do they want to go in their career? How can you help them achieve these things?

I have actually heard owners and managers state that they did not want to invest in training an employee because they were concerned that this person would leave and take those new skills to work for the competition.   

Trust me, it is much worse to keep someone who is untrained than it is to risk losing someone whom you developed. Besides, when employees recognize that you are invested in their growth, they are more likely to stay. You do have an obligation to pay them what they are worth, of course. And their new skill sets will benefit your business in ways that will justify that expense.

Loyalty is a two-way street. If you want employees to be loyal to you and your business, you must also display loyalty to them. Show them what you are willing to do for them. Take genuine interest in their growth. Help them achieve their goals. As their success grows, so does the success of your business. There is an old saying that when you make customers feel special, they become special customers. The same can be said of your employees. Let them know how special they are to you by investing in them and they will become special to your business.

One last piece of servant leadership that I want to share with you is to be vulnerable. Newsflash — you’re not perfect! No one is! You will make mistakes. Are you willing to own up to them when you do? I see way too many people make excuses or blame others for their own mistakes. They seem to think that admitting to mistakes is a sign of weakness. I will tell you that it’s a sign of strength.

Do not be afraid to tell an employee “sorry” if you make a mistake that affects them or your entire team. These things are going to happen. When you demonstrate that you accept your mistakes, others will do the same. If you have a shop full of people pointing fingers at each other when problems occur, you need to look in the mirror as that behavior likely starts with you.

Being vulnerable also involves admitting that you do not know everything. I am a firm believer that there are great ideas that reside within every business. These ideas often exist inside the minds of employees, but are never called out. Do not be afraid to ask questions of your employees. If you do not know the best way to approach a situation or process, ask your people. Not only are they likely to have some great answers, but they will feel empowered. They will start to provide ideas more freely. This empowerment also makes them feel more engaged in the business, making them less likely to leave.

Becoming a servant leader does not happen overnight. It requires work. That work starts by understanding what your gaps are. Where can you improve? 

Start by looking in the mirror. Be honest with yourself and recognize where you need to adjust. Commit to making the changes in your leadership style that will rally your employees around you — as opposed to fearing you, avoiding you or simply ignoring you. 

Work on it every day, making little adjustments as needed.

 Before you know it, you will be recognized as the servant leader that people want to work with and for. And that will drive your business to new heights.   

About the Author

Jeff Morgan

Tire industry veteran Jeff Morgan is the executive director of TEN (Training and Education Network.) He can be reached at [email protected] or (651) 846-9871. For more, see