Leadership is being “the server”


One of the topics that stirs up debate at SENSEI LEADER events is the idea of “leadership at all levels.” Should front-line, even minimum wage employees be expected to demonstrate leadership?

If they want to get ahead––yes.

Here’s a short story of an opportunity lost…

I was having lunch at Philadelphia International Airport the other day on a layover when a young lady of about 80 years old sat near me. She ordered the hot wings as we watched the Notre Dame game.

A young man from the kitchen delivered her meal. She asked for a glass of water.

“You can ask one of the servers for that” was his reply. It was obvious the woman was a little puzzled by that response. After all, had this guy not just served her lunch? If he isn’t a “server,” than who is?

Apparently there was a clear delineation of responsibilities at this eatery. Of course we all ordered from iPads, but it seems that there were those who delivered the meals and those who “served” other needs on the floor.

After the encounter, this young man walked directly past the station with the water pitchers and glasses. He had to walk past it every time he brought out another meal. He also walked past the so-designated “servers” several times over the next few minutes.

Leadership is about doing what needs to be done––no matter what your role, title or position of authority…

It would have taken him no time to simply pour a glass of water and accommodate this simple request. Alternately, he could have simply mentioned the woman’s need in passing to either of the two “servers” who patrolled the dining area.

Genuine leadership is service. It struck me that in a few seconds and with one quick action, this young man could have demonstrated leadership in a simple, eloquent way. This would have been leadership in its most elemental form.

To the woman’s credit, she was doing justice to that plate of hot wings with no cool beverage to offset the heat. I was quite impressed.

At least 20 minutes passed until I finished my Arnold Palmer and moved along to catch my next flight. As I walked away, I realized I had let a leadership opportunity pass as well. I should have simply walked over and poured the woman a glass of water.

These are the simple opportunities we have every day to practice genuine leadership. Our actions don’t always have to be glorious, difficult or dangerous. Simple acts of doing what needs doing––that’s leadership at its most fundamental and essential level. And every time we practice such leadership, we become better, stronger, more aware leaders.

This young man did not take one small step out of his designated role. Had he done so, that small step would have taken him closer to advancing in whatever ambitions and goals he might want to pursue.

And I didn’t practice what I preach. The next time, I’m going to pour the water. I’ll cheerfully assume the role of “server.”

After all, that’s what leaders are supposed to do!

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