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Leader As Servant

Ken Melrose
Chairman & CEO of The Toro Company
Author of “Making the Grass Green On Your Side

July 1996

Over the years at Toro, I’ve learned a few things about managing the turf. If you think of your turf as your domain—as the environment you operate in—then your turf becomes your area of influence. Turf may also refer to your organization, your work area, your home, garden, or domain.

The Master of Men fittingly expressed the ideal of leadership when he said, “Whosoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.” These few words stand up against all the management books on the shelves today. The great leader is a great servant.

Although the model of the leader as servant has been in the canons of management for years, in practice it’s still rare. Without strong models of servant leaders, a person is hard pressed to put the principles of servant leadership into practice.

Fortunately, I had great models. Early in my career, at Pillsbury, my boss used to tell me, “Realize that you are the flexible resource, and the other person is the fixed resource.” So I tried to be flexible and relate to other people. That’s easier when you care about the other person.

I care deeply about the people of Toro. I try to get to know them personally and let them know they are appreciated. But frankly, showing warmth has not always been easy for me. I have had to work at it. Now I take more time with people who want to talk. I listen to them. What they have to say doesn’t have to be earth shattering. What’s important is taking a few minutes out of the day to share one-on-one with another human being. I focus on their eyes and face. I listen to their emotions. These exchanges keep me informed and remind me what matters most in life: meaningful, caring relationships.

PIE a la Toro

Since 1985 I’ve held a monthly meeting with 15 or so employees. We call it “PIE a la Toro.” We get together and have lunch; sometimes we even have pie. But the purpose is to allow employees to discuss what is on their minds. It gives me a chance to ask how they feel about Toro, their jobs, and our direction. I encourage other managers to do this too, promising them that, “You’ll get a feeling for what’s happening, a pulse that’s unfiltered, if you talk about whatever anyone wants to talk about.” These get-together give us a chance to relate to each other, to break down barriers. The conversation is warm and natural.

I also have informal meetings or lunch in my office with new employees. They experience a sort of pleasant culture shock when they come to Toro. They talk about their sense of belonging, the company’s mission and their role in it, and about their feelings for involvement, commitment, and participation.

The servant-leader model requires a change in attitude more than structure. To operate in this mode, leaders have to shed their egos and deeply embrace the belief that people perform best in an atmosphere of freedom and trust.

Becoming A Servant Leader

Servant leaders serve people not to get more out of them, but because they want to boost people’s self-worth and dignity. Leadership is not a position; it’s a combination of something you are (character) and some things you do (competence).

Leadership can be coveted for the wrong reasons. Some thrive on power; others may need to assert control. Words such as chief, director, and executive officer have a nice ring and the attendant benefits aren’t bad either. But if we think of leadership as a position, it’s almost impossible to develop an environment of trust.

Remember: you have it within your power to help your company develop a new culture—with a climate of trust defined by values that stress the dignity and importance of every employee. This is the service you can best offer your company as a leader.

You don’t have to be the perfect. In fact, your imperfections may enhance your humanness and thereby help set the tone for risk, innovation, and trust.

Servant leaders ask, “What does the organization, my stakeholders, need me to be today: a coach, a teacher, a decision maker, a supporter, a listener, a pilgrim, a servant, someone who makes waves?” Since the needs change daily, every leader is in the discovery and rediscovery business.

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