The Things We Carry, Leadership Learned in Life


When I was at Rollins College, I read a great book called The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. The book is a poignant series of stories chronicled by a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division, 3rd Platoon that shares stories about the men he served with. Highly recommend it - super easy to read on a lazy day, a haunting book that holds your attention easily.

As leaders, we carry things we have learned from poor and superior leaders. When I look back at the industries and businesses, institutions, and organizations where I worked I quickly realized the leaders that exhibited a servant leadership quality were the ones that had the biggest impact on me. Superior leaders (my servant leaders) built me up and gave constructive feedback which resulted in self-respect, joy, confidence, courage and a willingness to do and be more. They helped shape me by sinking deep positive values that I carry with me still.

I also remember the poor leaders that caused me to carry self-doubt, shame, fear, feelings of inadequacy, and anger. Both leadership styles have left impressions that framed how I approach leadership.

Robert Greenleaf (1977) reflects on the role servant leadership has in business, “...businesses not only do as well with their obligations now,under the conditions imposed on them, as other kinds of institutions do with theirs, but businesses are more questioning of their own adequacy,they are more open to innovation, and they are disposed to take greater risks to find a better way (Servant Leadership, p 134).

The servant leader can positively impact the workplace environment by keeping key principles in the forefront of organizational culture and prioritizing human capital needs. I see a lot of people stressing the need for values like authenticity, empathy, mindfulness, and lean-in listening and believe they don’t recognize these are qualities of a servant leader. The funny thing to me is these are biblical principles. They are not new rather they are qualities and principles that we probably learned through spiritual teaching and thus are not new concepts.

The list of 10 principles below are from “Practicing Servant Leadership” by Larry Spears, published on Leader to Leader.

  • Listening. Leaders have traditionally been valued for their communication and decision-making skills. While these are also important skills for the servant-leader, they need to be reinforced by a deep commitment to listening intently to others. The servant-leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps clarify that will. He or she seeks to listen receptively to what is being said. Listening, coupled with regular periods of reflection, is essential to the growth of the servant-leader.

  • Empathy. The servant-leader strives to understand and empathize with others. People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits. One assumes the good intentions of coworkers and does not reject them as people, even if one finds it necessary to refuse to accept their behavior or performance.

  • Healing. One of the great strengths of servant-leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and others. Many people have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts. Although this is part of being human, servant-leaders recognize that they also have an opportunity to “help make whole” those with whom they come in contact. In “The Servant as Leader” Greenleaf writes: “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share.”

  • Awareness. General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader. Awareness also aids one in understanding issues involving ethics and values. It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position. As Greenleaf observed: “Awareness is not a giver of solace–it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed. They are not seekers after solace. They have their own inner serenity.”

  • Persuasion. Another characteristic of servant-leaders is a primary reliance on persuasion rather than positional authority in making decisions within an organization. The servant-leader seeks to convince others rather than coerce compliance. This particular element offers one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian model and that of servant-leadership. The servant-leader is effective at building consensus within groups.

  • Conceptualization. Servant-leaders seek to nurture their abilities to “dream great dreams.” The ability to look at a problem (or an organization) from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities. For many managers this is a characteristic that requires discipline and practice. Servant-leaders are called to seek a delicate balance between conceptual thinking and a day-to-day focused approach.