Serve to Be Great

Last summer, the Gallup organization released a study dubbed, "The State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders." The report provided a mixed bag of information about workers in the United States.

First, Gallup found that less than one third (30 percent) of about 100 million Americans that hold full-time jobs are “actively engaged” at their jobs. According to Gallup, actively engaged means that they are passionate about their work, have a connection with their employer; and are actively working to innovate and move the organization forward. 

Editor-in-chief Bernie Pacyniak
Bernie Pacyniak

"At the other end of the spectrum are roughly 20 percent [20 million Americans] of employees who are actively disengaged,” says Jim Clifton, Gallup chairman and ceo. “These employees, who have bosses from hell that make them miserable, roam the halls spreading discontent. The other 50 million Americans (50 percent) are not engaged. They are just kind of present, but not inspired by their work or their managers.”

Gallup’s chief executive also interjected a few more stats, with regards to the Top 25 percent companies: The leading operators, that  is those in the top 25 percent bracket, have 50 percent fewer accidents and 41 percent fewer defects that those companies in the bottom 25 percent.

So how does one go from “last to first” to use a sports term? Well, Clifton believes it all rests with hiring the right managers. As he puts it, “Let’s get rid of the managers from hell, double the great managers and engaged employees, and have those mangers lead based on what actually matters.”

Of course, always easier said than done. But I did come across a press release that suggests what kind of managers companies should be looking for

Author Matt Tenney has some ideas. His book, Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom (Wiley, May 2014, ISBN: 978-1-118-86846-1, $25.00,, draws from his personal experiences to provide a roadmap for what kind of  manager one should be or should hire.

By developing both the aspiration and the ability to more effectively serve and care for the people on their teams, managers can become leaders people actually want to follow, Tenney says.

So what makes Tenney’s advice any more potent that hundreds of quick-fix business gurus? Well, he does have an interesting background.  In Serve to Be Great, Tenney tells the compelling story of how his attempt to embezzle government funds led to five and a half years in military prison. During his sentence, Tenney’s perspective shifted from selfish to servant, prompting him to live and train as a monk for three years, and finally, to become a social entrepreneur.

In addition to telling Tenney’s story, Serve to Be Great also includes an abundance of case studies, research, and tactics to help leaders make the shift to servant leadership.

“Servant leadership doesn’t mean that we assume some menial, meek persona; it simply means that our motivation for leading people is to be of service to others,” Tenney explains. “I believe that somewhere inside each of us is the aspiration to devote ourselves to serving others. That said, it can be challenging to effectively serve the people on our teams, even if we want to. When we’re under stress — like the pressure to hit a goal or ‘make the numbers’ — we tend to focus more on the short-term and can often sacrifice the relationships that are a foundation of long-term success. With training, you effectively serve team members even when the conditions are challenging.

“When the focus is on serving team members, leaders can create a team culture that people want to be a part of, that produces superior results, and that has a positive impact on society as a whole,” says Tenney.  “Perhaps more important, they actually enjoy going to work each day, and the people on their teams do, too.”

Having managed and been managed (or at least people have tried to manage me), I have my own personal history regarding being engaged. I’ve always valued people working for me, although I don’t know whether I would make Tenney’s requirement for being a “servant leader.”

I do know that today employees face an increasing number of life stresses, from ailing family members to child-rearing; from income issues to a lack of technological, social and work skills. Add to that a lack of long-term business strategies and one realizes that servant leadership can, could and should be the answer.

But as we all know, it takes the lead dog to instill such a culture. Your thoughts?