Servant Leadership is a mindset that the leader’s role is primarily to serve others in their collective search for success.  “Others” means ALL stakeholders including team members, consumers, taxpayers, and the community as a whole.  James W. Sipe and Don M. Frick in their book Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership; Practicing the Wisdom of Leading by Serving[1] state that servant leaders must be people of character; put people first, be skilled communicators; be compassionate collaborators; have foresight; be systems thinkers; and lead with moral authority.

To accomplish this, the servant leader must pursue truth in an impartial and unbiased way.  One only needs to have followed politics the last 4 years to understand how challenging it has become to find truth.  Websters defines truth as “the body of real things, events, and facts”. Truth is truth!  It should have little wiggle room and little disagreement between parties.  For example, everybody needs health care at some point in their lives.  The Constitution of the United States limits a President to 8 years in office.   These truths are very black and white.

Often, to find truth, we must place our faith in institutions and the character and moral authority delegated to the representatives of those institutions.  In the 2020 election we went to the voting booth and cast our ballets, states tabulated those votes and certified the winners.  State electors cast their votes as per the will of the people in each state and Joe Biden declared the national winner.  On January 6, even amongst the violence and protests, the U.S. Congress ceremonially declared the winner.  When concerns about the fairness of the elections were raised, our court system was engaged, the issues presented, and because of a lack of evidence, the vast majority of cases were dismissed.  In addition, the Trump Administration’s own election security agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) stated “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.[2]” The truth: Joe Biden was elected President of the United States.

Perception and ideology give personal meaning to truth and provide additional context around that truth.  For example, how should our nation meet the health care needs of our citizens given the truth that everyone needs health care? Some believe that health insurance should be mandated on all citizens.  Others believe that mandating is unconstitutional.  Others believe the government should provide for the health care needs of all its citizens and this should be paid for via tax increases.  Your answer to this complicated question is NOT truth, it is perception.  Many of those in congress and the media would like to you believe that their perceptions are truth, and this is where the servant leader must work to decipher the difference.

Lastly, we must discuss deception which Webster defines as “..the act of causing someone to accept as true or valid what is false or invalid…”  Deception is a lie. Some in our nation will consciously work to deceive others because they believe their perception or ideology is truth.  Others lie because they cannot tell the difference between truth, perception, and deception.  It is all the same in their mind.  Former President Trump has lied and deceived because winning, in his mind, is the only measure of success and one must do whatever it takes to “win”.  Hyperbole, lying, deception, manipulation, exaggeration is all fair game if it leads to a win. Anything short of winning is total, complete, and utter failure.  To be fair, my judgement of the former president is perception not truth.

The servant leader has a big job.  He/she must listen to all sides, ask questions, practice reflective listening, clarify understanding and finally identify truth.  Then he/she must work to understand the various perspectives; the personal understandings that all parties bring to the table.  We all have perspectives into problems.  I may not agree or even understand your perspective but, assuming it is not deceptive, it must be considered. Lastly, the servant leader must quickly identify deception that may seep its way into the problem.  Deception needs to be quickly and vehemently called out and eliminated.  Let us consider a case study:

Bill is a 25-year-old white male and an IT specialist with 3 years in the company.  He grew up in the south and is a graduate from the University of Alabama.  Bill loves country music and often reminisces about his grandmother’s barbeque when he goes home every July.  Cory, an African American, is also an IT specialist.  He grew up in Georgia and attended the University of South Carolina.  Cory and Bill work amicably together and have become solid work-life friends, at least until Bill decided to display the Confederate flag in his cubicle. Cory approached Bill calling him a racist and demanding he remove the flag or else.  Bill states “lighten-up man, I’m not a racist, I just love my Sweet Home Alabama[3], I love the south….don’t you?” he added.

This issue makes its way to your office.  What do you do?  Bill and Cory are excellent team members and highly productive.  You are struggling to understand why Bill would be so stupid especially during these racially charged times. You have never seen Bill act in a prejudicial or negative way toward any of the black employees in the company.  Bill and Cory seem to be friends and are often seen together at the lunch table and happy hours after work.   Let us follow a process and break down this problem:

1st step: Seek Truth:  The Confederate Flag flew during the American Civil War to represent a nation with strongly held beliefs that purchasing and enslaving black human beings and forcing them to work without pay was morale and just and necessary for the economy of southern states.

2nd Step: Seek an Understanding of Perceptions: Meet with both men, first separately and then together.  Work to understand their feelings and thoughts on the flag.

>  Bill tells you he simply misses Alabama and has great memories of his college days. It never occurred to him that anybody would be offended by the flag.  It simply means “party-time” to him.  He’s offended Cory called him a racist when he considers Cory a friend.  Inquire into Bill’s beliefs on racial justice and equality between the races.  If Bill has beliefs in white supremacy then he needs to be terminated immediately.

> Cory tells you his great-great grandfather was a slave in Alabama and although he thinks Bill is a good guy, he simply cannot pass Bill’s cubicle without feeling insulted.  “Confederate flags don’t belong in the workplace”, Cory said.  Cory’s correct, the confederate flag has no place in the workplace.

> If Bill is still employed after the first interview then both Cory and Bill should be able to discuss together (with your facilitation and guidance) their thoughts and feelings about the flag.  Intent matters! Learning matters!  Personal growth is crucial to productivity and corporate success.

3rd Step: Make Your Ruling:  Bill should remove the flag and apologize to Cory.  The process of making this decision is as important as the decision itself.  Bill and Cory are excellent workers and valuable members of your staff.  Bill didn’t see the hate, but now he does.  Cory didn’t see southern pride, but now he does.

In my view, Bill made a very questionable if not a bad decision.  But then who amongst us has not made a bad decision?  Should he be fired or humiliated for this decision or should he and the rest of us take this as a learning moment to grow and improve as a team?  I am reminded of the parable of the lost sheep in which Jesus said:

“Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? ……. When he comes home, he calls together his friends, his family, and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”  Luke 15: 3-7

Clearly, Bill was lost in his limited understanding of the confederate flag.  Even Cory had an opportunity to understand another perspective.  As their boss, it is my responsibility to bring them both back by helping them see both perspectives.  Handled correctly, this can help Bill, Cory, and everyone in the company learn and grow together; thus, creating a safer more trusting work environment.  A manager would simply mandate the flag be taken down and Bill fired.  A servant leader would work through the conflict, identify the truth, understand the perspectives, and move forward in a firm but understanding way.

[1] Based on James W. Sipe and Don M. Frick.  Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership; Practicing the Wisdom of Leading by Serving, 2015, Paulist Press

[2] https://fcw.com/articles/2020/11/12/cisa-bold-type-most-secure-election.aspx

[3] Song by Lynard Skynard, 1974