CCA President Ellen Kleinstuber

What a Grocery Cart Taught Me About Servant Leadership

February 13, 2022

Sometimes, inspiration strikes just when you need it. Like many of you, work has consumed a lot of my time the first month of the year and I’ve struggled with what to write about this month. Then, I saw a post on my LinkedIn feed that said "I don't know one successful person who leaves their cart in the middle of the parking lot. If you're too big to do the small things, you're too small to do the big things."

This is a lesson I learned at an early age from my Father. When I was growing up my Mom worked during the day and Dad worked evenings or nights, so I attended Daddy Daycare and my Father was the one that did the lion’s share of the cooking and the grocery shopping. I learned from my Dad that you ALWAYS take your grocery cart back to the store. He wasn’t even a fan of leaving it in the corral in the parking lot, however I like to think he’d cut me some slack when I do that rather than walking it back to the store. It’s someone’s job to retrieve carts from the corral and return them to the store entrance. I don’t want to be the reason they lose that job. I can, however, make their job a little easier by putting my cart somewhere it belongs so they don’t have to run all over the parking lot in the rain, snow or summer heat. 

Whether they knew it or not, my parents set a great example for me of doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and contributing to the team effort. Each of them had their roles to fill and relied on the other person to be a good teammate by getting their part of the work done. Dad did the prep work and cooked dinner; Mom did the dishes. On laundry day, Dad washed and dried, then Mom ironed and folded. When the lawn needed mowed, Mom used the push mower to get the front yard and Dad used the riding mower to do the acre in the back yard.

While it was the first line about the grocery cart that caught my attention and got me thinking about parental life lessons, it’s the second one about doing the small things that really stuck with me the last few days. I found myself thinking about this in the context of leadership. Servant leadership, to be exact.

Before I go any further, if you aspire to be a leader – at any level – and you haven’t read any of Robert Greenleaf’s writings on servant leadership head to Amazon or wherever you go to buy books and get yourself a copy of one of Greenleaf’s writings. There are numerous other books to choose from that apply the principles of servant leadership. I promise, it will be worth your investment of time and money to read on this subject. 
Too often, people mistakenly think that leadership is about having power or control. It’s about neither of those things. If you are in a leadership role then yes, in time you may find that you have a certain degree of power over situations or are the person who gets to control how or when things are done. The key is that power and control are a byproduct of leadership, not something that is magically bestowed upon you by a title. Said another way, you can get the title but if you don’t bring true leadership skills to the role, you’ll learn how quickly your power and control can disappear.

The underlying theory of servant leadership is to first seek to serve others, by working at ensuring their growth and success. Servant leadership is altruistic. It is about a selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. Servant leadership isn’t about what you’re going to get back. It’s about what others will give to the team when you start by giving them what they need to be successful. It’s the theory behind people-first organizational structures that are built on the premise that if you put people first they will better serve your customers, which will in turn serve the shareholders.

In the workplace, a servant leader’s focus is on attending to the wellbeing of their team. If someone is struggling, step in to help them through it. When the pandemic first hit several members of my team were working at their kitchen table in a rather uncomfortable chair. I told them to drive to the office and bring home the ergonomic chair from their workspace to use at home until they return to the office.  If I needed them to put in extra time at work, I needed to help them find a comfortable place to do it. Granted, the issues that come aren’t always that easy to solve. It’s the servant leader’s job to support their team in finding a solution or empowering the team members to take appropriate actions to solve their own problems. 

The support that the servant leader’s team needs isn’t always related solely to workplace struggles. Now more than ever, the line between work life and home life has become blurred for many people. If someone is struggling at home, they will struggle at work. As a leader, let your team know that you are a safe place they can come when they need help. If the help they need is something you can give them, do it (so long as what they’re asking for is reasonable). If it isn’t, encourage them to seek the help they need and support them in finding appropriate resources or identifying alternate solutions. 

Servant leadership is also about helping people grow. If you give someone the opportunity to chair a committee, they will find their own leadership because they won’t want to let you down. If you offer them a chance to take on a new project or be part of the team for a new client, they will want to live up to the expectations you have for them. If you give them the tools, training, and coaching they need to be successful, they will want to do well to thank you for investing in them. And when they succeed, you succeed as a leader, your stakeholders succeed, and your organization succeeds in advancing toward meeting its goals. 

A lot has been written on the theory of servant leadership since Robert Greenleaf’s original article. (Useless trivia for the day – Greenleaf gave birth to the phrase servant leadership the same year yours truly entered the world.) In 1992 (the year I started my actuarial career), Larry Spears expanded on Greenleaf’s work by identifying 10 characteristics of a servant leader – listening, empathy, healing, self-awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth, and building community. You can read more about these 10 characteristics on the website for the Spears Center for Servant Leadership.

Leaders are needed everywhere – in families teaching children to do the right thing, helping your neighbors when they need a hand, volunteering in your local community or chosen profession, and of course in the workplace. Over the years I’ve watched the CCA Board, staff, and volunteers all employ these principles of servant leadership in they work they do for our members, to make this organization the professional home for established and aspiring leaders. 

My parents practiced a modified form of servant leadership. What they each did, sharing all the duties of running a household even though they were raised in a generation where men did not do housework, was about putting each other and their family in a position to succeed. I am grateful that my Father pointed me in the direction of the grocery store to return my cart – it was the start of great journey toward a career of service.