If you want to make it big in your career, there are certain words that just kind of seem to wiggle their way into your personal mission statement.
Innovation? Yes. Value creation? Sure. Aggressive growth? Absolutely, give it to me! Scaling? Driving shareholder value? Yep, all of that.
Here’s one that is a little less popular:
That one kind of gets a bad rap. It’s sort of like the little unloved stepchild in the family of ambition.
What’s the reason though?
I guess perhaps people feel that service isn’t for visionaries and leaders, for people who build disruptive apps and send cars to Mars. Perhaps they feel it implies servitude: submission, a lack of agency, low-paying jobs.
Well? I would like us to rethink this idea.
There is an anecdote about the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead. She was a really badass lady — making her way in the world when most women were stuck in the kitchen.
One day, a student asked her what she considered to be the first sign of human culture — the first sign of civilisation. Well, what is it? Is it cave paintings, clay pots, use of tools, fire or evidence of religious practice?
It’s none of that, according to Margaret Mead. This was her answer:
The first sign of civilisation was a 15,000 year old femur bone that had been broken and had healed. That takes six weeks of rest. For an animal, that would be a death sentence. It would starve or be eaten by predators.
But for Margaret Mead, the fact that a human being could be confined to bed (or cave!) for six weeks and that others would feed them, would clothe them, would look after them — that, for her, was the first sign of civilisation.
The first sign of civilisation was service.
We saw this again during the Corona crisis, especially the scary early stages: It is the jobs that put us actively in service to one another that are the most important: the nurses and doctors, the people who stock shelves, who run our infrastructure. All of them serve. And by doing so, they keep society going.
Remember: the Covid crisis just gave us a little taste of the challenges to come. And even with the pandemic seemingly under control, we still have quite a lot on our plates — and you know this is no Michelin star menu.
There are the big challenges: globalisation, inequality, and don’t even mention climate change.
How are we going to deal with all that? Who will lead the way here?
There seems to be this idea that there is a big technological answer, a moonshot solution to global warming, some kind of quick fix to CO2 emissions.
And sure, that wouldn’t really hurt.
But if we truly want to solve these challenges, what we need to do l is to take a different perspective on the way we live and the way we do business. We need to focus less on magical thinking and billionaire spaceships — and more on how we choose to live and work every single day. The stuff that connects the future of our species to our past, where we once again work in service of one another and our planet.
But let’s get real and leave the big ideas aside for a second.
Why should YOU consider a form of leadership that has service at its core?
Doesn’t this somehow imply sacrifice? What about your needs, and your fulfilment?
You see, I work as a leadership coach and consultant. I work with leaders one on one in their personal and professional development. What comes up with with everyone, no exceptions, is that of self-actualisation. This truly is a quest shared by all ambitious people. The questions it comes down to are these: what does it take for me to live a life, to do a job, in which I can be authentically myself? In which I feel I attain my highest meaning and realise my greatest potential?
This is a basic truth about human beings: we all strive for self-actualisation. I see this with my clients. I see this with my children. I see it with myself.
But often we get it wrong: we think the big car will get us there. Or the C-level dream job. Or the fancy personal trainer who will help us self-actualise that six pack. Well, that’s not going to happen. You might get the six pack, sure, but that won’t make you feel self-actualised.
So what will make you feel more self-actualised, especially as a leader?
Luckily, there is science to help us along.
The most self-actualised people are those who:
… feel they have a purpose
… feel a deep sense of connection and agency
… get to channel their creativity
… who have a solid moral compass and
… who have a genuine desire to help others.
You know, the careers which have the highest job satisfaction are careers in which people directly make a positive impact on others and help them be better. The top three? The clergy, fire fighters, physical therapists.
They are all people who serve.
And that was my experience, too, when I worked in hospitality. And it is still my experience in my work as a leadership coach: there is immense satisfaction to be found in bringing people together, in giving them a sense of belonging, and in empowering them to be the best they can be.
So what does this mean in really concrete terms?
Let me give you an example of a coachee of mine. He is one of the global thought leaders in all things food culture. He owns a Michelin-starred restaurant in Berlin that is hugely famous.
Well, you know who doesn’t care about fame one bit?
March 2020 came along, and my coachee had to close the doors, just like everyone else. During the lockdown, he posted a video on his social media in which this super tough, go-getting guy nearly broke into tears. He said: “How can I keep going? I have employees who depend on me! And even if I can pay them from my savings, how can I take care of myself & support my family?”
That is the kind of stress that confronted many, many leaders during Covid.
The difference is in how they dealt with it.
My coachee pulled things around — his story is actually a happy one! Despite these most trying of circumstances, he managed not just to survive, but to thrive. So much that he even set up another successful business alongside the restaurant.
I feel his success is completely down to the fact that he embodies the service mindset in his leadership.
There are three facets to this:
Firstly, his service mindset allows him to understand, to really grasp, what his customers need — that’s how he drives revenue, and how he made money even during Covid.
Secondly, his service mindset allows him to hire and retain great people — that’s a massive challenge for any leader.
And finally, his service mindset gives him a clear vision. And that vision sustained him and his team even in the crisis.
He knows that he wants to make an impact through his work. In a small way, that is about giving his guests a great evening and his staff a great place to work. That creates connection and belonging for him and the people around him.
But he also makes an impact in a bigger way.
He knows he wants to change the way we farm, the way we eat, the way we do business. Every day, he is working in the service of our planet, of our future.
Having such a “big why” — a larger framework of meaning — spurs him on even in dark times.
He is totally stressed, of course, but he says he wouldn’t change things. This is someone who feels truly self-actualised through service.
Just like I have, throughout my career.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you should ditch the MBA or not work on that app and go become a restaurant owner or physical therapist instead.
What I am saying is this:
Bring that service mindset into whatever you are doing and it will make you a much better leader. And perhaps a much happier one, too.