Fred Gratto is assistant director of physical plant at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. He can be reached at

I grew up in the 1960s and there are three things I know now that I wish I had known then. One is the value of hard work. I mean really hard work, in bad weather, with lots of adversity. My father had a sand and gravel business and my brother and I worked for him every summer and during school breaks. In the severe weather of upstate New York, we plowed snow, hauled rocks, gravel, sand, paved roads, cut pulp wood, operated backhoes, and moved earth. On those frequent occasions when the diesel equipment wouldn't start because of cold weather or when our fingers were frozen, we were inclined to give up and go home. But, my dad wouldn't allow this and fortified our resolve by saying: "Just do it." We heard this time after time and it finally sank in. Too bad I didn't write this down 30 years ago and tell somebody about it because we all know that this expression has brought Nike great financial gain and vast name recognition.

Another thing I wish I had known is the value of baseball cards. I had a shoe box full of them from the early days of Mantle, Maris, Koufax, Drysdale, Aaron, Clemente, Mays, Berra, and others that I just tossed in the trash when I left for college. The third thing I wish I had known about while growing up is the importance of service to others. This knowledge would have made those days a lot easier and helped me understand my mother when she said that it's more blessed to give than to receive. I believe this now, and since I've been a father, I have tried to help my children understand the worth of serving others. I feel good that they've gotten the message and they feel good when they help others. Last summer, for example, my youngest son worked one Saturday at the local homeless shelter, spent a week in Mexico working on people's houses, and worked on a church in Texas for a week. One thing I have learned, for sure, is that the principles that bring about success in families are the same principles that lead to success in work environments. Whatever we do to shine at home can help us do well on the job.

Certainly, the rationale for investing in the lives of people at work is no different than the rationale for investing in the lives of family members. This investment pays big dividends because people who feel good about themselves produce good results. Since the people who work with us are important, we should spend a fair amount of time making them feel that way. This is a good idea because all people like to have their worth affirmed, even world leaders.

Consider this comment by Queen Victoria of England about Prime Minister William Gladstone, over a hundred years ago: "When I am with him, I feel I am with one of the most important leaders in the world." But, of Benjamin Disraeli she said: "He makes me feel as if I am one of the most important leaders in the world" (DeHan, 2000, p. 2).

Likewise, as leaders, we can help people feel important and affirm their worth by acknowledging them, of course, and by serving them. I've discovered that when I use my position to be an advocate for the needs of the people who work with me, things get done faster and with fewer problems. In his handy little book, The Heart of a Leader, Ken Blanchard makes a similar point. He suggests that the traditional hierarchy is fine for goal setting, but once they are established, we should turn our organizational charts upside down. With this philosophy implemented, the role of the leader changes from being responsible to being responsive. Instead of people working for you, they are now working with you. This enhances relationships and allows an improved approach to leadership.

Blanchard states: "It becomes clearer to me all the time that leaders today have to start being cheerleaders, supporters, and encourages, rather than judges, critics, and evaluators, (Blanchard, 1999, p. 93). I agree and think that part of being supportive is meeting the needs of others so I especially like this statement by Blanchard: "If you want people to be responsible, be responsive to their needs" (Blanchard, 1999, p. 42). In my experience, this approach to dealing with people works well. People appreciate those who help them. Besides, being of service feels good and it helps build relationships which means that jobs get done better and faster. Rick Pitino, the Celtics basketball coach, points out the utility of these relationships: "When you build bridges you can keep crossing them" (Pitino, 2000, p. 29).

Leadership through service

According to the legend of King Arthur, the king died and a successor had to be chosen. There was considerable interest in how the process would take place. At this important time, someone discovered a huge rock with a sword stuck in it. Somebody with enough authority to make the proclamation decided that whoever could remove the sword would be declared king. Lots of strong people tried to pull the sword out of the rock but none could. Arthur was in the area helping a knight. The knight's sword happened to break and because Arthur had heard about the sword in the rock, he dashed off to get it to help the one he was serving. When he grabbed the sword and pulled, it easily slid from the rock. As a result he was proclaimed king. In trying to serve someone else, he had gained a kingdom. Likewise, today's leaders can accomplishment any goal if we understand that our jobs are to help people do their jobs.

The best leader I've ever worked with, my dad, ran his business this way. He motivated others by finding out what they wanted and then he did his best to help them get it. Most of us take just the opposite approach. We first decide what we want, then try to persuade others to want the same thing. The fact is, though, that the quantity and quality of work that people do is impacted by their attitudes. I believe that attitude, for all of us, precedes effectiveness so I consider myself in charge of employee satisfaction.

Part of adjusting attitudes to help people feel satisfied on the job is to make sure they know how important they are. Buckinham and Coffman state: "In the world according to great managers, the employee is the star. The manager is the agent" (1999, p. 230).

Another thing I do to help people feel satisfied on the job is to make sure they know that I'm willing to do whatever I can to help them. This makes it easier for people to feel good about our organization, the worth of our mission, and the significance of their contributions. Coach Pitino said: "People have to know that they are an integral part of the group and that their success and the group's success is one and the same" (Pitino, 2000, p.58). When people really understand this concept, success in the form of improved customer satisfaction follows because people sincerely want to help each other.

Robert Greenleaf worked more that 40 years at AT&T and his second career as a consultant lasted 25 years. He made popular the idea of servant leadership in 1970 when he wrote The Servant as Leader. The idea of being a servant while being a leader was a result of his experience working with large organizations. However, the idea of servant leadership crystallized when he read a short novel by Herman Hesse, Journey to the East, an account about a mythical journey by a group of people on a spiritual quest.

Leo, the main character of the story, accompanies the group as a servant and his caring efforts help sustain them. Everything goes smoothly until the day Leo disappears. Soon there is confusion and the trip is abandoned because the group cannot function without Leo. Several years later the narrator of the story happens upon Leo and is invited into the religious order that sponsored the original expedition. There, he discovers that the man whom he knew as a servant is really the leader of the order. Greenleaf concluded that the central meaning of the story is that leaders must be willing to serve others.

True leadership comes from those who are motivated to serve others and this motivation determines success as a leader. Greenleaf's conviction is that leaders get commitment from others by giving it themselves and by serving others. This position is reinforced by the Bible; Mark 10: 43-44 states: "Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must become servant of all." This approach to leadership turns it upside down, which can be puzzling and challenging, but it does work well once the concept is understood. And, as is almost always the case, in serving others we get back more than we sow. I think that service to others is the gift that keeps on giving.

No deposit/no return

The concept of servant leadership has left a lasting impression on those who are concerned about leadership issues, management, service, and personal growth. I'm interested in all of these. Service, for instance, is important because the only reason facilities people are on campus is to serve others such as students, faculty, and staff. The issue of personal growth is an another important matter to me because I'm trying to get a little bit smarter every day. Gradually, I'm discovering that my number one priority needs to be serving employees, others I work with, and the people in our school or university community. I know I can do this well because, unlike a lot of skills that require a fair amount of talent, anybody can be great because anybody can serve. All it requires is a feeling that it's good to be of help.

Probably most of us have this feeling, to an extent. We still open doors for others, still pause on a busy street to let others onto the road, still help with a heavy load, still find ways to help others. For example, in Physical Plant at the University of Florida, our Hope for the Holidays project at Christmas each year enables us to share our bounty with others less fortunate. Pam Walker coordinates this effort. Regarding it, she said: "It's wonderful to help the families of those we work with. Besides, it feels so good to do nice things."

Those who believe in servant leadership make a difference on the job by serving others so they can be satisfied, successful, and more likely to be servants themselves. People tend to think mostly about themselves so the transformation to thinking about others takes time. It's a different approach to life and work, one which has the potential to change organizations for the better because servant leadership emphasizes a sense of community, shared decision making, and a focus on customer service.

The premise of servant leadership is that leaders ought to be servants since the key people in any setting are the customers and the people who service the customers' needs. Therefore, investing in the success and lives of others is an effort worth making because it's the right thing to do and because it pays big dividends. Otherwise, our organizations will be just like all the glass bottles along the roadside when I was a kid. This was printed on them: No deposit/no return.

Five characteristics of servant leaders

A word of counsel that points to a promising career as a servant may change someone's career. I feel certain about this because a good example and a few prophetic words from my father helped me understand the value of service to others and this knowledge impacts me everyday at work as well as at home. After many years of treating others as my father does and having read Greenleaf's book, I have identified some essential characteristics of a servant leader.

1. Caring: Based on what is reasonable and possible, ours is a low-caring society. The problem, I think, is mindset. Too many of us are too concerned about ourselves and our rights. Servant leaders, however, find it easy to think about the welfare of others and care enough to do something about it. They believe that people have worth beyond what they contribute as workers. As a consequence, servant leaders are committed to the personal, professional, and spiritual growth of everyone in the organization. On the job, this means establishing relationships, making opportunities available for training, and helping people establish priorities. Servant leaders are sincerely interested in those who work with them and care as much about the success of others as they do about their own. "To be a truly great leader you must give of yourself. You can't be selfish. You must convey a vision of partnership, that you not only care about the people who work for you, but it's important that they're successful too" (Pitino, 2000, p. 50). It's amazing how much you can learn by putting yourself in another person's shoes.

2. Stewardship: It's wonderful to be entrusted with the resources of an organization to get things done. Being a leader is a great opportunity. In fact, it's more than an opportunity. Roberts (1987, p. xiv) states: "Leadership is the privilege to have the responsibility to direct the actions of others in carrying out the purposes of the organization, at varying levels of authority and with accountability for both successful and failed endeavors." In Greenleaf's view, servant leadership is like stewardship because it means taking care of the human resources of an organization which, first and foremost, entails a commitment to meeting the needs of others.

3. Listening: Listening is powerful because it demonstrates a willingness to understand the unique needs and feelings of others. Therefore, leaders need to be especially good at listening. We can think faster than people can talk, so listening is not always easy to do. Sometimes, we're way ahead of the person talking, thinking of our own reply. To enhance communication, people need to believe that we really are listening to them and that what they say does matter. Communication is critical to getting people involved, but it won't happen until people perceive that they really are involved. "Unless the employee feels that the immediate supervisor has the will and the latitude to involve that person in important decisional matters, then there really is no involvement in any meaningful sense. (Brady, 1989, p. 54).

4. Empathy: I've found that I can't move people to action until I first move them with emotion. The heart comes before the head so it's important to build relationships with people before asking them to follow. Knowing their needs, and meeting them, helps develop credibility and relationships. "When a leader has done the work to connect with his people, you can see it in the way the organization functions. Among employees there is incredible loyalty and a strong work ethic. The vision of the leader becomes the aspiration of the people. The impact is incredible" (Maxwell, 1998, p. 107).

5. Creating Culture: Servant leaders know that an organization's culture, like a person's character, guides behavior, provides a sense of identity, and determines expectations. The leader is the one with the greatest impact on the culture. "Leaders set the tone, leaders create the environment for growth, development, and performance; and leaders get out of team members or staff the effectiveness and the reinforcement that gives them the power to achieve" (Melrose, 1998, p. 286). My observation is that a workforce tends to take on the qualities of the supervisors and become an extension of them. This is very important because, in my opinion, the thing that motivates or discourages employees the most is the attitude of their supervisor. When we, as leaders, create a culture of service, supervision will extend the notion of helping others to those who do the real work of the organization. An emphasis on serving can become the expected way of doing things. By our acts we will have persuaded others to voluntarily follow because they believe our path is the right one. Here's another thing my dad told me: "You are the message."

Manage an outpost, not a fortress

As colonial America was being settled and periodic wars raged, brave souls set out to establish some permanence and dominance on the frontier by building fortresses. Inside, there was a sense of accomplishment, some safety, and no more progress was needed, at least for a while. Outposts, on the other hand, were extensions of civilization where, perhaps, only even braver souls dared to go. By venturing out into new areas, they sought to gain more ground, accomplish more good deeds, and help more people. For those who operated outposts, the status quo wasn't good enough. They had a vision and felt compelled to get out and do more for others. Servant leaders are probably a lot like those who worked at outposts. They want to extend themselves by doing as much as they can for others. This approach to leadership is worthwhile because of the results it brings.

There are at least three good reasons to be a servant leader. One is that it works. In their book In Search of Excellence, Peters and Waterman identified the impact of servant leadership and observed that a caring attitude toward employees pays big dividends. Another reason to be a servant leader it is that it's action oriented. There's always plenty to do because there's no end to the number of people who can benefit from your help. A third reason to be a servant leader is that by really caring for others, we show that we believe in and appreciate people and their potential.

You can't catch fish in the sink

In order to catch fish you have to go where they are. Likewise, in order to help people you have to go see them and offer to be of help because most people usually won't ask for it. That's one of the funny things about human nature, I suppose. However, in a caring organization, one where servant leadership is part of the culture, people will expect help even if they don't ask for it. If employees know that help is always available they'll know that others feel the same way. This mindset encourages people to treat others, such as coworkers and customers, as they like to be treated.

Concentrating on service is just a matter of rediscovering the Golden Rule. The aim of treating people as we like to be treated honors them as inherently valuable and shows appreciation for their contributions in the workplace. Servant leadership helps us consider individuals in particular rather than people in general. It provides a framework within which we can improve the way we treat those who do the work on campus. When service to others is the first priority, success is a likely consequence. This is good to know because in the time that we have it is surely our duty as leaders to do all the good we can for all the people we can.


Blanchard, K. The Heart of a Leader. Tulsa, OK: Honor Books, 1999.

Brady, G. Management by Involvement. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1989.

Buckingham, M. & Coffman, C. First, Break All the Rules. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

DeHan, K. What is a friend? Our Daily Bread. Grand Rapids, MI: Radio Bible Class Ministries, October, 2000.

Maxwell, J. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.

Melrose, K. Putting Servant-Leadership into Practice. Insights on Leadership. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.

Pitino, R. Lead to Succeed. New York: Broadway Books, 2000.

Roberts, W. Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. New York: Warner Books, 1989.