Posts by Todd Conkright

Living, loving & learning.

The Mind of a Servant Leader

The Mind of a Servant Leader

A new leadership idea was introduced not too long ago that is impacting the world in which we live and work. It is called “Servant Leadership.” 

New and Radical

Robert Greenleaf introduced the business world to Servant Leadership through his work at AT&T in the 1970’s. It was a dramatic shift from command-and-control leadership models that were the default styles of the day. Four decades later Servant Leadership is one of many leadership approaches organizations can choose from, yet there is still resistance from many leaders to this radical, others-first model.

A 2005 article in Gonzaga University’s International Journal of Servant-Leadership lists the following companies as practicing servant leadership:

This is an impressive group and many are well-known for their excellence in innovation, customer service and employee satisfaction. As Servant Leadership takes root in more and more organizations, perhaps the barriers to what is perceived as a “touchy feely” model will crumble as the advantages of Servant Leadership become clear.

Connecting Heads with Hearts

A Servant's Mind

In his bestselling book, Leadership is Dead: How Influence is Reviving It, author Jeremie Kubicek talks about a crisis in leadership today: It’s called self-preservation.

He states, “In my view, leadership as we have known it is dead because far too many leaders have abused their positions and have lost their moral bearings.”

Leadership is in danger of becoming synonymous with corruption and selfishness.

I had the privilege of meeting Jeremie at a Starbucks in Atlanta last November. We had an immediate rapport and I was impressed with his humility, genuineness, and desire to help others.

And this is really the heart of servant leadership.

It’s so rare to find a successful leader who’s willing to meet with a stranger for no other purpose than to see how you might be able to help them.

Best Places to Work

More recently I met with another leader cut from the same cloth. Kim Hoogeveen started Quality Living, Inc.  in 1987 and it stands today as a premier hospital rehabilitation center in the nation. Consistently earning the designation as one of the Best Places to Work, Kim has packaged his leadership approach into what he calls MindSet.

As I listened to him describe it, I said, “that sounds a lot like servant leadership” to which he replied, “I hope so!”

Kim shared the survey results of the Best Places to Work application comments from employees. It went on for 23 pages! The workforce is engaged - willing to go the extra mile for the organization and its leaders because they know the leaders of QLI will go above and beyond for them.

One employee stated this:

“Every year I learn new things that make me loyal to the company and make me a valued member…QLI is truly invested in who I am and my growth not only as an employee, but as a person in life. They are dedicated to helping me be successful in whatever way they can with my education, financial well-being, my health, etc.”

What’s in a Name?

A recent discussion on a LinkedIn group of which I am a member addressed the question of whether a new moniker was needed to replace the term “Servant Leadership.” As I’ve followed the responses, I came to the conclusion that the only possible way to rename it is to use a synonym for servant, but what’s the point of that?

Why are we so averse to calling ourselves servants?

We have to reconcile in our minds the parallel aspirations to serve and to lead.

Three Foundational Thoughts

The mind of the servant leader is centered on three foundational thoughts: Mission, Character & Service.


Mission pursues the greatest question, “Why am I here?”

Our thoughts at this stage focus on what we are uniquely equipped to do. We consider our strengths, interests, values and overall purpose in life. Practically speaking, when we are identifying our mission we may take assessments, talk with friends and mentors, and decide through introspection, prayer and discovery what we find most fulfilling and essential to our lives.


Flowing out of our mission is character. “Who do I need to be?” is the question at hand.

What behaviors and traits reflect my mission and guiding principles? Setting our moral compass and aligning our values bring our mission into clearer focus and we are less likely to get involved in things that don’t reflect our true selves.


Finally, our final thought is around service. The question is “What do I need to do?”

Having established our purpose and guiding principles, we think about how we can serve others. We tend to start here, eager to DO rather than BE. But the true servant leader is concerned first about who they are so that they can serve more effectively.

Mission and Performance

Whether you call it intentional influence, values-based leadership, or servant leadership, the important thing is to start with introspection and reflection on who you are and what type of person you want to be. Resist the urge to just start serving as an end in itself.

Jeremie Kubicek says,

“A true influencer values mission and performance together.”

The mind of a servant leader pays attention to being a particular kind of person; a person who considers how to influence others so that everyone wins. Knowing one’s mission and the character that will help accomplish that mission makes it possible to positively influence others with power and clear purpose.

Bookmark The Mind of a Servant Leader

Todd Conkright is Owner at Cornerstone Global Training & Performance Solutions

He serves his clients by building strategies that lead to net gains
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The Butterfly Effect of Leadership

Design Butterfly Influence

It took 30 years, but the scientific community finally embraced Edward Lorenz’ hypothesis that:

A butterfly could flap its wings and set molecules in motion, which would move other molecules of air, in turn moving more molecules of air – eventually capable of starting a hurricane on the other side of the planet.

What Lorenz called the Butterfly Effect became the much more scientific sounding Law of Sensitive Dependence Upon Initial Conditions. I prefer Lorenz’ much more poetic & compelling image of a butterfly’s wings setting off a chain of events that leads to a mighty storm.

In a frame on my office wall I keep the following quote, from James C. Hunter’s book The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership.

How we behave as the boss at work today affects what goes on around the dinner table in other people’s homes tonight.

In other words, the actions we take, the words we use, the priorities we set begin the Butterfly Effect in the lives of followers, colleagues, clients and, according to the theory, everyone we encounter.

Influence & Impact

In his book titled The Butterfly Effect Andy Andrews tells two stories that illustrate the impact of our actions today on generations to come. First, he traces the decision made by a schoolteacher-turned-Civil War commander who quite possibly kept the U.S. from becoming fragmented into multiple nations. Andrews claims that without the Union win at Gettysburg the world would not have benefited from the U.S. allegiance that toppled Hitler during WW II.

George Washington CarverThe second story involves the story of George Washington Carver, in reverse, that led to the development, generations after Carver, of a disease-resistant seed later that does well in arid climates and has consequently provided grain around the globe and saved an estimated 2 billion people.

Still, soft work on the front end produces hard results on the back-end.

Andrews makes the point that the origin of that discovery can be traced back further and further to decisions that set future events in motion.

Making It Personal

Our own impact may or may not be so dramatic. We watch movies such as Freedom Writers, Mr. Holland’s OpusDead Poet’s Society and other inspirational tales of one person making a difference in the lives of many and our hearts are stirred.

But do we consider that we have the ability to do the same thing in the lives of our direct reports, peers and others?

When your name comes up around the dinner table, what is being said about you? If you were a fly on the wall, would you hear statements like, “He always shoots down my ideas and won’t give me a chance” or “She only cares about the bottom line and has to always do things her way”?

Hard Results Start Soft

Research from Gallup shows that what followers need most from leaders are trust, stability, hope, and compassion (Strengths Based Leadership, 2008). Luthans, Youssef & Avolio (Psychological Capital, 2007) identify efficacy (self-confidence), hope, optimism, and resiliency as “psychological capital” that can positively impact the workplace.

Positive butterfly effects from leaders, then, start with intentionally infusing hope, optimism, resiliency, trust and other positive traits into daily encounters with followers. In the midst of chaotic, stressful and sometimes impossible circumstances, leaders can create a legacy that positively influences the outcomes of other people’s lives with a ripple effect that goes on for generations to come.

Dr. Henry Cloud in his book Integrity writes

When a person travels a few years with an organization, or with a partnership, or any other kind of working relationship, he leaves a ‘wake’ behind in these two areas, task and relationship: what did he accomplish and how did he deal with people? And we can tell a lot about that person from the nature of the wake.

If we are going to leave a wake one way or another, why not be intentional about it? Why not choose the direction the molecules of our actions will travel? Why not decide to unleash a tsunami of hope, optimism, resiliency and trust?

Todd Conkright is Owner at Cornerstone Global Training & Performance Solutions
He serves his clients by building strategies that lead to net gains
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Leaders Under Fire: The Crucible Experiences

Trial by Fire

cru·ci·ble noun \ˈkrü-sə-bəl\

  • a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures.
  • a place or occasion of severe test or trial: the crucible of combat (Oxford Dictionaries)

Heading In To The Fire

Department Store WomenI was twenty-three years old when I was promoted to manage a department of thirty women in a department store.

Newly married with a baby on the way, I had never had so much responsibility.

The only direct training I had for this new role was a 3-day workshop put on by the company’s HR manager.

Through high school and college I volunteered for leadership roles in school and church, but previously had only managed a handful of kids in Vacation Bible School. I had worked in department stores since I turned 16, so “surely I was well ready to manage nearly three dozen women” – some of whom had worked at the store longer than I had been alive!

OK, maybe not!

Although I was confident (cocky?) at the time, in retrospect I can see how truly unprepared I was.

And this turned out to be my first crucible experience in leadership.

I failed in many ways during that first stint managing people, to the point that eventually I was reassigned to a non-management role!

Ouch! That really hurt!

To Sink or Swim

The store manager saw enough in me to promote me, but when he left to manage another store and a new manager came in, I was left to fend for myself as a new leader.

I had no mentoring, no guidance, and no feedback until I was moved out of leadership. This is no way to maintain success in business.

If a company is hoping to be successful, they must do more than just hope. If they are going to develop young leaders, they can’t just put them in situations and see if they sink or swim, there has to be some intentional process to evaluate, teach, and hone the raw talent that is there.

Anyway, back to the crucible…

The most valuable lessons for leaders happen when they face testing.

Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas describe the “white heat of a ‘crucible’ experience, in which [a leader’s] values are tested, often by adversity, and their competencies are honed, often at the risk of failure, for a future leadership role (Geeks &Geezers, 2002).”

Upon Reflection

When I look back to that first failed experience at leading people, I could have decided that leadership wasn’t for me. But instead, I did what Bennis and Thomas talked about:

  • I reflected on what went wrong
  • I thought about my communication style
  • I looked at how I handled conflict
  • I observed the way I motivated others and encouraged them to reach personal and organizational goals
  • And I spent several years in a non-management position while I studied management & leadership

I managed smaller teams, both professionally and as a volunteer, until about six years ago when I once again had over thirty people reporting to me. It was a much different experience this time, but not without its own crucible moments. Anytime people work together the potential exists for conflict, testing, having one’s values challenged and competencies pushed to the limit.

In the Iron Trenches, Not the Ivory Towers

Ivory TowerBut without the crucible there is no depth to our leadership.

Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through the experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

Leaders who experience relative ease or like academics who talk theory from ivory towers but have little practical, hands-on knowledge.

The Bennis-Thomas model of leadership development includes these four elements:

  1. The context is the era in which leaders are developed.
  2. The character is the values that individuals bring to leadership.
  3. The crucible of experience is the place of testing where leaders are prepared.
  4. The competencies for leadership are the proficiencies for future leadership that are shaped in the crucible.
We repeat this cycle throughout our leadership lifetimes, as we reflect on our failures and trials, make adjustments and sort out who we are as leaders. Some good questions for reflection come from David McKenna’s book Becoming Nehemiah (2005):
  • What is the crucible that has had the most influence on my leadership today?
  • How was my character tested?
  • What competencies did I learn in the crucible that are most evident in my leadership today?

I believe I’m a better leader today because my leadership journey has not been easy. It makes me a better listening, increases my sensitivity to those around me, and solidifies my values & character.
In my experience, the key is intentionally reflecting on those difficult leadership situations so that we actually learn and improve.

So what types of crucible experiences have you lived through long enough to be able to tell them? How have the hot fires of experience shaped you? If you haven’t been crushed, beaten, scorched, and tormented as a leader, then why not? Why have you avoided the quickest way to success as a leader? I would love to hear your stories!

Todd Conkright is Owner at Cornerstone Global Training & Performance Solutions
He serves his clients by building strategies that lead to net gains
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It’s Not About the Tea

Tea for Two

As a leader, have you ever been inspired to create positive change in others or in circumstances?

Author Greg Mortenson’s tale of getting lost on his way down the second highest peak in the world known as K2 in Pakistan and finding his calling is a story of leadership inspiration. He tells a tale of building schools and building other bridges of hope for the mountain villages of Afghanistan and Pakistan that fills readers with altruistic determination to create positive change.

Inspiration and Determination

Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea, is inspirational, but also provides some very practical lessons for leaders.

The essence of the book, reflected in the title, is this:

With the first cup of tea you are a guest

With the second cup of tea you are a friend

With the third cup of tea you are family

Is It The Tea?

So what does this proverb teach us about leadership?

That it’s not about the tea! It’s never about the tea!

It’s about the depth and intimacy and collaboration that happens when leaders take the time to stop moving forward and stay in one place to connect with others.

When the tidal wave of the urgent is brought to a standstill and the waters are calm, leaders learn:

  • Patience
  • Perspective
  • Relationship
  • Generosity
  • Respect

The Back Story

In his book, Mortenson tells how he was growing impatient with his Afghan friends who didn’t share the same sense of urgency to get schools built as he did. Our western worldview tells us that we shouldn’t have to wait for things to take place, for change to happen, and we become frustrated, even angry, when we don’t see immediate results.

The wise village chief told Mortenson, “this village has been here for 600 years, what is one more winter without a school?”

It’s important for leaders to learn patience and develop a long-term perspective in the midst of constant change and the pressure of stakeholder demands for immediate return on investment.

Because I Said So…

Leaders often assume that when they have a compelling vision people will automatically follow.

Or you hire people whose job it is to follow.

And that may be fine at some level – a vision has been translated into specific tasks and hands are hired to get those tasks completed. But in the increasingly knowledge-based workplace with intellectual capital and more complex tasks that require more than “butts in seats,” leaders must become relationship savvy.

Of Time and Resources

It takes time to have three cups of tea with someone. In Afghan culture this doesn’t happen in one sitting, it happens over weeks or months, or sometimes years. But as the guest becomes a friend and the friend is adopted into the family, a great bond of service, respect and support is strengthened.

Mortenson describes the “butter tea” offered to him in the mountain regions of Afghanistan as “hot green tea, made with salt, baking soda, goat’s milk, and an aged, sour butter churned from yak’s milk.” You probably won’t find this on the Starbuck’s menu anytime soon and we may not have a taste for such a concoction, but it reflects a generosity of spirit we don’t understand in our resource-rich culture.

Milk and butter, as well as other ingredients, are often hard to come by, but it would be unthinkable to deny a visitor, even if it used up the last of a poor villager’s reserve. Prolific leadership author/speaker John Maxwell identifies generosity as one of the “21 Indispensible Qualities of a Leader.”

Giving away what we have comes from a positive frame of mind, an attitude of abundance even when it appears that resources are low.

Valuing People

Sitting down with a stranger to have a cup of tea is a sign of respect. It shows that we value the other person and are willing to stop what we were doing and make them the priority, and not just as something to cross off our to-do list, but to really interact, ask questions, see what the world is like for that individual.

How often do leaders really get to know the people supporting their vision? When immediate return on investment and the bottom line are seen as the ultimate goal, we’re really not talking about leadership anymore and we are the poorer for it.

Keeping Things Positive

There is a growing body of research in Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) that underscores the importance of the lessons drawn from Three Cups of Tea.

Positive Leadership, by University of Michigan professor Kim Cameron, asserts that leaders go from successful to exceptional by creating a profoundly positive workplace. And that starts with taking time to connect and move to deeper levels of interaction, just as Mortenson learned in his adventures in Afghanistan.

Todd Conkright is Owner at Cornerstone Global Training & Performance Solutions
He serves his clients by building strategies that lead to net gains
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter |  Web |

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