For the past couple years I’ve been filling the holiday downtime in my consulting schedule with work in retail. My, oh my! I have learned so much about myself as I serve such a diversity of people and their stories. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much connection between servant leadership and working behind the register. I don’t have a staff to lead and I make no management decisions that have an impact on my co-workers. I have only myself to lead and my own attitudes and interactions to manage.
What I’ve learned, however, is that I have genuine servant leadership opportunities to craft a gracious, authentic experience with each operson I serve. This kind of inside-out leadership – leading ourselves so that we can serve others well – is how we learn to lead with love. It all starts by choosing to engage out of a deep awareness of self and others. We’re called to serve first and let leading follow.
What follows are some observations that I believe are relevant for the servant-leader.
First, I never refer to those I serve as customers; they are always my guests and I am their host.
What I am offering beyond the goods and services purchased is an experience of gracious hospitality. Likewise as servant-leaders, we show the way in creating a hospitable culture that is welcoming, inclusive, and open, not only for customers and clients, but also for partners, employees and their families, and their communities.
Second, and related—at the root of every transaction is an interaction.
The quality of the former depends on the quality of the latter. Results matter. But they happen “at the speed of relationships.” In the same way, servant-leaders steward relational capital just as carefully as we manage financial and physical assets in our care. People are more than their purchases, and our time together can be a person-to-person connection.
Third, the simple things really do make a difference to the quality of the experience.
It’s all a matter of being truly present: eye contact (as culturally appropriate), a warm greeting, and an interest in how they are doing set the tone. “Please,” “thank-you very much,” “you’re most welcome” continue the exchange. At the end, wishing people well sends guests on their way with our blessing. Servant-leaders attend to these simple, yet powerful, courtesies of humble presence and set the example for others to do the same.
A fourth lesson I’ve learned is to anticipate.
I’m always looking down the conveyor belt to see what’s coming next. I explain what I am doing, but always ask if that’s what the guest wants. I say, for example, “I’m going to put your food items together, and then bag the cleaning products and clothes separate from each other. And I can put your receipt in the bag if that’s okay.” Most people love that I am anticipating what they want. But some may want as few bags as possible no matter what’s tossed together. And some want me to put the receipt into their hand to go straight to their wallet. Similarly, servant-leaders exercise foresight and discernment, ask the right questions, and invite all stakeholders to speak into the desired outcomes. Here’s a caveat: Anticipation – looking ahead – can never replace presence – looking at one another and truly connecting. It’s a delicate dance of Both/And.
Fifth, everyone has a story.
Servant-leaders realize we are part of a life-script that’s unfolding in all those whom we touch. But more importantly, we are writing the next lines in each other’s story by engaging in interactions that create a shared experience. This is especially true with difficult guests, people who seem disengaged, sullen, or even rude. Who knows the story behind this moment? What’s the stress, the hurt, or the loneliness that could account for what I seeing? The reality is that there’s a divinely-shaped person on the other end of these encounters, no matter how difficult, and that we have the privilege to speak blessing over each person we serve.
Sixth, the guest isn’t always right.
But the guest’s perception of reality is always real for them and creates the reality we both inhabit as we interact. Every so often a guest will insist that the price an item is ringing up is not the right price, that this item was in the clearance section, and that I must honor what the guest says it costs. I politely explain that there’s no clearance sticker on the item, and sometimes shoppers just misplace things. But the guest remains insistent. In my head I start to feel defensive and annoyed. And then I step back and ask how much of my reaction is unconscious judgment, how much is a knee-jerk self-defense in order to be right, and is it in my power to make the guest happy? Fortunately, I’m allowed to exercise some discretion and unless the price difference is too large, I will make the adjustment. We’ve made a sale, and the guest is happy. It’s a win-win. As servant-leaders we must model a willingness to connect with the reality of others, state the facts without taking a defensive posture, ask and listen, form relationships with them, and move together toward mutually desired results.
Last, too much of a good thing isn’t good at all.
We can come to pride ourselves on how well we serve others. But sometimes those we serve ask for something different to meet their needs. Too, often, we take this as implicit criticism, and that feeling triggers defensiveness. Servant-leaders keep striving to curb our pride and deliver just enough to deliver what truly matters. As servant-leaders, we can get caught up in over-serving, which is often a cover for self-serving. We need to be on guard for pride masquerading as service and limit ourselves to what those we serve say is just right to meet their needs.
Through this experience I’ve been blessed with a transformative opportunity to offer personal service to hundreds of guests. I’ve learned that in gracious hospitality there are valuable lessons for how we lead as servants. No encounter is inconsequential for servant-leaders, especially when these exchanges come to us one person at a time, for that’s how we write lines of love into each other’s stories.
(Copyright © 2019 — The Serving Way — Chris Alan Thyberg.)