Joel Manby on Servant Leadership – 7 Principles That Will Transform Your Team

I got to know Joel Manby a little several years ago when he was CEO of SeaWorld. In the latest edition of his book “Love Works” he sets out a convincing model for loving your team to success with these 7 principles:

Patient • Kind • Trusting • Unselfish • Truthful • Forgiving • Dedicated

Setting Clear Goals – The King and the Crooked Furrow

How can a servant leader help his or her team stay on a straight path in a world full of distractions, and unclear or moving targets?

Davy Crockett, described in the 1955 Disney film as ‘The King of the Wild Frontier,” once told a story about a young boy plowing a field. The story was recorded in the book, “Davy Crockett” by William Sprague, 1918. I remember reading this story as a boy:

“…then he [Crockett] told the story of the farmer who directed his son to plow straight toward the red cow that was standing in a far corner of the field. The lad obeyed to the letter. But the cow wouldn’t stand still; it wandered all over the field, the lad following. When the father saw the crooked furrow, he was of course enraged and scolded the boy. The lad’s excuse was that his father had told him “to plow to the red cow” and he had obeyed, but that she wouldn’t stand still, and in obeying his orders he had to follow the cow all over the lot.”

The Classic Moving Target!

The kid tried to do job that pleased his father. He kept his eye on the target (as instructed) but the target kept moving. The inexperienced boy didn’t understand the variable introduced by the cow. Poor ol’ dad didn’t recognize his error it until it was too late, and the kid got the blame.

As leaders, how often are we just like that dad?

Good Intent, Poor Instruction

Effective servant leaders must have clear vision and set consistent targets for their teams. They must also exhibit enough situational awareness to adjust their guidance in sometimes chaotic, changing environments in order to help their teams stay on course.

This doesn’t mean constantly standing over them giving direction. It does mean thoughtfully considering the skill and experience level of each person and adjusting the leadership style to provide the level and frequency of guidance necessary

Think about your team. Are you expecting them to plow a straight furrow but allowing lack of overall vision, poor tools or poor guidance to constantly alter their direction?

How can you provide guidance for your team that keeps the furrows straight?

Civility MUST NOT be a Priority!

Did I really just say that? Stick with me.

You’d have to be almost entirely disconnected from modern society not to see that civil discourse is really suffering.

I understand that incivility is nothing new. However, the multiple crises the world is experiencing, and the rapidity of the news cycle and social media, have driven an atmosphere of polarization to an extent I’ve never previously experienced. This trend offers no solutions to the problems we face.

I won’t take a side on any particular popular issue here, nor even beat the drum (too much) about how we need to be more civil (though we clearly do).

My main point is that civility should not be a matter of transient convenience or aligned with the momentum or manners of the times.

It’s a mistake to make civility a priority.

Priorities, by definition place a rank on something based on perceived, relative importance to other things.

Priorities often change based on whatever else might have our attention at the moment. They are also often affected by whoever can more effectively influence, convince, cajole, shame or bully us towards their point of view.

This can happen rapidly, especially with the speed of communication in the world. Today’s priorities may be long forgotten by tomorrow. Witness the life changing implications of a tiny virus for nearly everyone on the planet.

Values are more meaningful than priorities.

Values (at least by my definition) have intrinsic worth which remains regardless of changes in circumstances.

Worthwhile values are, and should be, slow to change – and only then as a result of a significant, life-changing transformation in world view. Values remain regardless of all else clamoring for our attention.

Civility is an area which should be guided by values, not priorities. It’s not something that should be pushed to the back of the line by the crisis of the day.

Civility does not equate to agreement on the issues

By valuing civility, you’ll transform your whole approach to the conversations. You’ll be more willing to respectfully listen to the view of others – even if you strongly disagree.

You can be passionate in your position but civil in expressing it. In doing so, you might even discover some areas of agreement, where you were previously sure there were none.

You can be civil, even if others aren’t

I doubt many would believe that we win everyone over with civility. However, it should, more often than not, move us in that direction. Civility is not a formulaic absolute, but a solid principle.

On the other hand, incivility is almost always a formulaic absolute. If you give it, you’ll almost certainly get it back.

An ancient reminder of the efficacy of these principles:

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1

Five Steps for Majoring on Values

Where should you start with your values (whether civility or anything else)?

1. Be clear in your heart and mind of your values

2. Remind yourself of your values frequently

3. Intentionally align your thoughts, actions and words with your values

4. Recognize and appreciate that others have different values

5. Give grace to all.

Will you sometimes feel alone in this quest? Most certainly – but you’ll sleep better at night.

What do you Value?

Sometimes You Need to Wear Your Purple Shoes

Things are pretty tough for a lot of people right now. Truthfully, there has never been a time when things weren’t hard for someone.

In tough times, emotional intelligence is particularly necessary for leaders. A leader must be able to accurately gage the situation, find ways to understand what his or her team members are facing, and respond in ways that build up and encourage them.

While many jobs and businesses are very serious and require discipline and hard work, great leaders learn to recognize times when a different approach is needed…

Sometimes we just need to lighten up.

Several years ago at a Christmas party, we had a traditional “Dirty Santa.”

You probably know about that. It’s a game you play where everyone brings a gift and picks a number out of a hat. The lower numbers get to choose a gift early. At the beginning, they’re all wrapped so you don’t know what’s in the package. It could be something really cool, or it might be a “white elephant.” People with higher numbers can either pick a wrapped gift or “steal” a gift that someone else had previously picked. The number of times that a gift can be stolen is limited by an agreed upon rule.

That particular year someone picked a gift that I immediately coveted (I ain’t lyin’!)

Most people would have considered it a white elephant but, to me, it screamed with possibility.

I HAD to have it!

So, when the opportunity came, I stole it from the person who initially picked it. They seemed quite relieved because it meant they were able to pick a new gift or steal one that was already picked by someone else. Once I picked that particular gift, it was mine. No one else tried to steal it. What was it?

Purple Reebok Kool-Aid Shoes, in MY SIZE!

Now, most people who know me, know that I’m pretty conservative, and I usually dress that way. So, purple shoes seem a little out of character. But I knew I’d be able to do something with them.

I have to say that these shoes were awesome! I mean, they even smell like grape Kool-Aid (or they did until I’d worn them a few times). I don’t know anyone else who has anything like them.

There is a lot that’s serious about leadership. Properly influencing people to accomplish tasks, both the mundane and the extraordinary, can sometimes be challenging. There’s often a lot at stake both for the people involved and for the organization. Jobs and livelihood, as well as the success of the mission, deserve to be taken seriously.

Still, while I (mostly) consider myself a serious person, I’ve found over the years that many people considered me so serious that I was unapproachable, or even cold. That grieved me, especially looking back at the times when people really got to know me and confided their previous hesitance. One, who later became a dear friend, once confided to another person that he didn’t understand why I didn’t like him. My characteristic formality was interpreted as disdain. The other person let me know about that conversation, and I immediately sought to repair the damage I’d done. Looking back on that, I realize the blessing I’d missed in not having a friendship with this man earlier. My stuffiness harmed him and it harmed me.

As a leader, you have serious responsibilities. I get that, but…

How often do we send the wrong message by defaulting to seriousness and neglecting the human touch?

How often do we take ourselves or our mission so seriously, that we fail to take relationships seriously?

How often do we fail to realize that everyone has difficulty in life and that a true servant leader has the power to provide some necessary relief?

How often should we recognize that it’s possible to have a serious calling but also to have serious fun?

I often have to remind myself (before someone else reminds me) that life is too short to neglect fun, to neglect humor, to forget to laugh, to neglect a human touch.

I have to remind myself that, as comfortable as I sometimes get in my no-nonsense, buttoned-down self, that a real leader needs to remember that it’s sometimes better to mellow out (yeah, I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s).

Those you lead will have much more respect for you and often will be more willing to give more discretionary effort to the serious tasks you all have — not because they have to, but because they want to.

You may think it’s your job to be no-nonsense, serious, task-focused, or whatever you want to call it. But think about what you (and your team) lose by majoring on that to the exclusion of finding positive ways to lighten up.

Find a way, every day to…

Put On Your Purple Shoes

 (By the way, you’re going to have to find your own. These are mine!)

Don’t Shoot the Piano Player! He’s Doing the Best He Can.

Do you remember that saying? It came from old western movies. The picture is of a rowdy saloon where a whiskey drinking cowboy takes aim on a supposed card cheat. At that point, all bets are off. The other patrons are just as likely to draw a six-shooter or break a bottle or rickety chair over someone’s head. Even the bartender isn’t exempt from the mêlée, as he’s likely to produce a shotgun from behind the bar.

Then there’s the piano player…

The piano player is innocent. He’s just trying to do his job. While he may not be the greatest musician, he just showed up to work to do what he’s paid for. He’s doing the best he can.

I play the piano, or at a least I try to play the piano. I doubt many, even a saloon keeper, would pay me to play. I’m no professional. Far from it. Even so, I’ve been surprised over the years how many times I’ve been asked to play (and asked to repeat it later).

Playing in public has always made me nervous. When asked, I generally look for excuses. When I haven’t been able to avoid it, I’m certain disaster awaits. I know I’ll embarrass myself. I know my hands will be shaking so much that I won’t be able to keep my fingers on the keys, or my legs so much that I won’t be able to to keep my feet on the pedals. I know I’ll miss a critical note or key change. I know I’ll lose my place. I know the audience will notice every mistake and judge me harshly.

How often do we assume what others are thinking and feeling about us?

How often do we internally agonize over unfounded beliefs?

How often do we respond negatively because of irrational fear, perceived slights or perceived disrespect?

How often do we fail to take positive action when we should, because of those fears?

How often do our worst fears actually materialize?

Here’s the truth about all of those scary things that I’m sure I “know”…

They almost never happen.

I am truly my worst critic, not just in playing the piano but in most areas of life — and I then assume that others are judging me just as harshly.

I’m not so naive as to believe that I’m never judged by others. I also know that such judgement is sometimes unfair. How do I know this? Because I sometimes judge others in that way.

My sweet wife sometimes gets to see the worst in me. It’s probably most frequently displayed on the road, with my frustration at all of the “idiot” drivers. I am quick on the horn.

But, as much as I hate to admit it, she has the perfect way of catching my attention when I rant at vehicular malefactors. Seven simple words (I had to count them on my fingers):

“What is God trying to teach you?”

Through gritted teeth, I answer….. “Patience.”

Although I stumble though life in many ways, I am a great believer in grace. Both giving and receiving.

While there are certainly exceptions (relatively anonymous social media is the worst), I like to think that most people habitually extend at least some grace. They overlook the flaws in us that we obsess over. If they didn’t, someone would always be drawing a six-gun.

When I’ve played the piano in public, I’ve never had someone come up to me later and criticize me (nor threaten to shoot me), even when I made some pretty obvious errors. On the contrary, every comment I have received has been gracious, and I continue to get requests to play.

People extend grace to me every day. And here’s the wonderful secret about that:

Grace, by definition, is undeserved.

If our perfection, or the perfection of others is the standard, we’ve all failed and there is no hope.

The piano player in that old west saloon was a person with flaws and fears. He had much going on in his life that no one else in that saloon could possibly see. There was much more to him that the time he spent with his hands on the keyboard. Some joys, some struggles, some failures, some tragedies — the things of life.

Like all of us, he was in great need of grace

How much grace have people extended to you? How much have you extended to others? We all need more of it flowing in both directions.

“To whom much is given, much will be required.” Luke 12:48

Who do you know who needs just a little grace from you today?

Don’t shoot the piano player. He’s doing the best he can.

Who Rained On My Parade?

In Honor of the Marion Military Institute Class of 2020

This year’s graduating class has missed a significant part of the MMI experience due to a virus which has changed all of our lives. Their unconventional commencement this week is one piece of that.

The remarks come from a speech I gave at MMI two years ago, when the parade for Alumni Weekend was replaced by an abbreviated Pass in Review due to inclement weather. While the adjustments in Alumni Weekend 2018 can’t compare to the adjustments in 2020, both highlight the significance of the MMI experience.

My original remarks had, as a centerpiece, lots of references to the parade field, thinking that’s where we’d be — before the rain. I instead gave them on the Quadrangle, in front of the Chapel, with my back to the field.

That Field

For me, it’s rich with memories. It was the first thing I saw in 1978 as I arrived with another new cadet who picked me up in his very loud, primer gray Dodge Charger from my grandparents’ home in Clarksville, TN.

My very proper grandmother cringed when he drove up, Led Zeppelin blasting from an 8 track stereo. He got a speeding ticket before we got outside the city limits. Not a good start.

I had recently completed ROTC Basic Camp at Fort Knox and got to Marion in this jacked-up muscle car, never before having set foot in Alabama, and not having a clue about what to expect.

Riding along Washington Street, looking across the grass of that field, towards this chapel, as an 18 year old kid, I wondered what was ahead, what I had voluntarily gotten myself into, what faced me on the other side of that field.

I now know it was to become one of the most impactful and formative experiences of my life. But it took me years after graduation to fully realize it.

Ten years later I again rattled the historic windows of this campus and surrounding homes, not with a Charger’s booming sub-woofers, but with the distinctive thump-thump of a UH-1 helicopter right in the middle of that field – proud to show my crew this place.

That cemented it. And my appreciation of what MMI gave me has continued to grow.

That Field

Each time I arrive in Marion, I look across it towards this same chapel, to these same hallowed bricks where I scratched my name in the dead of night. Now standing here to receive this honor, it still moves me.

Especially when I consider my classmates, and the friends I have made among other alumni who I have had the privilege of knowing. They also stood on that field. As have many thousands of cadets in the last 175 years.

Many of them also loved this school.

Many also gained much from their time at MMI.

Many distinguished themselves in their military careers and other places.

Many gave of themselves in service to our country.

Many gave their lives in that service.

Later today we’ll honor some of those we have lost in the last year. Each year, sadly, the names read have become more familiar to me. Their faces and voices, I vividly recall. From the barracks, to the classrooms, pulling duty in the guard house, running on the roads in boots and fatigues, drilling on the quad, and on that field.

In later years – laughing together, swapping lies and reminiscing at reunions like this one – the stories getting bigger every year.

Cadets, faculty and staff.

All friends.

All deserving of our honor today.

That Field

Memories so vibrant that I almost feel like it could once again be me in dress blues and creased white ducks, the glint of polished brass, and drawn saber, commanding Band Company, preparing for the “forward, march!

That reverie fades when I realize that today I could never pass a uniform inspection, much less a PT test. But, for one fleeting breath, I was on that field.

In my remembrance, I was that young, skinny cadet, standing there, miserable in the Alabama humidity, wishing that fat old guy would finish talking so that we could all change into civvies and head over to Judson to see our sweethearts or with our buddies to wherever we could go with what was left of the weekend.

That Field

But this moment is not really about me. It’s about all of these young men and women of the corps, like all those who came before and all who will come after. All pledging themselves to the same imperatives of Truth, Honor and Service.

On that field those values and the lessons that flow from them begin to take life – both for your time at this school and in whatever your future holds. Remember what you take from this school. From that field.

I pray that, as much as this young cadet was ready to head out on the next great adventure, not knowing what was ahead, for each of us, the memories of that field which draw us here today, and the lessons that it taught us, by God’s grace, will continue to do so as long as we draw breath.

Hey, That’s MY Spot!

Years ago, I got in the habit of parking in the very last spot in the parking lot, in particular at work. I don’t mean the last open spot. I mean I parked as far away from the door as I could, regardless of how many cars were already in the parking lot.

Over the years, people have noticed where I parked and asked why. Often, especially when my car was newer, they assumed that I was parking there to keep my door from being dinged. In retrospect, this was a practical and reasonable explanation, but it wasn’t what I had in mind.

Honestly, I think my reasons have evolved over time. However, they fall into some basic categories:

  1. I could always find an empty spot there.
  2. It forced me to at least be a little active, even though much of my day may be spent sitting.
  3. I got more steps on my FitBit.
  4. I never had to try to remember where I parked.
  5. Walking far across the parking lot in the morning allowed me to shift my thinking to work.
  6. Walking far across the parking lot in the evening allowed me to shift my thinking to home.
  7. One time I answered that it was the closest I could park and still be at the far end of the parking lot (think about that for a minute).

I maintained this habit, rain or shine, for my almost my entire career with my previous employer. There were a few occasions where I would park closer to load or unload something, but I always moved back to “my spot” when I was finished.

A little over ten years ago, at a conference on Servant Leadership, I picked up a book by Jason Barger (Twitter @jasonvbarger) called:

Step Back From The Baggage Claim: Change The World, Start At The Airport

I highly recommend this book. It reminded me of another reason I might want to park in the last spot.

It saved a closer spot for someone who wanted or needed it

This could be a way of Serving others.

The more I thought about it, the more compelling this reason became. It was a little thing, but it might provide a bit of relief for someone who needed it. I’m okay with that.

The problem is that I have, on at least one occasion, been selfish about “my spot.” In particular, after an extended international business trip, I arrived back at the office to find “my spot” occupied by a small, bright blue colored car.

I was… Indignant

After all, shouldn’t that person KNOW that this was “my spot?” (refer to Reason 1 above).

When I caught what I was doing, I realized the danger of forgetting my original intent. I forgot what may have been a good (and even generous) rationale for doing something and simply continued to do it out of habit.

Then I got irritated when someone upset my routine

In this case, one of my original reasons for parking in the far spot was to extend grace to someone else by not taking a more desirable spot. Now I had completely lost my “why” when I became irritated at someone who desired “my spot.”


As leaders, how often do we forget our why and act merely out of habit? How often do we become so selfish, protective and possessive of our routines, and our way of doing things, that we forget that the primary call to leaders is to serve others?

What are you doing today that has morphed into mindless, selfish habit? Can you revisit your original intent and intentionally, daily connect your actions to your why?

Don’t Forget Your Why

Servant Leadership Unmasked?

I recently posted an article from on my personal Facebook page and on Twitter (@UnfazedLeaders) which discussed whether it’s the right thing to do to wear as mask in public, in the midst of this pandemic, regardless of whether mandated by law.

The article specifically addresses Christians, but I think the question is just as valid for anyone who seeks to be a Servant Leader.

A friend responded that many places mandate the wearing of masks by governmental authority. This is true, and is also the subject of much controversy.

I understand that there are such mandates, but whether or not it is (or should be) the law (or is constitutional to make such a law) is not the heart of the issue.  

The article explicitly makes the point that loving our neighbors should be our primary concern, regardless of whether or not the law compels us to either take a certain action or abstain from a certain action.  

For that reason, I will deliberately NOT argue this from the standpoint of whether government could or should compel this. For me, that misses the point entirely and takes us down a rabbit trail of partisanship, emotion and bitterness. I’m not going there.

Note also the the ethic presented in the article is intended to instruct Christian believers, not to preach to non-believers.

For believers and for Servant Leaders, we must decide in our hearts how we can act to best “love our neighbors as ourselves.”

Sometimes that means doing things, or not doing things, purely out of love, regardless of our personal beliefs about whether the law mandates those things one way of another. That includes sometimes putting aside our personal needs and wants in order to extend grace to others, such that our behavior does not “cause them to stumble” or such that our behavior is seen as unloving.

This is expressed explicitly in Scripture in a couple of places and implicitly in many more. The gist is that arguing about whether doing something (or not doing something) based solely on the law is a losing game. A better question is:

“Does it demonstrate love to my neighbor?”

I’ll cite a few examples of this from Scripture (and I urge you to understand this in the larger context of extended discussions about the place of law versus grace). Whether you reverence Scripture or not, there is much wisdom in these passages and they are instructional for any leader. 

The first is from Romans 14. It’s worth reading the whole chapter (and indeed the whole book) for context, but verses 13-19 provide a good summary in the context of whether or not it is permissible (by the law) to eat or drink certain things. Paul argues that the strict requirements of the law are beside the point if our actions are harmful to others: 

“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Rom. 14:13–19 ESV).

Another good example is 1 Corinthians 8. The entire chapter provides context surrounding the question (again) of whether or not the laws forbids a believer from eating certain kinds of food). It is summarized in verse 13, which revisits the idea that believers should act in a way that demonstrates love for others such that our behavior does not force them to stumble.  

We (as believers and Servant Leaders) can essentially (voluntarily) give up our legal rights if it means being more loving to our neighbors.

That leaves more questions about how I can best love my neighbor.

I’ll leave that for another day.

Do A Good Turn Daily

Scouting is where I first heard about the importance of “Servant Leadership,” although I didn’t necessarily hear that term until many years later.

It came in simple phrases like “Do a Good Turn Daily” or in active work on community service projects. It came in admonitions and statements of core beliefs such as “He who serves his fellows is, of all his fellows, greatest.” In came in the recitation, at every meeting, of the Scout Oath and the Scout Law. It’s been caricatured as scouts “helping an old lady across the street.”

In our cynical world, such ideas seem quaint — outdated. But are they really?

Think about the best leaders you’ve ever known. Did they expect others to serve them, or did they make it their mission to serve others, including their teams? Were they selfish or selfless? In my experience…

The Best Leaders are Servants First.

Robert Greenleaf wrote about this when he coined the term “Servant-Leader.” He said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…”

Robert Greenleaf – The Servant as Leader

Greenleaf goes on to describe more difference between those who demonstrate themselves servants first and those who style themselves as leaders first. That difference primarily flows from motive. While leaders may not explicitly state which is more important to them, don’t we usually know from their actions? How they treat us and others?

How about you? Is it your natural desire to serve, or are you more interested in being the leader with all of the supposed benefits that come with that? The order makes all the difference.

Great Leaders Serve First!

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