“If serving is below you leadership is beyond you.”  – Anonymous

There are two kinds of leadership: power and service-oriented. Lead by authority, or lead by example.

The world has seen leadership by authority for centuries. We now know that leadership by example is much more powerful and effective. To be on the cutting edge of leadership, we need to embrace service-oriented leadership.

How do the two models differ? Leadership will always maintain its element of authority, but the defining difference is in how that authority is used.

Power leadership sees people as a resource that can be used for any purpose, by any means, for the sake of accomplishing the goals. Service-oriented leadership recognizes that the people within our corporations are part of the goals, and thus leads them in such a way that raises them to their full potential. A power-based leadership structure will always create an environment of drone workers who punch the clock, do their job, and go home to their real life. But a service leadership structure will create a culture of leaders at every level who are engaged and who actively contribute to the success of the whole.

There are many wonderful examples of service leaders just in the past century or so, including such people as Martin Luther King Jr., John Wooden, John Maxwell, Cathy Truett, and many more. One of the most notable examples, Nelson Mandela, said, “A leader…is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”[i]

Each of these leaders has stories that validate the power of the service-leadership they lived. But it’s especially worthwhile to note that King and Mandela used service leadership to reform oppressive, authoritarian systems. If power leadership was more effective or powerful, then neither King nor Mandela would have succeeded.

We might ask, if service-oriented leadership is so much better, why has it taken so long to be taught? The reason is that it’s harder. In particular, service leadership requires sacrifice. It’s about putting self aside for the betterment of another person and the overall mission of the organization. The military, top-performing athletic teams, and the most influential leaders of all time deploy this principle. But, truthfully it’s easier to be selfish. In fact, it is nearly impossible to yield self-interest in service unless a common cause or mission becomes more important to us than the self-interest we’re naturally born with. If we are going to work harder at leadership, we need to understand the benefit we’ll receive for the effort.

There is a deeper reason service leadership has been slow to be embraced. After all, entrepreneurs and executives didn’t become what they are by taking the easy road. Also, if it just comes down to setting aside our egos, then we really just need to understand the preponderance of evidence proving superiority of the service culture.

Why then would it continue to be difficult to set ego aside? The answer may be that our ego is not really about taking pride in our work or making a difference in our communities. Instead ego thrives on the control we have over other people, and the power we feel from our exalted position. Taking this one step further, if our identity is rooted in performance-orientation, we risk feeding an ego need to exert authority and make ourselves look good. This approach fears failure above all else and is intimidated by others’ successes.

A service-oriented approach is rooted in possibilities and the best interest of others. It bears failure as a steppingstone to success and can celebrate and encourage the successes of others, knowing that the success of one individual provides increased strength to the whole.

True service is looking out for the benefit of each other and the customer. 


Darwin Smith

Not many people know about Darwin Smith, and that’s the point. He began as a simple in-house lawyer for Kimberly-Clark, but the future dramatically changed for both him and the company one day in 1971 when he was chosen to be the next CEO and chairman of the board.

He operated in that role for the next 20 years until retiring in 1991, and is known for saying of his position, “I was just trying to become qualified for the job.” He was more than qualified for it by taking a company that over 20 years had fallen 36 percent behind the general market in stock performance, and transforming it so that it performed 4.1 times greater than the general market.[ii] He led the organization in making bold moves to divest its ownership of several paper mills and focus on strengthening the technology of its products. This paid off dramatically in causing Kimberly-Clark brands such as Kleenex and Huggies to gain No. 1 rankings in market share, elevating the company above its rivals Scott Paper and Procter & Gamble.

Despite all his successes, Smith continually passed credit on to the employees, the managers, his predecessors, and the customers. He led the way in developing continuing education and health programs for his employees. He established a culture of service that looks to hire people who want to make a difference in the world, not just for themselves.

Today, two decades after his death, Kimberly-Clark prides itself on serving one billion people worldwide— all because its CEO believed service was the company’s No. 1 goal.