This past weekend I ran 13.1 miles through the beautiful Fort Harrison State Park in the Indianapolis Marathon & Half Marathon. I was able to complete my third half-marathon, watch a good friend accomplish her first full marathon, and cheer my husband on in the last .2 of his sixth 26.2 journey. It was an amazing weekend full of friends, family, wellness, and inspiration.
One of the things that stood out to me the most from the weekend was not the beautiful fall-colored trees, or the runner dressed as Superman, or that laboring hill at mile 11. Nope, it was a woman who I encountered near the portalets. Yep, you read that right – my most memorable moment of the entire weekend happened near the porta potties! But this wasn’t just any woman, she was a
What is servant leadership?
I was lucky to be introduced to the philosophy of servant leadership relatively early in my career by one of my valued mentors. Since then, I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying, and trying my best to practice, this approach to leadership.
As described on the Robert K. Greenleaf’s Center for Servant Leadership website, “Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” This phrase was first officially coined by Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, published in 1970. In this book, Greenleaf describes this philosophy as follows:
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…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.
Okay…Back to the Woman at the Portalets
The morning of the race was cold and rainy. As always, there were loooong lines at the 30 or so portalets set up right by the start line. Hundreds of runners lined up in the pouring rain, with each breath looking like little puffs of smoke in the foggy, gray early morning hours.
About 25 people-deep, there I stood. All of a sudden I felt the rain stop. I looked up, and I had an umbrella over my head. I heard a voice say, “You looked like you could use this.” There behind me was a woman in her 40s or 50s with a huge smile on her face and an over-sized golf umbrella in her hand. She was there with her daughter, who was running the marathon that morning. After covering me for a few minutes, she then jumped over to the line next to me where a runner in her 60s or 70s stood, in shorts, shivering in the cold waiting in line. She stood and covered her.
I finally made it through the line and was in a rush to get to the start, as the horn had already blown and the runners were off. But wait – I only had one glove. What happened to my other glove??? I can’t run in this weather without gloves – I will freeze! I hear another voice behind me, “I have it…I have it!” I turned around and saw that woman again. She had my glove in her hand. She saw me drop it in the grass as I was running towards the race. “Here you go honey – good luck!”
Key Principles of Servant Leadership
There are 10 key principles of servant leadership. I am not going to touch on each one, but I wanted to share three of them that this woman exuded on that cold, rainy race morning.
1. Awareness: Servant leaders are very self-aware, but also keenly aware of the surrounding environment and the needs of those around them. As many of the runners stood in that rainy portalet line, heads down, or looking straight forward visualizing their upcoming individual performances that day, this woman was focused on the people around her and their needs. Servant leaders are observant and positively act on those outwardly-focused observations.
2. Commitment to the Growth of People: Servant leaders are committed to helping the people around them grow – personally, professionally, spiritually. One way they can do this is by providing the resources and/or tools needed for success – like the umbrella…and the glove. I would have never finished that race without that glove. I might not have even ever started.
3. Building Community: Servant leaders build a sense of community amongst teams, organizations, or any group they’re a part of. That woman helped bring the running community together that morning by being a positively contagious energy during somewhat intimidating race day conditions. It was because of her that complete strangers in my line began interacting, laughing, and connecting.
I’m not sure who that woman was or if she’ll maybe stumble upon this post, but I want to say THANK YOU for your servant leadership that morning. I will do my best to model your behavior in my everyday life. These characteristics are directly applicable in any setting, so let’s all commit to serving others FIRST and leading SECOND – at home, at work, and in our communities.