One of my favorite stories in our recent book, Servant Leadership in Action, comes from James Ferrell of the Arbinger Institute. The leader James writes about doesn’t have a fancy title, but he’s a living example of Robert Greenleaf’s definition of a servant leader as someone who “focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”
Who is this servant leader? It’s the man who collects the trash in James’s neighborhood each week.
“Our trash is collected on Friday mornings,” James writes. “One Friday morning, as I heard the garbage truck pull into our cul-de-sac, I realized that I had forgotten to take the bins out.”
Perhaps you can relate to the panic James felt as he threw on some clothes and hustled down the stairs—not to mention the sinking feeling he had when he heard the truck pull away. “A week with no room in our garbage bins!” James thought with a grimace.
But when James looked out the front window, he saw his two bins—and they were empty! He was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for his amazing neighbors.
A few weeks later James bumped into two of those very neighbors: David, who lived across the street, and Randy, who lived around the corner. David was telling a story about how he’d seen the garbage truck driver walking around and picking up trash strewn all over the street. David said he felt badly, because he’d overpacked his bin and it was likely the spilled trash was his.
“So,” David said, “I decided that the next week I’d go out and thank that driver and give him a gift.”
But the next week the truck was early. By the time David rushed out the door, it had already rounded the corner. “The truck was parked in front of Randy’s house,” David continued. “Then I saw the driver wheeling Randy’s two garbage bins down from the side of his house!”
“Wait!” Randy interjected. “The garbage man did that? I thought the neighbors had helped us out.”
As he listened to this story, James had the same reaction. He realized that the driver must have helped with his bins, as well.
“Now,” James writes, “you might think that David, Randy, and I had it made at this point. After all, we wouldn’t even have to take our trash out to the street anymore; the garbage man would do it for us!”
But that’s not how they responded. Instead, the garbage truck driver’s selfless actions motivated James and his neighbors to remember to take out their bins, because they didn’t want to make things harder for the driver. Plus, they took care to leave ample room between the bins, something they’d heard they were supposed to do, but hadn’t bothered with before.
“In a way,” James continues, “our garbage man trained the entire neighborhood to make his life easier. How did he do this? By making our lives easier, which is the essence of what servant leaders do.”
In Leading at a Higher Level, my Blanchard colleagues and I define leadership as the capacity to influence others by unleashing their power and potential to impact the greater good. James Ferrell’s story underscores the point that you don’t need a fancy title to be an effective servant leader.