A Servant's Simple Question

A Servant's Simple Question

Dan Cable, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School and author of the new book Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do, recalls the story of how a company changed its culture – and dramatically increased its productivity – with a simple question.

In search of greater efficiency, a food delivery company’s leaders began drilling down on data and micromanaging its drivers. But instead of getting what they wanted, their behavior actually fostered progressively poorer performance.

Then, thanks to the insight of a consultant, the leaders took another approach. They began to ask their drivers a simple question. That question changed the company’s culture and dramatically enhanced its efficiency.

It’s the story of the power of servant leadership.

Human beings have been fighting this notion since the dawn of time. The favored approach to achieving group results has been “command and control” leadership.


All about compliance

From the dawn of humanity, the prevailing goal of leadership was compliance. The job of any leader was to get his or her followers to do what he wanted them to do – using any means available.

Jesus knew there was a better way and He demonstrated it and preached it to His disciples. At one point in the Gospels we read:

Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom* for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)


Move to cooperation

But for the most part, His wisdom went unheeded. Indeed, it was not until the 1920s that people began to seriously propose that cooperation might work better than compliance.

In the main, this new approach – fostering cooperation -- worked pretty well. In tandem with laws to protect workers, employers began to think more and more in terms of incentives to get their workers to want to cooperate.

Yet, the leadership task remained unchanged. It was still pretty much a matter of getting other people to do what you wanted them to do.


Great leap forward

Peter Drucker and others began to notice that some companies performed remarkably better than others in the same economic sector. Drucker wondered: What was their secret sauce?

As it turned out, they had fostered a new working culture. Its focus was on contribution. In this new culture, the leadership task changed. No longer was it to get others to do what you wanted them to do. Now it was to get others to bring their very best to the challenge at hand – and to help them increase their capacity to contribute as time passed.

It was much like what Jesus did with His small band of apostles.


Contribution or overhead?

Professor Cable puts the issue succinctly: “When you’re a leader — no matter how long you’ve been in your role or how hard the journey was to get there — you are merely overhead unless you’re bringing out the best in your employees. Unfortunately, many leaders lose sight of this.”

“When you’re a leader, you are merely overhead unless you’re bringing out the best..."

When they do, a dangerous cycle of entropy can ensue. In shorter order, people begin to run on a toxic mix of fears: They “fear of not hitting targets, fear of losing bonuses, fear of failing — and as a consequence people stop feeling positive emotions and their drive to experiment and learn is stifled,” Cable explains.

The food transportation business mentioned earlier provides a perfect illustration of the dynamic.In their obsession to get more efficient, managers held weekly performance meetings with their drivers, clipboards in hand, reciting a litany of problems, complaints and errors. It did not take long for the drivers, many of whom had worked for the company for decades, to become resentful. Instead of improving, productivity declined.

Then a consultant proposed the approach of a humble servant leader. Managers were to focus on one question in interacting with their drivers: Ask them how you can help them do their jobs better.

The change did not bring overnight success. Drivers didn’t like or trust their managers. But as managers persisted, drivers gradually began to cooperate – and then to contribute. It turns out they had many good ideas to share. As the sharing grew, so did the trust – and the company’s productivity.

Cable reports: “Small changes created a virtuous cycle. As the drivers got credit for their ideas and saw them put into place, they grew more willing to offer more ideas, which made the depot managers more impressed and more respectful, which increased the delivery people’s willingness to give ideas, and so on.”


At the root – humility

The key in all of this was humility. The leaders were humble enough to focus on serving their drivers as much as serving their customers. To that end they asked questions – in this case, a key question – and they listened persistently and responded positively to what they heard.

Cable concludes: “Leaders often do not see the true value of their charges, especially ‘lower-level’ workers. But when leaders are humble, show respect, and ask how they can serve employees as they improve the organization, the outcomes can be outstanding..”

Jesus knew that two millennia ago. He modeled and taught this truth. And out of a rag-tag band of devoted followers, He built an organization that has survived and grown across the ages. In the wake of His achievement and the achievements of His followers, we must ask what has taken us so long to learn how to lead?

Jesus built an organization that has survived and grown across the ages.

And now that we know, will we do it?



Owen Phelps

Dr. Owen Phelps is Director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book, The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, and Shepherd. He has presented Lead Like Jesus Encounters in Canada, Uganda and India, as well as all across the U.S.


He formerly served on the faculty of the College of Business & Management at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and was a consultant on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Committee for about a decade. He has served as a consultant to church organizations from Vermont to Texas. 


Dr. Phelps was an award-winning writer, columnist, editor and publisher with a multi-state publishing company before he began work in ministry. He has written several articles and contributed chapters to two books devoted to issues of faith-based organizational performance.


He and his wife Jane, a CPA, have been married for 49 years. They live in Durand, Illinois, and Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, and they have five grown children and 17 growing grandchildren.