Innovation through servant leadership

ANY LEADER in America would risk the loyalty of their followers, whether they were president of the United States or CEO of a company, if he/ she did not appear to be strong, knowledgeable and in control of the organization they lead. This concept of leadership is hardwired into most Americans.

But many highly successful CEOs in Wisconsin model a different form of leadership. They tap the resources of their entire workforce in driving critical decisions at their organizations. Some describe this management philosophy as “servant leadership,” which represents a different paradigm from the “leader knows best” model.

Consider these examples of leaders with a contrarian view of the role of the leader in any organization.

Richard R. Pieper, Sr. former CEO of New Berlin-based PPC Partners, a nationwide electrical contractor, describes it as a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.

Bob DeKoch, president of Appleton-based The Boldt Company, one of the largest construction firms in the nation, wrote a book, “Embrace Uncertainty.” DeKoch says leaders should be candid with their team members and say they don’t have all of the answers to complex, challenging problems. At first the employees may be shocked, DeKoch writes, but in the long run they will accept the idea that it’s their responsibility to help solve challenging issues.

Bob Hillis, CEO of Milwaukee-based Direct Supply, has grown his company into a national player. Reflecting on the company’s success, he said in a speech to BizStarts: “…at one time I owned a large portion of the small pie; then I spread the ownership to employees and now I own a small sliver of an enormous company.” Making employees owners clearly reinforces a team approach to operating a business.

Andy Nunemaker, former CEO of EM-Systems and Dynamis Software, said, “I think the real test of a leader is how well the team members thrive. One of my proudest stats in business is the fact that over a dozen of my former employees are now CEOs, presidents and business owners. To me, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

These four examples show proof of practice. So, what is servant leadership?

Servant leadership seems like an oxymo- ron. It was first espoused by Robert W. Greenleaf. What were initially the writings of the for- mer AT&T executive from Terre Haute, Indiana, have grown to international stature with little fanfare or TV commercials.

He believed the American leadership model was incorrect. A leader is not someone with a commanding presence and a high IQ brain that contains the answers to challenges.

Greenleaf and his adherents, including a very active Wisconsin group, believe a successful organization is one where people feel ownership in their work and the urge to help others. Hence the role of a leader is to help his people and model behavior such that everybody serves each other and the organization. Everyone in management puts their ego aside.

In Wisconsin, approximately 2,200 people in six cities volunteer, meet, share practices and encouragement with each other. Their website is

Other major companies and organizations in Wisconsin that adhere to servant leadership philosophy include: Children’s Wisconsin, Brady Corp,, Festival Foods, and colleges: Viterbo, MSOE and Alverno. The ubiquitous Kwik Trip is also an adherent. It has 16,000 employees and 500 locations in three states. Kwik Trip mottos are: “Treating people right since 1965” and “Treating co-workers and guests like family.”

A type of servant leadership that can also be witnessed in nature is the wolf pack. The wolf is an iconic animal with a ferocious image. We use a metaphor “the lone wolf.” But consider the wolf pack photo below. The leader is in the rear marked with the blue arrow.

At the front are the old and sick. They set the group pace. If they were last in the pack, they would fall behind and die. Next, in the red, are the strongest to protect them and look ahead for danger. The capable follow the strongest. Way behind is the alpha wolf (the person with the title on the door, so to speak).

Wolves, with their instinct to protect their pack, provide us an unusual model.

Servant leaders are similar to wolf leaders. They lead from behind because they firmly believe everyone in the organization is critical to its success. All can take pride in their work and enjoy the collective accomplishment of success with their fellow employees.