The True Meaning of “Servant Leader”

August 22, 2009
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Find out how George Vanderbilt created a positive working environment for his employees that encouraged innovation and performance.

We have read about the ?new? model of the servant leader, where the manager?s purpose is to create an empowering environment where members of the team can truly excel. But the concept of the servant leader goes back more than 100 years.

I recently visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, one of the largest homes in America. Set in the beautiful hills of western North Carolina, it is truly an amazing sight. The estate originally included over 125,000 acres; and the 250-room mansion, completed in 1895, featured 34 master bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens, and an indoor swimming pool.

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Its original owner, George Vanderbilt, personally oversaw the construction of the house and was responsible for many of the innovations that made it a truly state-of-the-art home. When most houses in America had no indoor plumbing, this mansion had hot and cold running water. When most homes still used outhouses, this house had modern-styled bathrooms. At a time when electricity was still in its infancy, electrical outlets and appliances were visible throughout the house. And while the telephone was still a novelty, the Vanderbilt estate had a fully integrated intercom system that connected the entire house.

All of this information was described during the main tour of the house, but where I really began to appreciate Vanderbilt?s forward-thinking leadership was when I took the behind-the-scenes tour. Not only did we visit the kitchen area, electrical power plant, laundry room, and boiler room (all extremely well conceived), but we also visited the servant?s quarters and learned about the procedures that kept this house operating smoothly.

The tour guide explained that during the late 19th century, servants in these large homes were usually cramped three to a room in very tight quarters in remote parts of the house. They had to use outbuildings to attend to their personal needs. And they had to trudge up many flights of stairs to respond to the various requests from the owners and guests.

On the other hand, servants at the Biltmore had private or semi-private rooms with windows offering amazing views of the mountains. The state-of-the-art indoor plumbing installed in the main part of the house was also extended to the servants? quarters. And the internal phone system was designed so that calls were routed from central dispatch areas to the part of the house where the staff member was needed so that time, and more importantly, energy were not wasted running from one part of the house to another.

Because of caring treatment of George Vanderbilt and his concern for the welfare of his guests and his employees, there was a long waiting list for employment at the Vanderbilt Estate, and the turnover rate was virtually zero.

Today, with dwindling loyalty and the do-more-with-less mentality, isn?t it time to create a positive working environment that encourages innovation and performance and makes it easy for people to be productive? As a servant leader, you?ll be amazed what an empowering environment can do to make your employees truly excel.

Ron Rosenberg helps organizations get more customers than they know what to do with and keep them for life. For a Free Special Report with 44 Proven Customer Service tips, visit www.qualitytalk.com/tips.

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