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The Key is to Serve

By Mark Cole | June 15, 2023
The Key is to Serve

Almost fifty years ago, John Maxwell heard Zig Ziglar say something at an event that changed the way John viewed leadership: “If you help people get what they want, they will help you get what you want.” That day John realized that the heart of leadership is serving others.

And boy, am I glad that John was in attendance on that day! Because his influence on my life and so many others has been drastically impacted by this understanding of servanthood.

I believe this is true—

The degree to which you serve as a leader will determine how effective you are as a leader.

In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell teaches servant leadership inside his Law of Addition: “The best place for a leader isn’t always the top position. It isn’t the most prominent or powerful place. It’s the place where he or she can serve the best and add the most value to other people.”

I have met many leaders who exhaust themselves, day and night, looking for ways to get ahead and make it to the top. And to be clear, I don’t see anything wrong with desiring to progress in your career and achieve more success. However, if you are stepping on others to get to the top, any success you find there won’t last long.

John Maxwell says, “You’ve got to love your people more than your position.” That’s what servanthood is all about—putting the needs of your people before your own aspirations.

I know, easier said than done. Here are a few practical applications that will help you:


I love Ralph Waldo Emerson’s attitude: “Every man I meet is in some way my superior, and I can learn from him.” The most influential leaders share this humble perspective and, in turn, never stop growing!

Edgar Watson Howe was joking when he said, “No man would listen to you talk if he didn’t know it was his turn next.” But there’s more truth to that statement then we are willing to admit. Too many leaders have the habit of waiting for their turn to talk rather than actually listening to the other person.


Ruth Smeltzer put it like this: “You have not lived a perfect day, even though you have earned your money, unless you have done something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” And Andrew Carnegie would add, “No man becomes rich unless he enriches another.”


I was once reminded of a valuable lesson in a team meeting.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss an event our team will host this year. After setting aside an entire afternoon to prepare ideas, I felt very confident about what I was bringing to the meeting. But soon after the meeting began, it became very clear we were headed in a different direction than I anticipated.

One after another, ideas were put out on the table—most of which were clearly different from mine. Then a key team member launched into an idea that the entire room seemed to love. People erupted with ideas building off the original one. You could feel the energy in the room totally shift.

As a leader, I have to ask: what would you have done in this situation?

Would you have pushed your ideas to the front? Or would you have embraced the cohesion in the room even though the ideas were different than yours?

Leaders naturally fight for their ideas. But the most successful leaders are secure enough to allow the best idea to win.

Consider these wise words from Robert Greenleaf in his book Servant Leadership: “The servant-leader is servant first… The best test is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society?”

What’s the health of your team? Are they growing? Are they helping others as well?

Ken Blanchard says, “Too many leaders act as if the sheep (their people) are there for the benefit of the shepherd, not that the shepherd has responsibility for the sheep.”

The truth is, getting ahead and putting others first go hand in hand. Contrary to what you might have been taught, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. You can achieve more and lead a successful organization while putting others first. In fact, if you want to make it to the top and stay there, servanthood is the key.I’ll leave you with these challenging words from Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Looking for ways to grow your leadership ability and your team’s capacity?

At Maxwell Leadership, our heartbeat is growth and development. Our mission is to ensure that you and your team are equipped to make your greatest impact on the world. That’s why we host Day to Grow. At this full-day conference, you’ll hear from some of the industry’s foremost impact and leadership experts, like:

  • James Clear, author of Atomic Habits
  • Ally Love, renowned Peloton instructor
  • Speaker & executive coach Ryan Leak
  • Fortune 500 advisor Juliet Funt

Join us for one Day to Grow so that you can lift the lid on your leadership ability and guide your team toward success.

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