SERVANT Leadership


This summer, I attended the funeral of my first mentor, Mary Louise. I got there early because I knew it would be crowded; Mary Louise had a way of positively impacting so many people. And sure enough, as I talked to a few of the 400 attendees, we all had similar stories of how Mary Louise helped launch our careers. Back in the day when I was starting out, Mary Louise gave up the funds in her professional development budget so that I could attend a conference. I didn’t ask her to do this. She just saw an opportunity to help me develop professionally. And truth be told, I was definitely green! That conference was such a gift.

Mary Louise would be the definition of a servant leader, a term coined by retired AT&T executive Robert Greenleaf in his now-famous essay The Servant as Leader. In workplaces today, we are seeing a shift from the top-down, autocratic leadership style of the past to the model of more team-based, more collaboration and more servant leadership.

Greenleaf listed 10 distinct qualities of servant leadership, including listening, empathy and commitment to the growth of people. Exactly the style of Mary Louise. Servant leaders treat all people with respect. Servant leaders care for their team. They seek genuine feedback. And they model this behavior, which in turn “grows” more servant leaders. 

So, when I became a boss, I strove for that same idea of developing team members like Georgina, Bob and Christina. Twenty years later, at a tailgate party this fall, I had to blush when Christina so proudly introduced me as her first boss and gushed about how I helped launch her career. It was very sweet and traces back to the foundation set by Mary Louise.

In this month of gratitude, think about how you could be more of a servant leader. How can you support people’s development? How can you show support and build community? Plant the seeds to grow other servant leaders in your organization. And finally, well done, Mary Louise! You will be missed.


Susan Combs

Susan Combs, MBA and Professional Certified Coach, works with coaching clients to create fresh starts, enhance their leadership skills and increase their confidence. She is an authorized licensee of the Fit Leader's Program. Susan provides one-on-one coaching, DiSC team-building training and manages corporate mentor programs. She lives in Lansing with her son, Max, and their golden retriever puppy. Visit or for more information.

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