Servant Leadership

The concept of servant leadership that has guided Jim Blanchard, former CEO and chair of Synovus Corporation, in his life and career is applicable to people in all industries and all walks of life.

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About The Podcast

Jim Blanchard is the former CEO and chair of Synovus Corporation and current chair of JBA Capital. Blanchard has left his distinct mark on the state of Georgia as a business and civic leader, but a true leader, he says, measures his effectiveness not by the number of people he’s made to do his bidding but by whether those people feel supported, empowered, and appreciated. That concept of servant leadership that has guided him in his life and career is applicable to people in all industries and all walks of life, he says, as it brings us closer to the model of the original servant leader—Jesus Christ himself. “In the gospels, Jesus is quoted as saying, ‘I came to serve, not be served,’ ” Blanchard says. “We have seen what self-serving leaders do and the chaos that they can produce, and we have a desperate need for a change in the leadership model toward the kind of servant leadership that was modeled by Jesus during His lifetime and His ministry.”

Show Notes

Welcome and Guest Introduction

Good evening and welcome. My name is Paul Amos, and I’m the founder of The Redeemed. The Redeemed is an organization that was built so that men of all types could come together in an open format where we can speak about the problems at men face, and at the same time the triumphs that we have over those problems.

Tonight, we’re here for a part of our live web series called Pursuing Restoration. Tonight’s message of true leadership is one we believe resonates among all men. We are very blessed to have a very special speaker, someone that I’ve had the opportunity to be mentored by and learned from. He is former Georgian of the year, and former CEO and Chairman of Synovus Corporation. Please welcome Jim Blanchard. Jim is going to talk about his view on servant leadership.

Jim Blanchard: Servant Leadership

I love talking about servant leadership. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I’ve learned a lot about it, and I’m learning more and more every day. I read books about it, listen to speakers about it, but I found the truth is I find more about the subject of servant leadership in the Bible than I do anywhere else.

Servant Leadership in the Bible

The greatest role model of all was Jesus Christ when he was doing his ministry here for the three years that he engaged in active ministry before His crucifixion. Ken Blanchard, who is a great author on the subject of servant leadership and the broader subject of leadership, says that Jesus is the greatest role model of servant leadership ever.

Ken Blanchard: Lead Like Jesus

Ken has written a book called Lead Like Jesus. Ken says that he really had let his Christian life kind of get away from him. He had grown up with it, and it became less important.  A friend kept urging him to regain his grasp of the Christian faith. He just wasn’t interested, and finally the friend said, ‘Do me a favor, read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John again.’

And Ken says, when I read the Gospels, I realized that Jesus did everything that I had ever written about and ever spoke about.

Reading the Gospels and this epiphany turned him back to the Lord.  That’s the power of the gospel, and I believe it’s the power of the practice of servant leadership.

The Power of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership to me is simple. It is serving others rather than being served, rather than being the boss, and rather than telling everybody else what to do.  You actually are taking on the responsibility of empowering the people, enthusing the people, equipping the people, giving them the confidence to act on their own. Giving them the confidence to use their own brain power to respond to the needs of the customer. It goes on and on.

The typical pyramid of leadership is the CEO’s at the top, the pyramid goes down and all the workers that deal with customers on the bottom. Ken says, what you need to do is turn the pyramid upside down. Now the CEO is at the bottom. He’s still the CEO, but his job is to prepare all the people in the pyramid, particular these in the broad part of the pyramid at the top, to better serve the customers.

He says, if you turn the pyramid upside down, it’s the customer service people, the salespeople, the support people, they are the ones that make all the money. The CEO and the executive team are the ones who spend it all, and they are the bureaucrats.  

What Jesus said, is I came to serve, not to be served.  That is the essence of servant leadership.

How to Invert the Organizational Pyramid
Timestamp: 7:50

How do you go about flipping that pyramid and putting the frontline workers at the top and leadership at the bottom? How do you go about setting the example to the workers, that allows them to feel comfortable with leadership on the bottom of the pyramid?

Well, it’s a question of trust. And you have to earn it. You have to earn trust in any relationship, but in the business environment, a CEO that truly practices servant leadership can quickly earn trust.

Examples of How to Earn Trust as a Leader
  • Give employees the right to take a risk and be wrong
  • Give employees the right in a meeting to speak their mind, even if it’s contrary to their boss
  • Give employees the right to use their own initiative
  • Give employees the right to make a deal with a customer

Corporate Leaders Practicing Servant Leadership

It’s trust.  I think a CEO that practices servant leadership and encourages their leadership team to practice has to have a lot of self-confidence.  Leadership can’t be insecure in their own skin; they have to realize that everything is going to get done exactly the way they would have done it.

Leadership has to set up a system of accountability, and then make sure that they have some sort of systematic way of making sure some major decision that could affect the reputation of the entire company is not made without approval. I always describe as, I’m giving you the gun, I’m giving you the bullets, but I’m not giving you a Canon where you can shoot a hole in the boat and sink it.

There are parameters. But when people know they’re free to use their own judgment in their own brain, within the widest range of issues, there’s unlimited amount of ingenuity, creativity, and energy.

Empowering The People
Timestamp: 11:40

Vision has to be top-down. Pay and compensation generally has to be top-down. But the broad area of customer service sales and even production in the manufacturing side, so much of it is done so much better when people are empowered to use their own abilities and not necessarily have to go to the rule book. I would say the more process, the more procedures, the more controls you have in an organization, the less oxygen there is in the air.

Government Processes: Hinderance to Servant Leadership?

When you think about post-financial crisis, the government wanted to put in all types of rules, processes, and procedures around the banking and financial institutions, and more broadly around corporations in general.

Food for Thought: Do you find that those processes and procedures are hindering what we’re seeing in terms of the success of helping empower workers through a servant leadership perspective?

I don’t think there is any question about it. One, the government has no expertise whatsoever about how to run a business.  If we ran our businesses the way the government is run, we’d all be broke.

I’m not critical of bank examiners and bank regulators, I think they used the meltdown of ‘08 to take the most control over the banking industry that’s ever been taken before in the history of this country. And I think it has not been a good thing.

They were so protective of their own reputation, they got criticized by the Congress so badly for the meltdown that occurred in the financial industry, that they went way overboard, reached way too far, and in some ways (I’m not being critical of them because we’re all subject to over-reacting in a crisis), I think they had literally nationalized the banks. They don’t own them, but they do have more control over the operation than they’ve ever had before.

Parallel to the Time of Jesus
Timestamp: 14:48

When I think about the parallel to Jesus’s days, the Sanhedrin and everybody else became so legalistic. They became a set of rule followers that always wanted to adhere to specific things. Jesus came along and gave a very different message about love in the heart.  It is fascinating to me to see how those messages tend to resonate with people, because that’s the relationship God wants us to have with him.

It was the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin, and the rule makers that actually crucified Jesus.  So, that kind of thing still happens today. A lot of people, they go to work every day, and dread having to go.

The Difference with Servant Leadership

I saw a prayer request at a church a number of years ago from a lady who was asking for prayer, and she basically said, ‘I’ve been beaten down so badly, I hope the Lord will order my steps away from this job and get me out of bondage and get me some freedom.’

I saw another note from a lady who had been a 35-year plus employee of a company that said, ‘The reason I have been here for 35 years, because I’ve been taken so well care by this company and I feel so loved.’

That’s the difference with servant leadership

Love in Business

Barren’s magazine was interviewing Bill Turner 25 years ago, and Bill turning the comment, ‘The secret to this place is love. And the lady said, ‘Yeah, but what is a business term for that?’ He said, ‘Oh no, it’s love.’ And she said, ‘No, I mean, how in business would you describe that?’ And he leaned over, and he said, ‘Lady, it’s love.’

Love is a word that people know, workers know, employees know, even executives at the highest level and CEOs know.  So often they don’t think love has any place in business.

 I operate a servant leadership kind of an approach on the basis that every person that you deal with may remember the love you showed them. They might not remember the details of the lecture you gave them, but everybody that works in your company knows how you make them feel.

It’s the epidemic of command and control, harshness, manipulation, secrecy, all the things that exist so often in a top-down organization that servant leadership cures.

The remedy to such an epidemic is when you love people, you appreciate them, you recognize them, you reward them, you give them the dignity of the work.

A Soldier’s General

Another example, that we often hear, particularly with our proximity to Fort Benning, GA, is “He is a Soldier’s General. What that means is the troops think he has my back, he loves me, he really cares for me and my family, he’s thinking about me every time something is going on.  He’s not just thinking about his own convenience.  Soldiers that work for that kind of general will take the hill, they’ll put their own life in jeopardy. It’s no difference for any kind of business, they will do the same thing for the leader that they know has their back, and really appreciate the effort that is being made.

Servant Leadership and Accountability
Timestamp: 20:06

How do you ensure some level of accountability for people who want to take advantage?I think about players and coaches. There has to be a balance between the players feeling the coach loves them and also the players being accountable to the coach.

How do you as a coach for your organizations, ensure not only that they understand the love, but they understand they were accountable?

When talking about the culture of a business, I would talk about it for an hour. Then spend five minutes going over the numbers from last quarter.  Then I’d say to them, ‘I want you all to understand that I’m here to make sure that you are maximizing your opportunity in your career.’ That’s what this coach is all about; the love, the caring, the expectation of being appreciated.

You can have the greatest servant leadership atmosphere that’s possible, and still be the highest performer in your sector.  People don’t mind working hard. They don’t mind having high targets. They don’t mind climbing up a mountain on the knees and getting a little bloody to get there.

What they can stand is when they are mistreated, unappreciated, and not treated with dignity.

Examples that Exemplify Servant Leadership
Timestamp: 22:16

Jesus came in order to be able to speak to the masses, and he used many stories and analogies, here are a few modern stories to consider with servant leadership.

President of Harvard Turns Down Money

There was a couple that went to see the President of Harvard. They had lost a son in Europe, and they wanted to do something in his memory. The President of Harvard in was abrupt. he looked at the couple and didn’t think they would be very capable of helping him much, certainly not make a big donation, and he brushed them off. Finally, the lady asked, ‘What does this entire university cost?’

He stated some multimillion-dollar figure, and she said, ‘Oh, we can do much better than that.’ The lady turned to her husband and said, ‘I have an idea’. And they left.
The following year, the President of Harvard learned that the couple had donated 47 million to a new university to be known as Leland Stanford University.

Wow. What a powerful example. The conclusion to that story is that never should have been a Stanford.  There should have been twice as much Harvard.


There was a clerk in hotel working on a stormy night in New York City, and an elderly couple came in. They said, ‘We can’t find a room. Every hotel is filled. Is there any chance you have a room?’ And the clerk said, ‘We don’t have a room, but I can’t turn a couple like you out on a night like this. Would you stay in my room?’

And so the couple did. A few weeks later the clerk got a letter from the couple, and in the letter, it said, ‘You are the kind of person that ought to be running one of the great hotels in the world, and I intend to build it for you.’

And a year later, he invited them to come down to a street corner, and he said, ‘This is the hotel that I’ve built for you to run.’ William Waldorf-Astoria turn the hotel over to that young clerk.

That’s the example of command and control, too busy to care. And the heart of the giver. The heart of a servant. Do you think that man gave up at a hotel room of his because he thought he might get some reward?

Certainly not. He gave it up because he had the heart to give it up.

How to Become a Servant Leader
Timestamp: 27:35

Ken Blanchard says, ‘No change takes place in the workplace or in the home until there is a change in the heart.’

If you really examine yourself and are honest with yourself, what heart change do you really need to become a servant leader? It’s really the most important next to, ‘Am I prepared to be a total follower of Jesus?’  What heart change do I need?

It addresses the very essence of what The Redeemed is all about. Being redeemed is the born again experience when a person makes Jesus the lord of their life.  You are redeemed from the bitter hell to eternity in heaven.

So many people don’t realize redemption is there, it is whether they want it or not. Jesus by coming and being on the cross and God by providing us that opportunity, we’re already redeemed.  All you have to do is embrace it.

I’m not a CEO. What can I do to implement servant leadership?

As a leader you can set the tone. Many people come from jobs that aren’t necessarily in the high-level leadership. How does someone as middle management or as a person working in a larger organization, set that example without violating the rules that may be in place that are different or counter to that culture?

First try to servant leadership in your own space. Try it in your depart. Try to do it in your squad. And if it violates the rules or you are reprimand because of your approach, then my recommendation is there are too many good companies to work for, to work for one that’s going to suppress you being kind, nice, gentle, appreciative, respectful. If that doesn’t fit, there is a better place to be.

Impact of Servant Leadership Outside the Workplace
Timestamp: 31:20

A lot of ways, Jesus’s principles of servant leadership apply are to the home. They apply to fathers and husbands.

God has an order for the family. He’s put the husband in a position of authority. He’s not the boss, he’s not greater than the wife. But God’s order is that he’s been given the authority in the family, and he shares it, he consults.

The servant leadership approach is by far the best way to mold a happy union between a husband and a wife, and also to raise the children. The children look for nurture, to be well taught, for boundaries to be set, for guidelines.  People talk about self-esteem; the best way for a child to come out of their youth is to feel good about the fact that they are generally living a good life, doing the right thing, and honoring their parents.

That doesn’t imply some command-and-control approach. The husband has authored from the Lord, the couple have authority over the children, and if you live by that order, then you’re following the way God ordained it.

Servant Leadership and Tough Love

There’s a lot of tough love that goes from servant leadership. It’s not just some open ended, easy living deal. It requires discipline.

The best story I’ve ever heard about tough love, Bear Bryant when he was on a recruiting trip for a young man in high school. He went into the living room of the young man’s home with the young man’s Mother. The boy was kind of snippy to his mother, he spoke over a couple of times. After about the third instant of him being somewhat rude to his mother, Bear Bryant got up, got his hat, put it on top of his head and started walking toward the door. The young man stopped and he said, ‘Coach Bryant, don’t leave! I want to talk to you about playing football at Alabama.’

The coach stopped, took his hat off, turned around and looked at the boy and he said, ‘Young man, a boy that is not respectful of his mother can’t play football at the University of Alabama.’ And he left, and he didn’t recruit this five-star athlete.

You have to dismiss people from time to time.  It’s the most unpopular thing in business. You have to discipline people from time to time, you have to draw parameters sometimes for people who just abuse their latitude that they’ve been given.  There is nothing permissive or soft about servant leadership. It boils down to, how does that person feel about me as a boss, this company as a place to work, and do they want to get up in the morning and come back to work? And do you really care about me as a person? Nothing soft about it.

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