Business leaders often seek advice from peers and mentors. Many even hire consultants.
However, the best advice sometimes comes from the unlikeliest of sources.
After all, what would a Capuchin and Catholic priest know about leading a company?
Well, businesses increasingly are seeking out the advice of Father Keith Clark, who is the director of the Monte Alverno Retreat Center in Appleton. Clark is conducting seminars on "servant
leadership" to help businesses strengthen their internal culture and grow their bottom lines.
Four years ago, Clark condensed his servant leadership curriculum created for high school students to fit a business atmosphere and is now working with a second company to help its management learn to lead without power.
"My hope is that businesses will indeed be empowering to people, and also people will increase the financial bottom line," Clark said. "Servant leadership is just the right way to treat people."
The first business Clark worked with was Sheboygan-based Burkart-Heisdorf Insurance Agency Inc. The company’s president, Andy Burkart, heard about the course that Clark had created for the students of St. Lawrence Seminary High School in Appleton.
Burkart is an alumnus of St. Lawrence Seminary and has known Clark for
"So many people in business today have a little bit of the Vince Lombardi image, this, ‘Do as I say; it’s my way or the highway,’ image of strong leadership, and that really is not a model," Burkart said. "My vision here is that our leadership people are here to serve their colleagues’ needs. It is a privilege to be in a position of leadership. You have to be there for your people. The purpose is not about you, not about ordering people around. The purpose is how you can serve others."
Clark met with Burkart’s leadership team about four years ago and has since been back periodically as Burkart plans to teach everyone within his organization about servant leadership.
In essence, the image of the servant leadership model is an inverted pyramid in which the president of an organization is at the lowest point of the triangle and the customer is at the broadest edge.
The president empowers the executive team, which empowers the management team, which empowers the employees, which reflects on the service to the customer, Clark said.
Leading without power, or servant leadership, is about empowering others to do what they can do while acknowledging accomplishments and mistakes.
"Manipulation and intimidation do not equal leadership," Clark said. "Manipulation is about controlling people or playing on their needs; where leadership enables them to contribute what they have to offer and not what you want them to do."
Servant leadership is about empowering others to serve, Clark said. To learn to empower others is also learning about one’s self, he said.
When Clark meets with businesses, adults and high school students, the first issue that is broken down is each individual’s attitudes and personal relationships with others in the participating group. It can be a long process.
Once everyone has looked at themselves in the mirror and recognized issues they may have to overcome, the group looks at their individual professional relationships and how each action has a reaction within the company that can hold a positive or negative impact for employees.
"Father Keith is not going to change your mind. You have to be of the right mindset for this," Burkart said. "You have to be of the mindset that this is the way you want to run your life and the way you want to run your company."
Clark’s version of the philosophy of servant leadership is broken down into about 20 skill statements.
Some basic principles include: attitude is not the only thing, but it is the first thing; "thank you" are the most powerful words in the English language; and experience plus feeling equals behavior, but in between experience and feeling is interpretation and in between feeling and behavior is a decision.
"An attitude is a decision that I have made about the way a part of life is or the way it ought to be," Clark said. "We interpret life on the basis of that attitude."
To become a servant leader, a corporate executive would need to change his or her attitudes about the company, its employees and its future, Clark said.
"If someone is not willing to change their behavior or try something new, their attitude will not change," Clark said.
Clark’s favorite skill statements are: "A leader expects goodness, kindness and cooperation of colleagues," and "A leader offers colleagues genuine feedback and acknowledgement, even if the leader did not benefit directly from an action."
When Burkart decided to spread the servant leadership philosophy throughout his company, not everyone came on board. They have since decided that the company may not be the best place for them, he said.
Scott Stellman, president and chief executive officer of D&S/Davians in Menomonee Falls, has scheduled Clark to share his expertise in servant leadership in May.
"As the workforce gets younger and younger, people that come on board want to have a voice," Stellman said. "They want to be heard, they want to have a part in decision-making, they want to feel they have taken ownership in the company and they want to feel their advice and direction has been listened to and acted on."
Stellman believes he has accepted the concept of servant leadership. However, with 225 employees, he wants his 21-person leadership team to be in the same step.
"We all report to somebody, and that may even be our own conscience," Stellman said. "We have to be able to look at ourselves and say we are doing our best, that we are treating people in a fair and equitable and common sense way. It all comes down to how you wish to be treated and that has to be part of the landscape."
Clark’s philosophies and teachings may be similar to the religion he practices, but his consultations with companies are not religious. He just happens to be a priest, Stellman said.
By empowering people within a company, a business owner can bring the corporate culture to a higher, more intimate level that will in turn reflect on customers and the financial bottom line, Stellman said.
Businesses should be aware of the servant leadership concept, because it will be needed to generate a return on investment as the labor shortage grows when the baby boom generations retires, Stellman said.
"We are not a top-down company anymore. This organization is not about one person, it is about 225 people working hard every day to make us the great company we are," Stellman said. "The more you empower, the more you encourage, the better you listen, the better you treat people, and this company will be better for it."