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How to become a servant leader

I was at Casa Ferrero last week for a conversation with one of their senior leaders about purposeful leadership in difficult time. Casa Ferrero is the global HQ of the company behind a suite of beloved international brands including Ferrero Rocher, Nutella, and Kinder. Today, it is a fast-growing €10 billion business ranked in the top 20 of the world’s most respected food companies for its social responsibility, governance and products.

As I always do for such meetings, I took time in advance to understand the specificity of my client and explore how I can be of service. But this time, something special happened after I read these words from Michele Ferrero, who took over the company in 1957 upon the death of his uncle. It was as if my willingness to serve was taking a whole new dimension:

“I pledge myself to devote all my activities and all my efforts to this company. And I assure you that I shall only feel satisfied when I have managed, with concrete results, to guarantee you and your children a safe and tranquil future.” —Michele Ferrero, 1957

People who knew Michele Ferrero well confirm this commitment continued to move him until his death in 2015 at age 89.

So, let’s try something. PAUSE here, take a BREATH, and read these words again slowly.

I pledge myself to devote all my activities and all my efforts to this company. And I assure you that I shall only feel satisfied when I have managed, with concrete results, to guarantee you and your children a safe and tranquil future.

What do you notice? Any emotions? Thoughts? What’s emerging in you now?

Maybe, like I did when I first read this declaration, you feel hopeful, or maybe you are just inspired to learn more about Mr. Ferrero and his company. Maybe you feel more present, more open, and even more connected to your own purpose. If this is so, you are experiencing the power of a servant leader.

Servant leaders are servants first. And because of their commitment to serve their community, they inspire people to follow and have no other choice than to become leaders.

Sixty years after Michele Ferrero’s powerful declaration, it is finally commonly accepted by leading authorities (read the article from Harvard University professor Michael Porter “Creating shared value – how to reinvent capitalism”) that profit generated from a social purpose creates sustainability for the company and contributes to community prosperity. Porter calls it the most sophisticated form of capitalism.

To gain the competitive edge that comes hand in hand with creating sustainable shared value for all stakeholders, organisations need to focus their attention on growing servant leaders and on developing servant leadership cultures. By doing so, they’ll be optimally positioned not just to survive the next decades, but to thrive.

So, how do we create more servant leaders in a society where most senior leaders have been valued and promoted for leading, not for serving?

Servant leadership requires a fundamental shift of mindset — a shift that moves leaders from one structure of thinking to another. As if you were upgrading your internal operating system, from “I create a future to protect myself from danger and threats” to “I create futures consistent with my deepest aspirations and values”.

It’s the kind of leadership transformation which requires deep developmental work. And while most leaders would think they have already gone through this transformation, very often my experience is that their serving behaviour is inspired by a need to protect themselves and is related to a specific context and moment in time. While this may contribute to the wealth of the community in the short term, it is not enough to create a powerful servant leadership culture.

So, how do we change?

There is no shortcut here. It’s a long-term process for leaders who truly want it. Long term because our thinking system does not change quickly, and because creating new embodied habits takes time.

There are two critical steps in the construction of a servant leadership body:

1: Listening and enhancing self-awareness

A study from IMD Lausanne run on more than 2,000 international executives and published in the MIT Sloan Management Review showed that most successful executives have had to work hard on themselves and develop their self-awareness in order to reach their highest level of performance.

But the idea that becoming a better leader starts with listening to ourselves is not new. Most ancient traditions propose that the first step towards exemplary leadership is to turn inward and explore our true nature.

"By beginning to look clearly and honestly at ourselves, we begin to dissolve the walls that separate us from others and initiate the process towards servant leadership". Pema Chodron

This famous sentence from Dogen Zenji (Zen Master - 13t century) may look very far from our corporate reality. Still, the idea is more modern than ever. In simple words, “to be of service of our community starts with exploring who we are and what we long for”. A deep exploration of our personal longing will connect us with our true nature and the nature of each living being.

For Confucius, becoming a human being, and preparing a foundation for leadership starts with developing the capacity to see what we haven’t seen before. If this capacity is absent, actions taken in the face of novelty will be reaction from our past rather than appropriate from the present. For this to happen, the first steps is to stop, listen and reconnect with our true nature.

This process of self-awareness involves consciously and intentionally observing various dimensions of who you are (including your body, mind, senses, and emotions). It is the capacity to observe how you are thinking, relating, feeling, sensing, and judging so that you increase your ability to choose consciously for the most appropriate behaviour.

Below are some concrete ways to enhance your self-awareness:

  • LISTEN to your thoughts and meditate. Lucky you! You are the only animal that can have perspectives on your own thoughts. During a meditation practice you learn to quiet your mind, observe, and learn to see your thinking pattern. By doing this, you gain access to a deeper level of intelligence that connects you to your true nature. Mindfulness Bases Stress reduction eight-week program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the US and currently given across the globe is a good first step into meditation. For people who prefer retreats, Plum Village offers one- or two-week retreats for beginners which are true eye-openers. And for those who like intense and challenging experiences and have an authentic longing for this journey, a 10-day vipassana retreat is one of the most powerful programs to support this personal exploration.

  • LISTEN to your body and feel the person inside of you. We are the result of three billion years of evolution and, believe me, our body doesn’t lie. Deep joy, subtle sadness, or unbearable moments of despair inform you about what you care about. By relearning to stay with your emotions and with the physical experience of it, you get insight about who you are. With this practice, you stop numbing yourself and you turn up the volume on what your body wants to tell you about your purpose in life.

  • LISTEN to life and cultivate moments of presence. It’s intuitive: The awareness of your thoughts, your emotions, and your physical sensations can only happen in the moment. But while our brain is a machine that creates more than 80,000 thoughts a day about the future and the past, it is possible to cultivate our capacity to come back to the present moment if and when we want to. For that, you may start a morning and/or an evening ritual of being present: drinking your tea or water, doing mindful movements, breathing, walking in your neighbourhood, and enjoying listening to the birds or playing with your favourite animal.

  • LISTEN to your environment and do “The Leadership Circle Profile”. It is the first 360-degree assessment tool to measure behaviours at various stages of leadership development and to link patterns of action with habits of thought. It is a true platform for leadership transformation as it allows for action plans that are both behavioural and self-awareness-oriented. I have personally seen many senior executives go through life-changing experiences using this tool.

  • LISTEN to your heart and explore your values. Take a psychometric test that is supported by storytelling. Don’t let yourself be put in a box — use these tools only as an opportunity for deep conversations about what you care about most in life. My favourite here is, which helps you feel your driving forces and use them in your journey to create shared values.

  • LISTEN to your partner, your kids, and your friends about what they know about you with curiosity and vulnerability. You will be surprised by the quality of their feedback. They know a lot about your unconscious patterns of behaviour. If you feel comfortable with it, start a conversation with them about what may be the underlying driving forces.

Whatever your listening practice is, instead of numbing yourself and trusting what society offers you as an acceptable framework for life, self-awareness starts with cultivating a healthy curiosity about the inner life force that wants to move through you. This inner force will be the foundation of your servant leadership.

  • DECLARE the future that you want: From this deeper state of presence, ask yourself what kind of leader you want to be. What kind of person do you want to become? What future do you want for the people you care about? Now, allow the answer to come from this broader perspective, without judging yourself. Find a short and powerful declaration which galvanises you… Breathe and feel the experience of declaring this future, again and again, till it becomes a resource that’s internally available to you when you need it most.

And then, when you feel the impulse… do what you have to do.

2: Practising and enhancing self-mastery

As managers, entrepreneurs, and senior executives, our willingness to serve and to contribute to community prosperity will be assessed based on our ability to align our values and our actions under pressure. For example, I need to align my want (for more social equality in this world) with my actions (reconsidering my supply chain or my innovation strategy). This is not a small thing when the world is constantly asking for short-term results.

Here are some recommendations based on my experience of what has best served my executive clients:

  • Knowledge is only a rumour till it’s in the muscles. To become masterful at anything, from a sport to the practice of dance and even leadership, a regular, disciplined PRACTICE is necessary. As a leader, you can learn pragmatic practices to put your body into action in alignment with your deepest values. You can learn to build the body to manage conflict with dignity, to make courageous decisions, to be a compassionate leader, and to be accountable for your work and your life. This work called embodied leadership coaching developed by Richard Strozzi-Heckler in the 80 has revolutionized the domain of leadership development as it offers concrete tools to embody your leadership virtues in a sustainable way.

  • SURROUND YOURSELF with servant leaders. I learned the most about servant leadership from my grandmother, Mamie Paulette. Being in her presence each day in my childhood and experiencing her sincere generosity has taught me more about the topic of shared social values than any management book or brilliant presentation. Her lessons were communicated not through the words that she used but though the physical experience of her dignity, loving kindness, generosity, and courage to align heart and action under difficult circumstances. Look for the servant leaders around you and make sure you spend enough time with them.

This part of your exploration may also include teachings from ancient traditions developed over thousands of years and direct exposure to people who are ahead of you on this journey.

  • FACE your fears. It’s okay to be scared. It’s even healthy. Fear is a critically important emotion for a leader; it announces danger and prepares us to deal with it. There is a lot of nonsense these days with people talking about ‘fearless living’. If we don’t experience fear, there is no possibility for courage or boldness. So instead of denying fear, explore it, talk about it without minimising it, acknowledge its intelligence and learn how to tolerate the physical experience of your fear. At a certain moment, you fear will normalise and you will start to experience the courage to serve with the fear.

  • BE KIND to yourself. Your body and brain work to keep things as they are — this is what scientists call homeostasis. They want to keep you safe and, in a way, we can all agree it’s a very generous approach. So, visualise who you want to become, repeat it again and again, and be kind to the part of you that wants to keep you safe. By cultivating peace with this healthy tension you will realise more and more of your servant leadership potential.

Here again, what matters is not the particular approach you choose but the willingness to prioritise your own development as a central aspect of your life.

We are all on a journey. Many of us will spend the last days of our lives with the mindset of a servant leader, with nothing more to prove and the willingness to be of service to our family and our environment. Now, it is up to us to decide: Do we wait for that stage of our life to experience the longing to serve our community? Or do we take a page out of Michele Ferrero’s book and initiate this journey now, so that we contribute to creating the world that we want for our children?

I know which option I will choose. Do you?

With warmth and gratitude


Manu Henrard is a Executive Somatic Coach and an Executive Recruiter based in Brussels. He is also an associate from the Strozzi Institute for embodied leadership. Manu's professional commitment is to help leaders increase meaningful productivity and achieve inner peace. More about his coaching program here.


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