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Let me tell you about one of the most marvelous people I’ve had the chance to befriend over the course of my life.

For the most part, I’ve shared stories from my past as a means of teaching change leadership and lessons for success in life and business. This includes my story of emigration to Australia when I was young, as well as learning to navigate the world of school, business, and intimate relationships.

But this story comes from the present day, and actually began about two and a half years ago.

Isla is a 95-year-old woman living in Australia. Although few people even reach this age, even fewer have done it with the level of joy, resiliency, and vibrancy as Isla. She has practised the art of yoga for over 30 years, and she counts it as one of the primary sources of joy in her life.

As any 95-year-old will tell you, this phase of life can feel quite isolating. Many of your peers, and often your significant other, have passed on by this point. You may be fortunate to have grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but you may not have energy or mobility. This was the season Isla found herself in when COVID-19 reared its head and shut down the world.

Of everything Isla lost when the lockdowns began, yoga was one of the most devastating. It had helped her through each week and given her something to look forward to. She credits yoga as a primary factor in her long lifespan, as well. The mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual benefits are almost too many to enumerate. So, imagine the loss she felt as she had to stay in her house longer than a year.

Thankfully, she and I had struck up an acquaintanceship before COVID-19. When the lockdowns began, we transitioned into one-on-one yoga lessons. It wasn’t the perfect replacement for group yoga, but it certainly helped.

Over the past two years of working with her, I think I’ve learned more than I’ve taught.

Isla continues to show up. At one point, she suffered from a nasty fall and had to recover. Still, she continued on the path of yoga. At another point, she had a pacemaker installed. Yet, she kept going. Just seeing her joie de vivre first-hand has been enough compensation for the lessons.

About Servant Leadership

Through these private yoga lessons, I get to serve in a way that teaches me and brings me great joy. Perhaps this is the essence of servant leadership.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “servant leadership”? Growing up in the world of church and business, I’ve heard it thrown around too many times to count. At first, many equate it to self-sacrifice. In their eyes, servant leadership primarily requires giving—you’ll know someone is a good leader if they consistently give to the people they lead.

I agree, but it only tells half of the story. Servant leadership is not about investment with zero return. If that were the case, I don’t think as many people would truly practice it. The secret to true servant leadership is that you get back as much as you give, if not more. It has profound benefits if you practice it correctly.

This means going into leadership situations without expectations about how the situation benefits you. It means investing without needing something in return, and then gratefully enjoying whatever return does come. It’s like planting a tree for someone else to sit under a decade from now, but finding gold as you dig.

If you go into leadership for the reward, you’re in for a rude awakening. If you want the prestige, the esteem, and the accolades, you’ll find the people you lead want nothing to do with you. However, if you take the road less travelled and lay your life down, you’ll find greater life than before.

Here are a few of the distinct benefits of servant leadership that I’ve experienced from my time working with Isla:

  • You learn as you teach.

It’s almost a cliché at this point. You learn more from teaching. However, it’s deeply and thankfully true. I attest that Isla has taught me far more than I’ve taught her. I’ve walked her through plenty of techniques in yoga, but she’s walked me through life.

While I taught yoga, I learned resiliency. Isla showed me what it takes to live a long life, take a few hits, and come out the other end smiling. She’s helping me to prepare for the other end of life as I interact with her on this end. However you lead, you’ll learn far more than you deposit… if you’re open to it.

  • You get inspiration.

You don’t need to befriend a nonagenarian yoga practitioner to get inspiration (though it certainly helps). The people you serve can inspire you, if you let them. Sometimes, we feel the temptation to treat people as a set of factors to plug into a maths equation, but they’re far more than that.

Do you know the stories of the people you lead? How familiar are you with their families? What about their career aspirations, hopes, and dreams? Let them tell you. Open your ears to them. You don’t need to look up your favourite guru on LinkedIn to gain inspiration. You’ll get fuel from the journey simply by listening to the lives of the people you serve.

  • You get to live in community with others.

This could be one of my favourite benefits of servant leadership. This is something that regular leaders don’t get to experience. It’s lonely at the top, after all. Few people have the security and vulnerability to surround themselves with authentic voices. The worst and most tyrannical leaders in history and business are surrounded by “yes-people” who secretly resent them.

The greatest servant leaders, however, experience a tight-knit and life-giving community. They know the people they lead, and those people know them. They have unconditional love and acceptance of one another, and always call out the very best in one another. I’ve seen this with Isla time and again, as well as all the people I’ve had the good fortune to lead. 

Who do you lead? It could be a company, a division, a team, a family, or a niece or nephew. Make the adjustment into servant leadership, wherever you are, and begin investing for the sake of others. Notice how I said “investing,” not “sacrificing.” You’re not the noble hero who gives and cannot receive anything from others. The people you serve can do something for you, as well. Open yourself up to it, and enjoy the tremendous benefits of servant leadership.