The Essential Playfulness of Servant Leadership

By May 14, 2019

Read this story and more in CONNECT Magazine | 2019 Lent Edition

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In his address to the incoming 2019 Board of Stewards (BOS) before its initial meeting on Tuesday, February 5, Dr. Mike Marshall, Associate Pastor of Leadership Development, offered the following meditation on the theme he will lead the BOS to embrace and enjoy in 2019:

 Joyful Servant Leadership

“For me, the beginning of this theme was the death of Herb Kelleher on January 3,” Mike writes. “As most of you know, he was the colorful co-founder of Southwest Airlines.” Quoting the Star-Telegram account of Kelleher’s life and legacy that ran the day after he died: “Not many CEOs dress up as Elvis Presley, settle a business dispute with an arm-wrestling contest, or go on TV wearing a paper bag over their head,” Mike observes that Kelleher was all about having fun — and all about serving and respecting other people. He then summarizes phrases used to describe Kelleher by news media following the initial report of his death:

  • He led by servant leadership.
  • His enthusiasm and optimism were infectious.
  • His fun-loving approach was always aimed toward excellence and created a family atmosphere for Southwest employees.
  • One of his greatest legacies was how he treated people. He believed that “if you treat employees well — they will treat their customers well.”
  • He credited late-night talks with his mother for helping develop his belief that each person carries the same value, without regard to social standing.
  • He routinely sent notes related to birthdays, anniversaries or deaths. He also started the industry’s first employee profit-sharing program.
  • He believed that any organization is stronger if it is bound by love, rather than fear.
  • He once said that “life is too short, too hard, too serious not to be humorous about it.”

“Herb Kelleher embodied the mantra of Joyful Servant Leadership!” Mike writes. He adds that the book, NUTS! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, by Jackie & Kevin Freiberg that includes many stories and examples from Kelleher, including a great picture of him on the cover showing a “STILL NUTS after all these years” tattoo, has a wonderfully written section on servant leadership, where it exclaims that “inherent in the act of leadership is the natural desire and corresponding choice to FIRST serve others. This belief has firmly become part of Kelleher’s legacy, illustrated in this published tribute:

Dear Herb, 

Thanks for always  remembering our names. Thanks for keeping our airline flying high and our spirits even higher. 

Thanks for being both the hardest worker and the life of the party. And thanks for turning a company into a family. 

We will be forever in your debt, and we will aspire to keep your spirit alive.

With Love & Gratitude, 

The Employees & Retirees of Southwest Airlines

As the month of January unfolded, and in preparation for this new year of leading the Board of Stewards leadership model, Mike says that he became more and more attuned to this balance between joy and servant leadership. “As we worshipped in DiscipleChurch on January 20, we lifted up the opening words of Psalm 100,” he writes. “The Revised Standard Version of the Bible says, ‘Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!’. . . and another translation, The Message, has this attention-grabbing opening: ‘On your feet now — applaud God! Bring a gift of laughter, sing yourselves into his presence.’”

“It’s true, isn’t it,” Mike asks our Stewards, “that some of the best ways for us to serve, worship and applaud God begin with joy and laughter!” He relates that he drew even further inspiration for this theme from the mid-January rebroadcast of a PBS interview with Coretta Scott King in which she said about her famous husband, “Martin had a great sense of humor. I wish that others could have seen it. He was often playful, like a child.

He loved people and his humor always reflected that. It was what attracted me to him.” Mike adds that during that same week, a friend sent an email with this quote from Dr. King: “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace — a soul generated by love.”

“Life is too short, too hard, too serious not to be humorous about it.”

Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines

“My hope and desire for the Board of Stewards in 2019 is for us to be people of balance,” he writes, “who have hearts full of grace, who have souls generated by love, who laugh easily and listen closely to one another, and who sing songs of service with an undeniable joy! Expressing his deep intention and goal for the BOS quarterly gatherings to be more like festivals than meetings: “full of playful engagement with others, active community building, taking our mission seriously — but not taking ourselves too seriously,” Mike says that in both large group gatherings and elective Servant Leadership Teams, he hopes that this group of servant leaders will always keep these words from one of our Affirmations of Faith top-of-mind: “We are called to be the church: to celebrate God’s presence, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.”

Mike then closes this inspiring BOS meditation with one of his favorite quotes from Rabbi Harold Kushner:

“The happiest people I know are people who don’t even think about being happy. They just think about being good neighbors and good people [good servant leaders]. And then happiness sort of sneaks in the back window while they are busy doing good.”


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