Motivational banners hang from the walls of the 2021 Servant Leaders Conference for Mid-Level Executives like laminated tapestries. Enthusiasm wraps us in an embrace as taut as a trampoline. We well-dressed attendees could bounce off of its surface to ascend through the ceiling into the wisdom of the skies above. Teamwork makes the Dreamwork, one of the posters says, but what if the dream is already here? What if this is it?
My neighbor, a blonde with the constitution of a dandelion, giggles from excitement. “If only this took place on the weekend!” he says. His hair’s tendrils float about despite the lack of breeze. I scoot away, lest one of them stroke the side of my neck.
“Yes,” I agree and stare into his eyes: deep pools of eagerness. “If only we had a week of work to look forward to after this.”
The speaker steps onto the stage and the audience erupts in applause. His matching pin-stripe suit vibrates with the noise. His grin, never twitching, illuminates his golden hair and golden disposition. I stand up to give him a proper ovation.
“Welcome,” he starts, “to the 2021 Servant Leaders Conference for Mid-Level Executives, where we grow our lion’s mane.” The room boils over in applause before he continues. “I am Benjamin German Koleman from The Man Group, where I create incentives to mobilize workflows directly to clients in our agile market. Even when I was fresh out of my undergrad degree, I knew my insights were simultaneously too global and unique to be exhausted in the fields of on-the-ground jobs. I joined what was once my father’s company to transform strategy into implementation, where I advise companies cross-industrially. Though the knowledge streams can be overwhelming at times, I thank my degree in business for giving me the confidence to bounce from firm to firm and pigeonhole them into the same funnels: inputs and outputs.”
“A modern Theseus!” someone exclaims from the crowd.
Phrases descend upon us like the petals of a cherry blossom drifting down the river. “This an intensive executive training program which combines proven-in-action techniques with peer interaction and insights from the labor research to help attendees to master the competencies of effective leadership—”
“You know I emptied my savings to pay for this?” my neighbor says over the applause. His spark of dedication dulls mine in contrast—am I so undevoted to my work so as to stick my company with the $2000 bill? I glance to my right to see a blonde woman taking notes. She sticks a pink tongue past her pink lips as she scribbles intensely. Inputs and outputs, she writes. Maybe I should pull out a notebook, too?
“There is always a need for leaders,” The host continues. My eyes fog up: condensate, don’t condescend I remind myself. “Push yourself past what you thought was possible… a living lab…communication matters more than competency, and through good communication, you can lubricate the functioning of any organization using just your mouth.”
“And fingers!” someone calls out, imitating typing a keyboard with his hands.
“And fingers,” Benjamin agrees. “Let’s start with our first exercise: greetings. What is a greeting? How we say hello. Write that down!” He pauses long enough for us to pull out our notebooks. “Now erase it! Wisdom dictates that a greeting is more than just saying hello; it is underlining who is the authority figure and who is not. Servant leadership doesn’t require quantitative responsibilities such as developing a product or conducting market research. That is the easy part! For those, you only need to go to four years of undergrad and specialize and then study however many years of grad school you need. You further specialize, potentially write a thesis, then gain years of experience on the ground to refine what you have learned—BAH.” The crowd laughs. “What I will teach you will take a few minutes—or a lifetime. We will be learning the difficult intangibles such as smiling to your clients and asking your coworkers how their day is going. You—come on stage.” The man points to my neighbor.
“Me?” He asks the leader, pointing to himself. The entire crowd breaks into applause, including me. “Go! Go!” I urge him up and down the aisle.
The host beams. “What’s your name, sir?” the host asks and points his mic at him. My neighbor mumbles and blushes furiously. “Into the mic please,” our hosts says before my neighbor squeaks out, “Jeremy.”
“Jeremy, I would like for you to greet the audience!” Our host commands and Jeremy ekes out a hello, straining like a bottle giving up its last drops of ketchup. The woman next to me writes Man collapses in fear.
Jeremy turns and gives a fragile little wave.
“Jeremy, what are the characteristics of a good greeting?”
“A good greeting,” he says, “is welcoming, warm…” The crowd cheers at Jeremy.
“NO, NO, NO,” the host says. The crowd boos at Jeremy.
“This is from the brochure!” Jeremy says.
“Yes, but appreciate the difference between knowing and understanding,” The host says. The ground shakes with this revelation. “You need context—comparison! Allow me to demonstrate. May I borrow your phone?”
Jeremy hands it over with an “of course!”
“Greet me, Jeremy,” he says. Jeremy reaches his hand out, and the host slams the phone screen down on the stage, shattering its screen.
The whole room falls silent. Jeremy’s face whitens.
“Why did you… how could you…”
“Jeremy, I need you to focus!” the host snaps. “Did I make your life better?”
“Did I communicate my authority to you in a servant manner?”
“Not at all.”
“Was this a good greeting?”
“Do you understand now what a bad greeting is?”
Jeremy smiles with the revelation. A single tear rolls down his face. “I… do. I do!”
“Then you know now what it means to be a servant leader. You may return to your seat…to lead. But first, sweep up this glass.” An assistant runs up with a broom.
I clap with abandon as my neighbor returns to his seat, cradling his broken phone to his breast, feeling the beating heart of its memory vibrate into his.
“How was it?” I ask him when he sits down, a star.
“Amazing,” he says. “Absolutely unbelievable. I can’t believe I am so privileged to spend my own money to attend this groundbreaking event!”
“You are so lucky,” the woman next to him says. He blushes and transforms from white to pink.My thoughts turn to Melanie and Allison. How I look forward to seeing them next and sharing what I have learned!