So you say you're a servant leader? Yeah... So did I. Once.

Updated: Oct 12

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” - Winston Churchill

I didn't know what servant leadership was or looked like until a little over a week ago when I read the that my high school history teacher had passed away at his home on Alligator Lake in our sleepy, little hometown of Lake City, Florida. James Horace Montgomery, aka "Mr. Mont," was a, if not the, pillar of our community. A wonderful, little, yet energetic, man who spent a literal lifetime serving others as an educator, coach, mentor, and public servant, Mr. Mont had an encyclopedic knowledge that was surpassed only by the size of his heart. I thought I knew the man, but, really, I only knew of him.

As a high school'er, I was a brilliant student who barely graduated with a 2.7 (I'm being generous to myself), possessed delusions of grandeur of becoming a Rock Star (it was the early 90's when electric guitar reigned supreme), and completed one legitimate class my senior year (Senior English, it was a graduation requirement). Yet while the structure, social politics, and bureaucracy spurred my disinterest in learning, it was James Montgomery who reeled me back in, demanding and challenging me to be my best self. Or at least that's how I remember it and I'm certain others would attest as much. He was a true leader and an even truer friend, to everyone. James Montgomery practiced diversity and inclusion before it was a corporate catchphrase.

I learned of Mr. Mont's passing through a social media blitz of commemoration from Columbia High graduates spanning decades of graduating classes. Post after post, hundreds of reflections, praised the personal impact he had on each of them and shared stories specific to their betterment. His leadership acclaimed. His legacy extolled. His service revered. Literally. Hundreds.

I lost touch with Mr. Mont after high school when I joined the military, the easiest escape out of town. I wish I hadn't. Maybe had I stayed in touch, visited with him when home, I'd be a better person today. Maybe had I stayed in touch, listened to his wisdom, I'd be a better leader today. Maybe had I stayed in touch, it would not have taken a graduate course to learn about this stuff. Maybe had I stayed in touch...

Today, a quick search of "servant leader" on LinkedIn results in 113,000 people that use the title in their profiles. A few months ago, that number would have been 113,001. I even attempted to qualify mine by leading with "aspiring." It wasn't intended to be false or deceitful. I do aspire to be a servant leader. But then it just felt... well, contrived. Now, it absolutely feels false, somewhat deceitful.

Thus, the question begs, "Can there really be that many servant leaders out there?" I hope this to be the case. I hope there's many, many more. Millions and then some, all looking to be better leaders. To serve their communities. To positively impact a million more.

I write this not to denigrate those who choose to claim the title of servant leader, but a self-check is sometimes necessary. Instead I offer this. A metric from which to gauge success, a "What would James Montgomery do," if you will. Most of us, if any, will never reach the level of servantship embodied by Mr. Mont, but it doesn't mean we stop trying. It also doesn't mean we strip titles from LinkedIn profiles or require qualifiers. It simply means, let's be better. Let's all aspire to be servant leaders, but to a higher standard. A standard not defined by consultancy, public service, or organizational position, but one of true servantship.

It simply means asking, well... "What would James Montgomery do?"

(Image: James Montgomery (2nd from left) participating in the ground-breaking of a new TG&Y Variety Store in Lake City, Florida circa July 1975. Mr. Mont served as a Commissioner for Columbia County for 28 years.)

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