I had been a professor at Darden for 23 years, when the President appointed me Dean. A colleague and one of the most insouciant wits of the faculty, Les Grayson, asked me “What does it feel like to be a big cheese now?” I don’t remember my exact reply, since I was only a few days into my appointment and everything seemed like a blur. I’m sure he meant his question as a compliment of sorts. But its irony has returned to me again and again since my appointment 22 months ago.

You see, there is very little about being Dean of Darden that the phrase, “big cheese,” adequately captures. The phrase makes me think of a generalissimo, a Mafia boss, or Donald Trump. In contrast, Darden is essentially a volunteer organization. All of the key constituencies of the school participate by choice. Faculty, students, senior staff, corporate partners, alumni leaders, and Trustees have alternatives for their time and attention; they can go elsewhere if sufficiently motivated. Our peer schools woo some of them constantly. I spend the bulk of my time building commitment toward our vision, forming teams, organizing, getting people to work together, motivating, communicating, and so on. It is not all sweetness and light: I have to deal with crises, unsavory behavior, and stupidity. Perhaps my job is more like a prime minister than generalissimo: one has to build a coalition and help it rise to a higher level.

I became Dean shortly before the class of 2007 enrolled at Darden. ‘07 will hold a special place in my heart since we grew together: you as MBAs and I as a new Dean. Therefore, I would like to leave with you my most important lesson of our time together: Leading is more about serving and less about commanding. The notion of servant leadership is not new and carries for some people overtones from several religious and secular traditions. But the lesson is applicable to virtually every career path you might choose and can forestall a good deal of pain and error. It raises at least three considerations that are particularly relevant as you head out from Darden:

**What are you serving? This asks you to define your deep intentions. And it should ask you to reflect on the “filters” to your thinking. All of these are captured in Jim Clawson’s “VABEs” (values, assumptions, beliefs, and experiences). Many people simply take these as given or imposed. But over a century of research in the social sciences suggests the Very Big Idea that you can choose—you have more choice over your pursuits in life that you may think. For instance, many MBAs simply assume that business is about making money. But a big theme at Darden is that business is much more. It is about inventing new products and services, delighting customers, recruiting and motivating employees, operating efficiently, growing an enterprise, and so on—if you do all that, money happens. As a finance professor I taught and still believe that creating economic value is vitally important—but accomplishing that is the consequence of other important things.

**Whom are you serving? This asks you to think about your range of service. It is not sufficient, as a leader, to be focused strictly on one’s boss and direct subordinates. Leaders work with their eyes wide open; they consider the welfare of the entire enterprise (not just their own “silo”); and the range of constituencies.

**How are you serving? This asks you to think about the definition of “service.” The word implies an attitude of humility as a leader. But a mistake is to assume that service equates to passivity and submission. The great servant leaders I have known are quite tough-minded. Their clarity about the “what” and “whom” of service makes them candid in giving feedback, prompt to reply to threats to the enterprise, and emphatic about what matters. They are not wusses. They will warn and let go underperforming employees. They will show abusive customers the door. They will go to court to defend the enterprise. But all of these actions are motivated by a spirit of service to values and people rather than of ego or command-and-control.

In you professional life, I wish you great service, both received and given. May you work for great servant leaders; and may you become one.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 05/18/2007 11:21:55 PM