“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”
Max DePree, the long-time CEO of the furniture and design pacesetter Herman Miller, wrote those words in his small but influential book Leadership is an Art, and they’ve stuck with me through the years.
In the early 1980s, as I was preparing to take my first leadership post as the executive director of a nonprofit organization, I read Robert K. Greenleaf’s 1977 book Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. A humanities major without any background in management or business, I was looking for guidance on how to lead, motivate, and manage people.
Greenleaf’s words resonated with me, even if I didn’t come close to fully understanding their implications. “The servant-leader is servant first,” he wrote. “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”
I went on to study other management and leadership theories, attended a Harvard Business School executive leadership institute, and adapted what seemed to work best from each one for my particular situation. But it wasn’t until I joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1996 and saw true servant leadership in action that I understood the philosophy and set of practices behind the concept “that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.”
This week, the National Trust is celebrating the career of John Hildreth, a true servant leader.
John began his career as the Director of the Preservation Resource Center at the Preservation Society of Charleston in 1981. In his 34 years at the National Trust he rose through the ranks from Field Representative to serve as the Director of the Southern Regional Office, Vice President for Eastern Regional Field Services, and Vice President for Preservation Partnerships. Yet it is not in the titles, but through the scope and depth of his work, where the true nature of his servant leadership comes through.
When the Trust began talks a few years ago with the Lilly Endowment about what would become the $20 million National Fund for Sacred Places, I told our CEO that John was the right person to help conceptualize and lead this work. John is a man of faith who believes deeply in the importance of places of worship as community landmarks in all the meanings of that word. I knew well his empathy and concern for others, having watched it first hand through his work on providing housing and restoring communities in New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I saw it first hand in Charleston with his work to help the parishioners of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church retain and preserve the physical manifestations of the outpouring of love and support received from around the world following the horrific shooting there in 2015. As the VP who built the National Fund, John has worked in a servant leadership arrangement alongside Partners for Sacred Places, congregations around the country, and his National Trust colleagues, helping preserve historic houses of worship and keeping them in active use.
John also exhibits the characteristics of servant leadership through his eagerness to hold up and celebrate forgotten stories of sometimes marginalized communities. It was with John’s support that one of his staff members brought the Pauli Murray House project to our attention a few years ago. This National Treasure, which now houses the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, is very relevant; not just as a historic site where a major figure of the civil rights struggles spent her formative years, but because of the work that is accomplished there today. John led the Trust efforts in the work to identify, save, restore, and reuse segregation-era Rosenwald Schools throughout the South. His desire to serve brought him in touch with thousands of alumni, the descendants of Julius Rosenwald, and local groups throughout the country. He will retire knowing that the creation of an endowment at the National Trust will support the preservation of these simple, yet iconic treasures.
The best test of servant leadership is this: do those served grow as persons? The Greenleaf Center notes that, “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.” There is, simply, not a better description of John’s career. “While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power…the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
John is closing out a consequential professional career that has made a difference in communities and in the lives of people living in those cities and towns. I’ve been honored to serve with him for parts of that journey. While he often reported to me, in truth, I was the one who was learning from him about true leadership and what really matters. It has been a privilege to count him as a colleague and a friend.
So in the best tradition of Max DePree, I want to say thank you, John Hildreth, for the example of servant leadership you’ve given to so many of us during the past four decades.
With best wishes for what comes next to you and Barb.
Have a great week.
More to come…
Installment #24 of The Gap Year Chronicles
Image: John Hildreth speaking at the Cincinnati Icons National Treasures event