Honestly, I had no clue what servant leadership was until just a few years ago when a well-known leader was on stage at one of our corporate events and used the term. He was talking about the moment he realized serving others would increase his check. I gawked the first time I heard it because I didn’t know what it meant. It made me uncomfortable.

I wasn’t raised in the Church where that term was used. I wasn’t raised with personal development. I was raised by a single mother who worked as many hours as possible at whatever jobs she could find because times were hard and tough. In my neighborhood, you would dream about having servants, rather than wanting to be a servant. “Servant” was a negative description of someone who bowed down to someone else. I didn’t want to be a servant.

Leadership was what only the selected few knew about, like a secret handshake of the rich and famous. People followed leaders. People didn’t follow the poor or those from tough neighborhoods. We were society’s welfare moochers. Leaders had the fame, glory, and status. Heroes had leadership. Presidents and prime ministers had leadership. Military officers had leadership. CEOs of Fortune 500 companies had leadership. Not me. Leadership was a privilege that college-bound kids learned about and obtained.

Obviously the two words coming together left me a bit confused. How was someone supposed to lead someone else by bowing down to them? I was naïve, ignorant, and completely off-base. Truthfully, it took me some time to realize this. It wasn’t until I was exposed to the power of personal development that I was ready to learn the true meaning of servant leadership.

First, I had to acknowledge I didn’t know anything about servant leadership and to forget everything I thought it was. The next step was to go learn what it was from people I respected like Jim Rohn.

“Whoever renders service to many puts himself in line for greatness—great wealth, great return, great satisfaction, great reputation, and great joy,” said Mr. Rohn. That quote hit me right between the eyes. Servant leadership isn’t about bowing down to others, it’s about raising others up through service. I learned I can lead others by sharing my story, my hope, and my strength. When I lead and help people, then I have practiced servant leadership. I learned what it was, but didn’t know how to do it.

One weekend, a few girlfriends and I decided to put on a women’s leadership event in Orlando. It was our first event and I was nervous. We invested in the event, paid the hotel for the meeting space, and even asked our speakers to fly in at their own expense to teach our audience. We worked extremely hard to do everything we could to make this event a success. When we opened the registration table we sold only 200 tickets. I remember we barely covered our expenses. All these amazing speakers flew in on their own dime and we didn’t even have enough funds to take them out to dinner.

I remember thinking I had failed because we didn’t profit from the event. We didn’t have all the flashy lights and decorations on a stage as other events had. We even borrowed the fake plants from the hallways to put on the stage to make it look a little better. I felt so defeated after putting in so much effort and work. After the last speaker was finished, my girlfriends and I walked on our tiny stage one last time and thanked everyone for coming to our first event. I was almost apologetic, wishing the experience was better for them.

As I was packing up, a woman walked up and asked if she could hug me. I was caught off guard. Tearing up, she said, “You have no idea what this weekend did for me. I have struggled for so long trying to get my business going. I figured no one wanted to do business with someone like me. I was about to quit on network marketing—and on my dreams. This event showed me it was worth the extra effort. I am worthy and I thank you. I never felt good enough before until today.”

Tears started flowing down her face. Then she hugged me. I stood there speechless, stunned as my heart swelled with joy. That was the biggest reward I have ever received. I realized the weekend wasn’t about me at all or how I felt. It was all about those who were sitting in the audience. I realized what servant leadership was right then and there. There was nothing negative or exclusive about it. I did it, experienced it, lived it, and felt it. I paid me in more ways than I expected. I don’t know if that woman who hugged me knew what she did for me that day. She showed me how to experience servant leadership and she changed my life. Thank you, you know who you are.

Mr. Rohn was correct, I have received more joy, great satisfaction, more money, and a great reputation from practicing servant leadership, and I plan to do so as long as I am able.

DONNA VALDES, best known for her down-to-earth leadership style and transparency, is a sought-after speaker, consultant, and coach for network marketing professionals. She is the cofounder of Women of Network Marketing, a platform for mentoring and empowering direct selling women around the globe. After building several successful multimillion-dollar businesses, she resides on the beaches of Tampa Bay with her husband of 15 years and her three children. Sign up for her free newsletter at DonnaValdes.com or subscribe to her informative podcast on iTunes.

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