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The Single Characteristic Every Small Business Leader Needs to be Successful


Many people have a dream. Many have ideas. Many talk about what their life would look like when they make it, but don’t know where to begin. Starting a small business is akin to jumping into a rabbit hole. It is full of complexities and unknowns. As a small business leader, beyond having a great idea, an entrepreneurial mindset, a strategic development plan, financial backing, and the ability to “figure things out,” one must possess this one characteristic in order to succeed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey and Mark Zuckerberg all have it – the spirit of Servant Leadership. The term “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in the essay, “The Servant as Leader, which was published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… Here are qualities of a servant leader:

1. Puts Others First. A servant leader puts others before self, and wants to ensure that their needs and goals are met. A servant leader always seeks to elevate other individuals and society. This means that your job as a leader is to focus on meeting the needs of the individuals on your team; and by extension, the larger community. You must have a heart that desires to make others better. You must inspire them to lead, and give them the power and autonomy to do so. As a leader, always keep asking, “how can I help my team become better?” In thinking this way, your employees take on the same mindset, and your mission is more likely to keep meeting the needs for which it was created. While putting others first as a leader might seem like an oxymoron, when you do so, something magical happens. You will find that others become
more committed to supporting your mission, as people love those that cheerlead and uplift them.

2. Lets others win. A good idea is only as good as two things: 1) others’ belief in that idea; and 2) their drive to see that idea come to life and succeed. Whereby a traditional leader might rely on worker bees for the ideas and take the credit; a servant leader is willing to allow others to win. A good example is General Electric (GE), a company that was responsible for creating hundreds of products. These products were generated by the ideas of smart people. Particularly, under the leadership of Jack Welch, GE increased market value from $12 billion in
1981 to $280 billion. This meant that under Welch’s leadership, he recruited great people into his organization, gave them the opportunity to birth and launch their ideas, and recognized them for their wins. When your team wins, your mission and those your organization was
created to serve win too.

3. Believes in Purpose Before Profit. The traditional idea of leadership focused on the accumulation of money and influence. It focused on a “dog eat dog” mentality and doing any and everything to get to the top and stay there, in an effort to maintain riches and power. The
servant leader; however, focuses on something much deeper. The servant-leader desires to know what stimulates people at their core. The words, “passion”, “purpose”, “soul” are more prevalent in this leadership paradigm. This type of leader believes in inspiring their people to fulfill their purpose and pursue their passion, using their natural gifts and talents. This type of leader also invests in their people in order to make this possible. When you do this, a natural by-product of a happy employee is that they will be more invested, work harder and be more
loyal, which can easily translate into profits. Oprah Winfrey has built an empire based on servant-leadership. By putting purpose before profit, loyal, impassioned and dedicated employees…and consumers have helped her build a billion dollar empire.

4. Leads with Love. At the core of servant leaders, they are driven by a Universal force that connects all of us – love. Servant leaders are driven by a deep caring for others and their well-being in every way. While some might wonder about whether love has a place in an
organization, I proffer that it does, because at the heart of every human is the need for love. When you lead from this perspective, you have a deeper appreciation for your team, because you view them as people with feelings, not just employees. Leading with love enables you to be
more appreciative of differences and have less conflict. It enables you to be more patient and encourage better team building. Leading with love enables you to have a deeper relationship with your employees, a deeper belief in your mission, and cultivates a team of passionate,
fearless, empowered people, who are committed to making the world a better place.

The DC SBDC Network is a part of the Small Business Development Center national network, the federal government’s largest small business management and technical assistance program. The national SBDC network has over 900 service centers located in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa. The DC SBDC Lead Center, which oversees the day-to-
day operations of the DC SBDC Network, is located at the Howard University School of Business. Mr. Carl Brown is the State/Executive Director of the DC SBDC, based on the campus of Howard University. Mr. Brown has more than 25 years of experience in small business development.

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