Leadership Through Service

by Tom Terwilliger on May 01, 2007

By serving others, we can create a meaningful path to success.

Systems and People

As club owners, managers and directors, we understand that part of being a leader is knowing the system, following and enforcing the rules, and providing support and guidance for those we manage or supervise. If we’re good managers, we think incrementally; recognize that a faltering “cog in the wheel” will affect the system as a whole; and know how important it is to “fix” that one bit to keep the whole system running smoothly. In his wildly popular book, The E Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber refers to this systematizing as “the turnkey revolution or business development process.”

Although systematizing is an important part of running a business, there is an inherent risk associated with any “semiautomated system” that deals with and depends on human interaction (a main aspect of any fitness facility). The risk is the potential loss of the human touch and spirit. If we lose sight of, or fail to recognize, what our primary role as fitness industry leaders should be in a people-oriented business, it may be the very systems we rely on that ultimately limit our success.

We know as business owners and managers that we must always keep one eye on the bottom line or we may not be here tomorrow. But a true visionary uses two eyes for full vision, and our desire and ability to serve others should be the focus of the other eye at all times. Serving others should and must be our primary role. Albert Schweitzer wrote, “One thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

Learning to Lead by Example

Several years ago, when I was a young personal trainer just entering the Denver market, I had an opportunity to work under the supervision of a gentleman named Kevin Hood. Kevin was the personal training director of the club I was employed by at that time, and his style of managing his trainers was different from anything I had previously experienced.

As a former club owner and somewhat cocky New York trainer, I wasn’t really very open to being managed at all, even by someone as experienced as Kevin. I saw management as being about motivating, and at times even forcing, people to follow you. For Kevin it wasn’t about either; it was about setting an example of leadership and inspiring a desire to serve our clients and the organization.

I remember Oprah Winfrey saying that leadership is about empathy—about having the ability to relate and to connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives. I happen to agree with this sentiment, and evidently so did Kevin.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Kevin served me by helping me become a better personal trainer. He did so through his mentoring style of leadership. By having integrity, being available, being an understanding manager, recognizing and rewarding ability, and providing service even to the lowest-level employee, he was a leader in all ways. One little example: when Kevin was eventually promoted to general manager of the facility, he had the chance to move his office downstairs among the quiet rooms of the sales staff. He chose instead to plant his desk smackdab in the middle of the chaos (otherwise known as the gym floor), where he could see and be seen—in other words, where he could better serve his members.

Service = Leadership = Success

For many of us, it may seem counterintuitive to think that we can lead better by serving those we lead. But let’s take a look at the true essence of many traditional leadership roles as examples of that truth. In any war, there are generals and there are soldiers. The generals lead the soldiers, but they serve the people they wish to liberate or save. A great surgeon can certainly be a leader in the medical community by using his skills to serve the needs of his patients. If and when he puts his own needs ahead of those of his patients, he no longer leads. The president of the United States is a perfect example of someone at the highest level of leadership who is also in a constant state of service to the very people he leads. He leads by serving. The truly great Level 5 chief executive officers (CEOs) in history have had a sense of humility and a true desire to serve their stockholders and the companies they were charged with leading. A great personal trainer must be perceived as a leader by his or her clients, but the clients must also know that it is their needs the trainer serves. You can only be a leader if there are people willing to follow you. Your clients will loyally follow and stick with you once they trust that you are leading them to a place they want to be.

We should be asking ourselves, “Can I be a truly great community, team or business leader if I leave out the service component and lead with only my own needs or interests in mind?” Or conversely, “Can I ever be fully successful if I do not take a leadership role, and act only as a servant?” It has been my experience that when you can meld leadership and service into a single, cohesive sense of purpose, you are on your way to running a successful career or business.

As Joseph Jaworski, author of Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership, says, “Today’s effective leader has an attitude of servitude.” The leader who has the wisdom to ask, “How can I serve you?” has an understanding of how we are all connected. Few of us can claim such mastery. What we must have is the desire and ability to model those who do. By emulating those individuals who have the attributes of leadership through service, I have created a successful career. More important, I have had the honor of mentoring numerous young fitness professionals who continue to bring value to the fitness community today.

In his book Good to Great, author Jim Collins writes that the best Level 5 leaders always set up or cultivate their successors for success. Isn’t it also our responsibility to the fitness industry to cultivate our successors? Collins quotes one CEO who stated, “I want to look out from my porch someday at one of the truly great companies and be proud to say, ‘I was a part of that.’”

In essence, we serve not only our members, employees, company and industry but also the future generations of fitness professionals. By mentoring those we employ and work with and serving their needs for growth and development, we are laying the groundwork for even greater success in the future. Would you be comfortable with no one ever knowing that the roots of that success traced back to you? Let’s be honest—most of us want our fair share of recognition. Like proud parents, we see our protégés as our creations. When they succeed, we take pride in it and want everyone to know we helped them get where they are today. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, as long as our motivation for helping them in the first place is sound. Remember the surgeon: “If and when he puts his own needs ahead of those of his patients, he no longer leads.”

That is not to say we should never consider our own needs; they are, after all, “needs” as opposed to “wants.” We can, however, serve our own needs by serving the needs of others. In fact, some of our most compelling emotional needs—like significance, contribution, growth and even love—are met by serving others. For example, how do you think my former manager, Kevin Hood, is going to feel when he reads this article? He probably never had a clue about his meaningful impact on my career.

As a coach, I work with many top executives who, on the surface, seem to have it all, yet lack direction outside their careers. Many struggle with the challenge of not knowing their purpose. For years they have been serving their own needs, wants and desires, and now they find themselves feeling empty or unfulfilled. The first thing I encourage them to do is start contributing, giving back and serving their community. If early on they had framed what they had been doing for the past 10, 20 or 30 years in the context of serving others, that void would not exist. I believe the greatest thing we can do for our community, business and ourselves is serve others in every way possible.

How are you going to feel when you can look out from your porch at one of the greatest industries in the world and observe how it is helping change and save the lives of millions of people? Will you be able to say with pride, “I was a leader in that industry”?


Collins, J. 2001. From Good to Great. New York: HarperCollins.

Gerber, M. 1995. The E Myth Revisited. New York: HarperCollins.

Jaworski, J. 1998. Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Schweitzer A. 1998. Out of My Life and Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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About the Author

Tom Terwilliger

Tom Terwilliger IDEA Author/Presenter

Tom Terwilliger is the founder and CEO of Coaching Leadership Excellence in Denver, Colorado. He is a certified NLP master practitioner, life coach and speaker for Peak Potentials, one of the largest personal growth and development organizations in the world. In addition, Tom is a former personal trainer and winner of a national bodybuilding championship. Currently he is host and co-producer of FOX Sports Net Muscle Sport USA TV show.