The Secret Garden | Frances Hodgson Burnett

Summary of: The Secret Garden
By: Frances Hodgson Burnett


Get ready to discover the essence of great leadership through the heartwarming journey of Debbie Brewster, a struggling corporate director, in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Witness how Debbie transforms her business unit from the worst to one of the best in her company, all with the help of a newfound mentor and a powerful leadership model called ‘SERVE’. The book delves into the five essential ways that great leaders serve their organizations and their people, encapsulating a deeper understanding of core leadership values. Explore how Debbie learns to create a compelling vision, engage with her team, reinvent systems, value relationships, and embody trust to become the great leader she has always aspired to be.

Debbie Brewster’s Leadership Dilemma

Debbie Brewster, the director of corporate client services, was experiencing a steep decline in her business unit’s performance. She took some time off to find a solution and headed to a library. There, she confided in a librarian about her “opportunities” and was offered the library’s information resources. The librarian’s suggestion to find a mentor through the company’s new mentoring program eased her concerns. This incident reminds us that great leaders don’t become great overnight and that the success of a leader ultimately depends on the people around them.

The Power of Serving Leadership

Debbie’s experience with Jeff Brown, the company’s president, as her mentor, teaches her the importance of serving leadership.

Debbie was astonished to find out that she was chosen to participate in the company’s mentoring program, and even more astounded to learn that the company’s new president, Jeff Brown, would be her mentor. She wondered if there had been a mistake and contacted Jeff’s assistant to confirm. To her surprise, the assistant assured Debbie that Jeff was looking forward to meeting with her and even offered her a choice of meeting times.

During their first session, Jeff introduced himself and asked Debbie to share her story. He also asked her how he could most effectively serve her as a mentor. Amazed by Jeff’s willingness to serve her, Debbie asked him the question that had been on her mind – “What is the secret of great leaders?” – which led to a discussion on the importance of serving leadership.

Debbie learned that great leaders are those who place serving their employees and customers above serving themselves. Jeff emphasized the power of asking oneself whether they are a self-serving or serving leader, and how continuously asking this question helps to cultivate a serving leadership mindset.

Debbie’s mentoring experience with Jeff taught her that serving leadership is not only beneficial for employees and customers, but also for the success and growth of the company.

The “Serve” Model of Leadership

After being impressed by Jeff’s listening skills, Debbie wanted to learn from him how to become a better leader. Jeff compared leadership to an iceberg, with skills or the “doing” part of leadership as the visible peak and character, the “being” facet of leadership, as the bulk under the waterline. He believed that great leaders serve and have a “servant heart”. They serve their firms and people in five ways, which he called the “Serve” model of leadership. Debbie started incorporating Jeff’s advice by listening to her employees and trying to understand their difficulties. When she met Jeff again, he complimented her efforts and encouraged her to discover more strategic ways to serve. The model emphasizes the leader’s responsibility to make time today to ensure tomorrow’s success.

Leading with Vision

In “Great Leaders Ask Questions,” Debbie learns the importance of being a visionary leader through her mentor Jeff. Jeff explains that great leaders use the S in SERVE to see ahead, motivating their followers with purpose and solid values. Leaders must meet the “Heads Up” versus “Heads Down” challenge, focusing on planning for the future while delegating daily tasks. Debbie realizes the necessity of team collaboration and reinstates team meetings. She delegates more tasks, allowing her to focus on mapping out goals and crafting a vision for her unit. Jeff emphasizes the importance of putting customers first, serving others, practicing stewardship, and cultivating creativity. A true leader serves their followers and cannot lead well without serving.

The Power of Leadership Engagement

Debbie’s decision to incorporate Jeff’s teachings on leadership marked a turning point in her business unit. Adopting Jeff’s approach that the first E in SERVE stands for “engagement,” Debbie focused on hiring the best people and getting involved with her staff. This resulted in a shift towards a more engaged and motivated team, leading to increased productivity. Jeff emphasized that engagement involves not only hiring but also developing and mentoring existing employees. Through this approach, Debbie identified a potential candidate in Jill, a friendly librarian who had guided her towards personal development. Debbie discussed a personal development plan with Jill and offered her a position in her company. Within three weeks of joining, Jill made a significant contribution to the team, signaling the power of engagement in leadership. Jeff’s approach exemplifies that a leader’s objective is to leverage the strengths of people and make their weaknesses irrelevant. The result is a highly motivated, productive, and happy team. As Jeff aptly put it, “profits and financial strength are the applause we get for a job well done.”

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