Servant Leadership Before It Was A Buzzword


Yoda I was.

It was July at the county fair in the early 80s, and I was about 11. The thick, rubber Yoda mask and long woven robe were almost unbearable in the mid-summer heat, but I had a job to do. Who better than the omniscient Yoda to attract fairgoers to the American Cancer Society booth to learn about breast cancer screenings and early detection? There, the ACS volunteers, and my dad, would be waiting.

Dad joined the American Cancer Society in 1969 as a program director in the Cincinnati, Ohio unit.  He met my mom, a nurse with the Cleveland ACS unit, and less than a year later they were married. After stints in Wisconsin and Missouri, Dad came to Nebraska to lead ACS in 1975, and at 32 was the youngest state Executive Vice President in the history of the Society. While in Nebraska, he brought Daffodil Days, the ACS Cattle Baron’s Ball (now the Cattlemen’s Ball of Nebraska) and Relay for Life, to the state. In 1995, Dad was hired as the CEO of the ACS Ohio Division, and retired on December 31, 2009 – at the helm of two states for almost 35 years and the longest serving CEO in ACS history.

The funny thing is, you won’t find my dad’s name on the Cancer Survivor’s Park plaque in Omaha or anywhere on the Hope Lodges in Ohio. If you Google his name, there is scant evidence that he even exists. That’s because my dad was a servant first.

Leadership to Dad wasn’t about power or recognition, and it wasn’t about money – unless he was raising it for cancer research or patient services.  He was passionate about alleviating cancer patients’ suffering and finding a cure. He was also brilliant at bringing people together to achieve a common goal, and at developing the people on his staff to achieve each one’s individual potential – even if it meant that some moved on to higher positions somewhere else.

Dad practiced servant leadership decades before it was a buzzword. Whether he was handing out “Kiss Me, I Don’t Smoke” buttons at a local elementary school, visiting the district office in Ord, or supporting his volunteers during Lincoln’s first Relay for Life as luminaries flew about them during a tornado warning, most of the people whose lives Dad has impacted probably will never know his name.  And that is the way he wants it.

This year, we Nebraskans have some important choices to make about the type of leaders we elect to represent us – the strong leaders we want to serve us, both in the state and the nation. As a past Commissioner on the now extinct Nebraska Women’s Commission, I had the opportunity to visit almost every public official’s office in the Nebraska State Capitol.  Sometimes by just looking at the walls, I could tell if the person was a servant leader. The offices that were lined with framed photographs, newspaper articles, and awards – honoring that individual – always gave me pause because I knew who he or she believed was number one.  I do remember one office, however, that had only two items gracing the desk: a family picture and a framed print of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

As the elections are over, I for one will continue to be looking for servant leaders with the qualities I have grown to know and love throughout my life. I will be voting for the candidates whose highest priority is to serve, to share power, and put the needs of Nebraskans first.

A few months ago, my dad and mom walked in to Stauffer’s Café here in Lincoln, and a woman sitting in a booth said to my dad, “Excuse me, are you Don McClure?” She then told him she had been an ACS volunteer in Rock County when Dad was serving in Nebraska. Then they chatted a bit about other past volunteers.  Dad enjoyed talking with her, not because she recognized him, but because for him it has always been about helping people – just like it was on that hot summer day years ago.  The day that a young Yoda learned what it meant to be a true force for good.

Jennifer Gutierrez

Jennifer Gutierrez  has spent the last 20 years doing good thinking. A strategist, communications, diversity and Board training expert, Jennifer. writes about leadership and why strategy is the hidden treasure trove for organizations. Connect with Jennifer at

Article reposted with author’s permission; Image source:

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