Note: This post was originally published on February 22, 2012.

I wonder if Richard James immediately knew the magnitude of his invention when he accidentally discovered the Slinky nearly 70 years ago. While trying to invent a spring for the Navy, he invented a toy that every American kid has played with, or at least knows about. I can fondly recall a couple of childhood memories where I spent hours trying to get that metal object to navigate down my parent’s shaggy carpeted stairs without toppling over or stopping midway. Those memories are probably 20+ years old by now, and I haven’t played with a slinky for quite some time.

That is until 3 years ago when my friends decided to do a white elephant gift exchange for Christmas. At the encouragement of my best friend, I picked his small neatly wrapped gift from the pile, and low and behold, I was reunited with an original metal slinky in that unmistakable red box. At first, I didn’t understand the impact of this gift, and I’m betting that my friend didn’t either being that it was more of a gag gift, but having a slinky has made a lasting impact on my life.

For the last couple of years, that little toy has sat on the edge of my work desk. I would reach for it when I was pondering something, or carrying on a conversation with a co-worker. I’d slink it back and forth between my hands, or let it accordion from my hand towards the ground, as we talked. There was something cathartic about that familiar sound of the metal rings clanking together.

Sometimes I would come in to my office and the slinky would be gone. My coworkers would grab it and take it to a meeting or use it to keep their hands busy while they thought through a challenging problem. It traveled a lot over the past three years. Sometimes it would be gone for weeks on end, and it has a couple of bruises to reflect the use that it has seen.

“Leaders become followers, and followers become leaders.”

About six months ago, I was listening to Episode 4 of the Entreleadership podcast and the slinky took on a whole new meaning. In this episode of the podcast, Jon Acuff, interviewed Dan Cathy, President and COO of Chick-fil-A, who compared a slinky to servant leadership.

Instantly my ears perked up. I’ve had this little metal object on the edge of my desk for years, and I never made the connection to one of my favorite concepts, but as soon as Dan mentioned it, I immediately saw the correlation. Being a servant leader in an organization, and in life, is exactly like being in a slinky:

  • Each of us is a ring in the slinky. Each ring is tied to one another.
  • Sometimes, your ring in the slinky means that you need to take the first step, even though you may not know where that next step may take you. You must trust those behind you, knowing that they’re going to follow. In turn, they trust you, knowing that you’re putting your best foot forward to take everyone to the next level.
  • Sometimes, being your ring in the slinky means that you must lift another up so that they can take the next step, even if it means that they get there well before you.
  • When in motion, the entire slinky moves forward as a unit, one step at a time, or it fails and falls down together. Regardless of what happens, the slinky moves as one, or as Dan Cathy elegantly put it, “Leaders become followers, and followers become leaders”.

Since hearing Dan Cathy’s reference to the slinky, I have used the analogy twice in a large group setting. The first time being when I left my last position 4 months ago, and more recently, at my new organization’s company meeting. Each time, every person present received their very own metal slinky. The speech and the gift was well received.

At my last company, I had a hard time finishing the explanation because I, and several of my team members, had tears in our eyes as we recollected the many difficult steps that we had taken together over the past years. And today, in my new organization, I frequently hear that cathartic sound of the metal rings clanking together and can’t help but smile.

If you’re on the path to becoming a servant leader then I strongly recommend grabbing a slinky and adding it to the workplace toys you have at your desk, and I wish you nothing but luck in taking that next step…

Truebluetitan is the personal blog of Rob Schultz, a 30-something from Pittsburgh, PA.

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