Sports fans lost another iconic figure of the broadcasting world Wednesday. John Saunders, a hugely popular ESPN and ABC sportscaster, died of unknown causes as of this writing. He was 61.

Saunders also exemplified tremendous leadership during his 30 years of broadcasting. More specifically, he was an exceptional "servant leader."

If the concept is new to you, research over the last 40 years has found that the best servant leaders -- who are no strangers to driving results, requiring excellence, and generating profitable outcomes -- lead first by serving the needs of others.

John Saunders, the servant leader

As I read numerous thoughtful comments, tweets, and heartfelt reactions around the web in tribute to John Saunders, I was struck by how similar the characteristics of servant leadership resembled his own leadership style during his stellar career.


Bob Ley, another iconic figure at ESPN and a colleague of Saunders for three decades, says that he was a generous man of character, and very proud of his family and African Canadian heritage.

"John filled our lives with his considerable talent, but most important, the size and strength of his character and persona," narrates Ley in this touching video tribute.

Character is what every company with a strong mission should aspire to have in their leaders, but so few actually commit to as a top priority.

The rewards are many. A leader that operates from character gains the trust of other people. Others see him as dependable and accountable for his actions. And as trust develops, and people feel safe in that leader's presence, he gains influence.


Saunders' ESPN boss John Skipper said in a statement, "He was one of the most significant and influential members of the ESPN family as a colleague and mentor, and he will sorely be missed."

Influence is really a two-headed monster. On one side of the equation, influential leaders must show up with strength and competence, otherwise they're merely running a country club.

But they balance that with the side that displays something considered even more courageous -- their humanity. Specifically, things like warmth and compassion. And, surprisingly enough, science has given the edge to the softer side of influence.

Case in point: Amy Cuddy of the Harvard Business School and her colleagues conducted a study published in the Harvard Business Review  suggesting that projecting "warmth" is really the key to having influence.

She cites research showing that leaders who are rated low on likability have about a 1 in 2,000 chance of being regarded as effective. Only after they've achieved likability should they focus on displaying competence.

John Saunders had the gift of drawing people to him because of his magnetic warmth. And his younger colleagues responded. Jesse Palmer, who worked with Saunders as an ESPN College Football Analyst, said this in an ESPN video:

"People that were lucky enough to work with John Saunders understand his infectious personality. John could light a room up -- that warm smile -- you just wanted to trust John Saunders. He was very inviting, generous, gracious. John made me so much better at my job, and I'm very appreciative of that, but I'm even more thankful that John made me like my job more."


The other side of influence, as I mentioned earlier, is competence. But being competent doesn't mean that a leader knows how to do everything, but rather that he knows what to do, when to do it, who's involved, and how to get it done.

John Saunders was a prolific craftsman of the broadcasting trade. And he showed great competence.

ESPN colleague Rachel Nichols, one of the country's most prominent female sports journalists, said that Saunders showed skilled versatility -- anchoring shows, doing play by play -- in various sports, making it all look easy.

Ley called him an "incredibly skilled broadcaster."  In Skipper's released statement, the president of ESPN said this of Saunders:

 "John was an extraordinary talent, and his friendly, informative style has been a warm welcome to sports fans for decades. His wide range of accomplishments across numerous sports and championship events is among the most impressive this industry has ever seen."


Stephen A. Smith, who was emotional in this video minutes after hearing the news live on the air, said Saunders was a pioneer and paved the way for other African Americans. The late Stuart Scott (who lost his battle with cancer two years ago) may not have had the ESPN broadcasting career he did if not for Saunders, said Smith.

And that's when it hit me. What stands out in Smith's eulogy was a defining leadership trait of Saunders that is so effective in capturing the hearts and minds of followers in today's workplaces.

Smith lauded Saunders for being "a mentor and advisor."

Jemele Hill, a young co-host for the ESPN show "His & Hers" with Michael Smith, said in her video eulogy that Saunders had tremendous impact on the careers of many because he invested interest in them.

Helping people move their careers in the right direction is a key element in mentoring followers. People perform at a higher level, are more engaged, and at the end of the day, it translates to business results.

It's no coincidence that ESPN continues to excel as a sports institution by ushering in young, smart, outspoken, multi-ethnic, male and female talent who continue to capture national attention.  

Like other ESPN personalities Stuart Scott, Jim Valvano, and Tom Mees before him, they went too fast, too young. We will miss John Saunders, but his leadership legacy will carry on.