A True Servant Leader

By Brad McEwen

I was just 26 years-old when I first met Luke Flatt.

It was 2002 and my life was markedly different.

I wasn’t married. My dad was still alive. And I certainly didn’t have three beautiful children and the countless blessings they’ve brought into my life.

In many ways, I was just starting out in life just a mere two years removed from the University of Georgia. I had recently left the world of journalism after spending a couple of years working as a reporter for a small paper up in north Georgia, and had made the decision to relocate to Albany without much of a plan beyond, “get a decent job with benefits, marry Tay and maybe go back to school to be a teacher.”

Thankfully fortune smiled on me shortly after my lack of prospects and I returned home, as I managed to land not one, but two jobs—one as a part-timer using my English degree and a second, with benefits, as a part-time teller at Regions Bank.

Looking back now I firmly believe I had even greater good fortune, or rather it was divine intervention, straight away as I was immediately stationed at the bank’s downtown, “Main Office,” a location that just happened to house the office of Area President Luke Flatt.

While several of my coworkers might have viewed having a person of Luke’s stature and influence casually observing them and interacting with them on a regular basis as unnerving at best, I really didn’t see it as a bad thing at all.

Even as a rookie in world of banking and finance, I had the good sense to understand how fortunate I was to have an opportunity to interact with someone like Luke, whose acumen and savvy had led to a very successful career and a position of great influence.

With responsibility for a full commercial and retail bank territory that covered all of southern Georgia, parts of southeast Alabama, northwest Florida and all of South Carolina, there were few people within the leadership of the entire super regional bank that had more connections and clout at that time than Luke.

And here I was cashing his checks and chatting him up, primarily about SEC football, at the coffee maker on Monday mornings. Or maybe bumping into him in the bank parking lot on those rare occasions when I managed to stay as late as he always did.

By nearly every measure, there truly could not have been two people more removed from each other on the corporate totem pole than Luke Flatt and Brad McEwen.

But yet, even back then—long before I rose through the ranks and had the privilege of interacting with him in the course of my regular duties—Luke always took the time to share a bit of wisdom and he consistently treated me with the kindness, decency and respect with which he treats everyone he encounters.

I consider it a true blessing, looking back some 16 years later, that those brief, breakroom encounters turned out to be merely the seeds of what has grown into a long, professional relationship.

In fact, there are few people that I’ve worked with as long as I’ve worked with Luke—through our stint together at Regions, to the past two years at AB&T. And during that time, I consider it an honor that I’ve had the pleasure of watching one of this community’s most impressive and impactful leaders practice his craft of leading bank’s large and small, while working diligently to improve the quality of life for his entire community.

Despite having gleaned a good bit about Luke’s history through the years, and having come to understand a lot about what kind of person he is, it was still thoroughly enlightening to sit down recently with the 2017 recipient of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce’s Lifetime Service Award to learn more about the things that have influenced his life work, his belief in the profound responsibility that comes with being a leader and why he still, after 40 years in banking, strives daily to get better and hopefully become what he considers “the best.”

“I love competition, I do; I love it” said the Americus native and long-time sports fan, not long into our Beyond the Bank sit down. “I was active in sports when I was younger and by the time I was in high school I was the manager of the football, basketball and baseball teams. I didn’t participate as a player. I was really small and had asthma, so I wasn’t an athlete.

“But while I’m not an athlete, I love the nature of sports, the competition, the strategies that team sports employ, or really, individual sports employ too. I love thinking about those things and how to get better. And how to win. I love the thrill of victory and I like to think that I learn from the agony of defeat. But I’m not scared to weigh in. I guess that comes from confidence.

“I like competition so much that that I’ll weigh in even at the risk of losing.”

Luke explained that many of the things he learned as young man through his involvement with sports, played an important part in shaping who he is as a person and many of those lessons have also informed how he’s approached his career.

“There’s no question that the desire to be the best exists in whatever sport you participate in,” Luke explained. “And the desire to be the best is certainly present in the bank. In my career I’ve come to think the desire to be the best is present in most anybody who is successful. And I think that parallel is pretty strong. So, yeah I feel there’s a definite parallel there.

“And as I think about it, the fact that I was around sports teams even though I was not directly a participant, I was around coaches and I benefitted from what I would hear them say and how I’d see them act and the expectations they put on the team. Even in my role as manager of the team, there were expectations on me and I wanted to be the best at it.”

Of course there are many ways to measure, “the best,” but like most athletes and successful people, Luke believes the true barometer for judging success and achievement is done internally first. While there are definitely various metrics that can always be used to judge how effective something is, Luke believes that at the end of the day, we all know in our hearts if we’ve done our best.

“I measure it internally first,” Luke said. “And I don’t think that I have a yardstick as such. I just instinctively know when I give my best effort and when I don’t. And I instinctively know, or at least I believe I do, what the best looks like. And it’s exhilarating when you feel like it’s been achieved.

“But then when you think it’s been achieved, you have to set the bar even higher. And that’s not to say you’re never satisfied. I think you can take satisfaction in quality work, but at the same time, when you become too satisfied, you can become complacent and then you dry up and die.

“Even in the twilight of my career, I’m still driven to be the best. I want the bank to be THE BEST BANK that it can possibly be. And I want people to look at the bank and say, ‘That really is the best bank I know.’

“That’s what drives me. I know we’re not there yet, but that’s what drives me.”

Over the course of his career in banking—which began in 1974 when Luke began working in the bookkeeping department of Citizen’s Bank in Americus during those summers and holidays when he was home from college—Luke has seen varying forms of success and has certainly reached professional heights many of us will never achieve.

And while he understands that from a bottom line standpoint there are many ways to determine the success of a bank, Luke said he has expanded his notion of success to include things beyond common bank benchmarks like deposit and loan growth, or increases in net interest income.

“We can look at metrics all day and that’s what first popped into my head when you asked about measuring performance,” Luke said. “But you can have metrics that reflect the wrong message or that don’t tell the whole story. What are we about as an institution? So much of this, you can measure in financial performance and say, ‘Yeah, we’re the best,’ but there’s so much more to it than that.

“Are we the best employer for people who work here? Are we the best corporate citizen for the community? Are we the best in a leadership role? That may or may not reflect in the financial performance. Although I do believe that if you do all those things well, then the financial performance will be there.”

Of course for any organization to achieve even the smallest measure of success, it takes strong leadership and being the type of leader who isn’t afraid to take on the responsibility of making tough decisions, and inspires others to achieve, is something Luke said he’s been striving for since he was a young man.

“I’ve always felt a sense of connection with people in leadership positions,” he said. “And I’ve never shied away from taking responsibility. I will assume responsibility and I will suffer the consequences or I’ll enjoy the successes. I guess that’s who I am. Sometimes I understand the consequences and still take responsibility and sometimes I take responsibility without completely understanding the consequences.

“But I don’t think I’ve ever regretted doing that. I certainly second guess myself, but there is a difference between regret and second guessing.”

That Luke is willing to take on the mantle of leadership comes from the fact that he believes if he puts his mind to something he can be successful, and he said that part of his make-up comes from an upbringing that fostered a certain confidence in him.

“I guess I’ve always had this confidence that I could do whatever I put my mind to,” Luke said. “I’m sure to some degree it has something to do with the environment I was brought up in. My parents reinforced my belief in myself. That’s not to say they weren’t quick to point out my short-comings, but I felt loved.

“And I lived and grew up in an environment such as that and I felt accepted within the community. And I guess that’s kind of where it comes from. I’m sure that at times I’ve been accused of being arrogant, and I’m sure I’ve displayed some arrogance through the years, but hopefully maturity has helped temper some of that.”

While his upbringing certainly instilled in him the confidence to strive for success, it was also during that time when Luke first fell in love with business and became intrigued by the important relationship businesses have with their communities.

“My grandfather was the head of the Chamber of Commerce in Americus for 25 years,” Luke told me during a recent Beyond the Bank interview. “My grandmother died when I was a baby so he was a widower and he and I were really close. My brother is older and he was kind of my grandmother’s favorite. And I’m named for my grandfather so I just took to him and he took to me, so I spent a lot of time with him.

“My father actually worked in Albany and he would drive back and forth every day, so a lot of times during the summer, after I would go to the Americus/Sumter County Recreation program during the morning, I would go down to the Chamber of Commerce and hang out with my grandfather.

“And he would go visit business people in the community,” Luke continued. “At the time, in the late 50s, early 60s, I would have been eight, nine, 10, along in there, the mobile home industry was moving south from Michigan and Indian and Ohio, and Americus was the new mobile home capital of the world. So these mobile home industry owners and CEOs were all moving to Americus.

“So my grandfather would go visit them and he’d take me along. I’d tag along with him and just sit there and listen to what they had to say.”

And much of what those businessmen would say, and how they conducted themselves, had a profound effect on the young man.

“I can’t say I understood everything really, but I just liked being around business people. I liked the way business people handled themselves. I like the professionalism. I liked the conversation. So I guess in the recesses of my mind, that’s just how I got tracked into business.

“My father was an engineer and so I had thought about engineering, but that just didn’t appeal to me. I like the interaction with people that business presents. I like that environment.”

Luke was so drawn to that environment, that he said he knew early on that he wanted to be a businessman. And that he would be going to Auburn University to get the educational building blocks needed to get started—even if, at the time, his beloved Auburn was not known for its business school.

“I knew I was going to study business and Auburn had a business school, business program,” Luke said. “It probably wasn’t as developed at the time as say the University of Georgia or even the University of Alabama. Auburn had traditionally been an engineering, agricultural, architectural and veterinary school. That’s what they were known for as a land-grant institution.

“The business school was 12 years old when I went and now it’s the largest school in the university and has the most graduates each year.”

Despite business not being what Auburn was known for at the time, Luke said there was never a doubt that he would attend that school.

“We’re an Auburn family,” Luke said of his War Eagle connection. “My father was an Auburn graduate. My brother’s an Auburn graduate. My wife Susan and my daughters, all Auburn graduates. Susan’s sister, my nephew, we’re Auburn people as you can tell. So there was never any question as to where I was going to go to college if I went. And I never had any desire to go anywhere else.”

Luke said there was also little doubt in his mind then that when he graduated from college he wanted to go into banking.

“I’ve always had an interest in the bank,” he said. “I don’t know whether it’s the thought of the money being in the vault or what, but I always had a high respect and regard for the bankers in the community. They were perceived, even by young people, children, as being leaders in the community. And that part really attracted me. I like the thought of being in a leadership position within the community. And I like the idea of being in an industry that is respected, of doing something that is respected by others and commands a high degree of integrity and high expectations. I guess that appealed to me. I always had an interest in banking.”

I found it telling, as Luke explained his attraction to banking, that he would seize on the notion that working in the banking industry provided him with the opportunity to be a leader, both within the institution itself and within the community at large.

It seemed that throughout our conversation, Luke repeatedly referenced his desire to be a leader and what being one means to him.

Additionally, though, Luke also opened up about some of the doubts he harbors about his abilities as a leader.

While he has always been drawn to leadership positions, he freely admits part of what continues to drive him is the belief that even today, at the tail end of a long and storied career, he can improve in that regard.

“I’ve never felt that I was an effective leader,” Luke said rather bluntly. “I’ve always been striving to be an effective leader, but I feel like there’s just so much more I can do in a leadership role that I’m not doing.

“And I’m not satisfied with where I am. I look at others and leadership comes to them very naturally. I’m such an admirer of people who are leaders and I feel like I’m just inadequate compared to them.

“I always aspired to be in leadership roles, but I never really was. I wasn’t the most popular guy in the school or anything like that and that’s usually the person who winds up in a quote, leadership role.”

Despite the fact that he doesn’t always see himself as an effective leader, there is no denying that he has become that, as the proof can be seen throughout his career.

After working his way through the ranks of Albany’s First State Bank and Trust, the local community bank that Luke joined in 1986, he was ultimately named, while still in his early 40s, Albany City President after that bank was purchased by Regions Bank just before the turn of the last century.

After a successful run at Regions, which ended following a merger between Regions and AmSouth Bank, Luke was hired in 2009 by the board of directors at AB&T to help turn around the community bank that had fallen on tough times.

Since that time, Luke has led an impressive turnaround, putting together a quality team of dedicated bankers, operating within a strong credit culture, who have returned AB&T to profitability and molded it into Albany’s premier community bank.

But that success, Luke said, was hard-earned and brought with it a huge challenge, born from the fact that over the course of his career, Luke has come to understand the enormous responsibility that comes with being the leader of any organization.

“Probably, when I was named president of Regions here, I felt a sense of personal accomplishment; I guess that’s the best way to describe it,” Luke said while explaining how his perception of leadership changed once he ascended to that role. “It really was night and day. Until you are in charge, so to speak, you have no idea what’s it’s really like, the responsibilities that go with it, the responsibility for the lives of other people who count on you and whose lives are dependent on the decisions that you make.

“That’s a weighty thing to have. Things that look so clear from the outside looking in are muddled when you have to make choices. When you’re the one responsible for making those choices, that again affect people’s lives, it’s just far different. It’s a heavy responsibility.

“I hadn’t realized how dependent others could be on your decisions. It’s one thing to sit around with a group of guys and talk about, ‘What would I do if I were in that role?’ It’s altogether different to have a group of people come to you with their problems, wanting you to help solve them.

“I didn’t appreciate the depth of the responsibility.”

The depth Luke is referring to is quite simply the fact that the decisions that are made in the best interest of seeing the bank perform, always have an impact on the people who are charged with executing the directives of leadership, which means every decision brings with it a human element. And that is one of, if not THE, biggest challenges that comes with leadership.

“That really is a challenge,” Luke said of the human side of the decisions he’s charged with making. “The person in a leadership position tends to have information from multiple sources that is used in assessing a situation and making a decision. And it’s easy to forget that not everybody has the same information.Not everybody has the same perspective. So the challenge is, ‘How do I communicate what you know to be, or what you believe to be, the right course, when not everybody has the same breadth of knowledge, just because of their particular position within the organization?’ And, ‘How do you get them to grab hold of what you’re talking about and move forward with it?’”

Additionally, Luke said it’s always a huge challenge for leaders to motivate others to have success, when many of those individuals are motivated by different things.

“I believe firmly as an adult in the business environment, that you have limited ability to motivate people,” Luke explained. “People are motivated from within. I believe that. If you don’t have the ability within to be motivated yourself, if you’re not passionate about something, or if you don’t enjoy it enough to try to understand it or get better at it, if you don’t have the personal motivation, there’s little that can be done externally to get you to do something.

“So the challenge of a leader is to try to find that one thing that’s within each person to draw them out and draw them into the group. But still I believe that motivation comes from within.

“I’m maybe kind of talking in circles here, but the job of the leader is not to provide external motivation, but to help them find their internal motivation. That’s an interesting concept.

“I had a phrase, and you’ve heard me use it, that I’d much rather have wild birds than pen-raised birds. And in South Georgia, the hunters know what I’m talking about. The wild birds, you’ve got to chase them down and the pen-raised birds, you’ve got to kick them to make them fly. Well, give me a bunch of wild birds and I’ll try to control them rather than pen-raised birds that you’ve got to kick.”

Despite the inherent difficulties in being an effective leader who can help people find their internal motivation, Luke said he has been blessed in his career to have worked with several leaders who taught him what to do and what not to do, while inspiring him as he grew into the role.

“When I worked for Regions I had two people who taught me a lot,” Luke remembered fondly. “I reported to Pete Miller in Gainesville, GA and he was very analytical, very academic, but one thing about Pete was he was very fair. He was tough but fair and I learned more from him than I thought I did at the time. And then the other was Carl Jones who was the CEO of Regions at the time. From Carl I learned that a gentleman can be a leader. There’s no reason why you have to be anything less than a gentleman to be a leader.

“In the book, ‘Good to Great,’ Jim Collins talks about ‘Level Five Leaders’ and in my judgement Carl Jones was a Level Five Leader. He’s retied now, but to me you take that description that Jim Collins puts forth and you can see every element of that in Carl Jones.

“So those were the two people that had a really strong impact on me. And of course you go back to high school and there’s Coach Hightower. He was a leader and I had just a profound respect for Coach Hightower. And then there were a lot of men in the community that I looked up to.”

But perhaps the most profound influence Luke has had throughout his life, an influence that has impacted every facet of his life, has been his strong faith in Jesus Christ, even though he didn’t always see how that faith could guide him.

“I haven’t always relied on faith,” Luke said. “I’ve tried to rely on myself and it’s just too much. You can’t do it. You can’t be totally dependent upon yourself. You just don’t have the capacity to do that. God didn’t make us that way.

“Anybody who lives any length of time is going to face challenges in their lives—hardship, obstacles, maybe even persecution, and people in general do not have the ability on their own to overcome all of the challenges, the trials, the tribulations they face.

“I believe God gives you the ability to overcome by putting your trust and faith in Christ.”

While it took him some time to realize how important his faith is to his personal success, Luke said he’s always had a strong relationship with Christ, having grown up in a home that prioritized worship and church involvement.

“I was exposed to the church early on,” he said. “I went to church every Sunday. My parents took me. My brother and I got in the car and that’s where we went on Sunday morning. So, I grew up in the church, I was exposed to the Christian faith early on. I was baptized when I was 12 years-old and I joined the church. And when Susan and I were married, we started going to church even as young couple. And then of course when our daughters were born, they were active and we were active too.

“I’m humbled by my faith really. I am humbled by what Christ has done for me and I strive to reflect that humility and show appreciation for all that He’s done for me in everything I do and how I live my life. Now, just like everybody else, I fall short.

“But that’s what Christ offers us—forgiveness and redemption so that the mercy and grace we get from our faith in Christ sustains us. It sustains me. And so, I am dependent on my faith.”

In fact, Luke’s strong faith and his continuing connection to his church, has led him to also take up teaching Sunday school classes on occasion, even though he isn’t convinced leading a class is something he’s particularly adept at.

“So often I feel like I’m woefully inadequate when it comes to teaching Sunday school,” Luke told me. “But I’ve learned so much through the process that, in that way, I don’t want to give it up.

“But I feel pressure. I feel that pressure to present the Word as God intends it to be presented. That’s the struggle. I want to be perfect and I know it is never going to be perfect.”

Despite recently announcing a sabbatical from teaching in order to spend more time with his grandchildren, who he and Susan have to travel to see, and despite the struggle to sometimes adequately present it, Luke believes teaching God’s word is an important way of ministering to others and sharing the Good News.

“Each of us has a gift, or gifts, that God has given us to share His message and I think my gift is, my gifts if I have multiple gifts, are in leadership and administration. But I think that with others seeing how flawed I am, and how much I struggle to present His word in a meaningful way, maybe that in itself tells them it’s okay, that they too can find their faith through that.”

Luke said his faith and his upbringing also factor into his belief that for a bank, or any business really, to truly be successful, it needs to have leadership that puts a priority on improving the community in which it does business and striving to provide leadership within that community.

“That comes from my experiences with my grandfather and my parents who were active in the community,” Luke said of his mission to be a community leader. “It was just an expectation that we should be active and supportive of our community. We get so much from the community around us that it’s our responsibility to give back.

“But I don’t view that responsibility as a burden. I view it as an opportunity. Again, it’s kind of getting back to wanting to be the best. Whatever I’m involved in I want it to be the best. And I feel the same way about our community. I want our community to be the best. When I lived in Americus I wanted Americus to be the best. I’m in Albany now so I want Albany to be the best. If I’m going to be associated with it, then I want it to be the best. And let me say this, I don’t want to be associated with it because it’s the best; I want it to be the best because I had something to do with it. Does that make sense? I want to be involved in making something the best.”

Although Luke has been here and striving to make this community the best since first arriving in 1986, he feels there’s still a lot of work to do to help Albany become the kind of place he believes it can be.

He spoke at length about many of the issues facing this area, and while those issues are numerous, he also shared his belief that things are assuredly moving in the right direction.

“We still have so much poverty in the community,” Luke pointed out. “And people may say, ‘Well, what have you done about the poverty?’ I feel like my role is to help create jobs. I think that jobs are the answer. Providing a good, well-paying job that puts food on the table and a shelter over you, is a responsibility of all members of the community.

“So that is a real issue. Frankly, in a lot of ways we’ve created a society that’s a dependent society and somehow we’ve got to restore people’s self-worth and help them realize that dependency is not a way of life. I think a job, a skill, something a person can be proud of, just lifts people’s spirits and their outlook and gives them hope.

But poverty and job creation are not the only issues facing the community. Perhaps one of the biggest issues that Luke sees affecting the community is race relations. But fortunately Luke believes, through his own personal experiences, that things are improving regardless of whether the majority of people can see that improvement.

“People will say in Albany that race relations is an issue,” he said. “I hear that all the time and it is so true. But, I have the perspective of 65 years in South Georgia and I went through the 60s when the race riots occurred and I went to school in a segregated school and my senior year in high school I went to school in a fully integrated school and I think about how far we’ve come in only 50 years.

“Now 50 years is a lifetime for most, but in the context of this country, in the context of world history, 50 years is not too long. To put it into perspective, I was reared to stay away from black people. They had a role and I had a role and my role was superior to theirs. That’s the way I was reared. That was the society in that day and time.

“I don’t know when my attitude changed, but it was not long after I got into business. And my feeling has matured through the years to where I see people as people. Let me say this, I try to see people as people. And I just want desperately for people not to hold onto the past regardless of their race and think about what we can be if we all just work together, if we all live together, work together, play together and worship together.

“I’ve said many times that I’m a glass half full guy,” Luke continued. “I see the opportunities and I focus on the opportunities. I don’t dwell on the challenges. Maybe I should. But I think Albany and Southwest Georgia has worlds of potential.

“But I think we’ve got to come together as people and have a common purpose, which is to move the community forward. And there are forces within every community that are destructive in nature. We can’t let those voices be the dominant voices. We’ve got to talk about what can be, not what isn’t.”

For more than 30 years now Luke has not only been talking about what can be, he has been working to make what can be a reality. And that fact is not lost on the many other like-minded individuals who have worked with Luke over the years.

In fact, if was just before I came to work at AB&T and had the personal good fortune to once again be a part of team led by Luke Flatt, that full impact of what he means to the community was honored and recognized.

I felt it was fitting back in 2017, with the community still reeling from the impact of the first of two brutal winter storms but bound together around the common cause of helping our friends, neighbors and loved ones recover, that Luke was honored for his servant leadership by the local Chamber he’s been a part of and helped lead for the last three decades.

I was there the night he was presented with that Lifetime Service Award, and even though I knew he didn’t love folks making a fuss over him for doing things he believes are just his basic responsibilities, I did know that it meant a lot to him when other distinguished community leaders turned out in droves to celebrate the achievement.

That night, a community of business leaders, not much different than the ones he looked up to as a kid, hanging out with this grandfather, took the time to recognize one of their own.

I believe it’s a testament to the kind of person Luke is and to the many years he’s worked on behalf of the community, that fellow servant leaders like former Dougherty County School System Superintendent John Culbreath, Oxford Construction Co. CEO Bruce Melton, Phoebe Putney Health System President and CEO Joel Wernick, Retired Dougherty County School Board Member Emily Jean McAfee, businessman James Griffin, attorney Faison Middleton, Former Dougherty County Commission Chairman and small business owner Jeff “Bodine” Sinyard turned out to celebrate Luke’s achievement and share their thoughts on someone they believe has left an indelible stamp on our community.

Over the years Luke has no doubt received numerous honors and accolades, but I know being recognized for a lifetime of servant leadership by people he looks up to and admires meant a great deal to him.

But while having the external recognition for his actions certainly felt good and served as some measure of success, I’m of the mindset that for Luke the award stands simply a small, outward validation that he had reached the internal bar he had set for himself long ago.

In truth he likely didn’t need to receive that service award, because he’s been pushing himself to get better and be better throughout his life.

Personally, I was honored to have been at that Chamber dinner and given the opportunity to write about Luke’s achievement for the Albany Herald, because it afforded me an opportunity to let the entire community know what kind of leader Luke Flatt has been and what he means to Albany, GA.

More importantly though, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the many things Luke has taught me over the years. I’ve said on many occasions that if I’ve achieved any measure of success professionally or as a leader, Luke deserves some of the credit.

If I exhibit any of those important leadership traits like integrity, dedication, understanding, and humility, I likely gleaned a lot of that by having the chance to work with Luke.

I can’t begin to explain how proud I am that I get to work at AB&T and continue to learn and be inspired by Luke Flatt, but I’m even more humbled that I once again have the opportunity to share a little bit about Luke and remind my community how fortunate we are to have someone like him working hard to make this a better place and leading us to the bright future Luke believes with all his heart is waiting for us.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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