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"There are no weak platoons-- only weak leaders."
General William Creech
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, I BEGAN MY CAREER WORKING in the field of labor and employee relations. My territory was the same area where I was born and raised: Detroit, also known as the Motor City, the home of the American labor movement and arguably one of the toughest labor areas in the United States.
In my late twenties, I left a private company after serving as personnel director (that's what they called them back then) and became an independent labor-relations consultant working with organizations experiencing labor problems. The typical "employee problems" were union organizing drives, strikes, violence, sabotage, low morale, low commitment, high absenteeism, and excessive turnover.
As a relatively young business consultant, I felt intimidated upon entering potential client organizations. I would often find myself sitting nervously across from powerful CEOs, invariably men, sitting arrogantly behind an expensive mahogany desk, dressed to the max, and sometimes even puffing on the proverbial cigar.
They would usually begin by saying something like, "We've got some pretty serious problems here, son."
Eager to please my potential clients, I would politely nod my head in agreement as I peered out their windows at the violence and the fires burning down below.
"Yes, sir," I would reply, trying to sound confident and self-assured. "We do seem to have some problems here. I think we should begin by..."
As if not hearing a word I said, they would interrupt with "Let me tell you what we need to do here, son" and then proceed to tell me what "the problem was," followed by, of course, the solution to the problem. These egomaniacs always had everything figured out. It made me wonder why they even called me in.
"Our problem is that troublemaker named Chucky out there driving the forklift, the bigmouth handing out the union cards. Once we shut him up, our problems will be solved, everyone will be happy here, and we will be back to business as usual!" Chucky on the forklift, or Norma Jean in the warehouse, or Bill in customer service. I discovered over the years that everyone seemed to have a "Chucky on the forklift" who needed to be "fixed," and all of our problems would be solved.
And I used to believe it! I would think, "No wonder you're the CEO and making the big bucks. What a brilliant idea!"
So I spent several seasons running around organizations trying to silence the Chuckys of the world. I even have some scars to prove it.
Over time, I came to the surprising conclusion that Chucky was not the problem. In fact, Chucky was usually the only person in the place telling the truth! It even got to the point that when I entered a dysfunctional organization, I asked specifically to speak to Chucky so I could figure out what the heck was really going on! I sure wasn't going to find out in the front office. They were generally clueless up there.
Over time, I became convinced that 9.5 times out of 10 when I entered a dysfunctional organization, first day, first interview, talking to the big dog in the big chair, I was speaking directly to the problem.
In order to face myself in the mirror each morning, I felt compelled to tell the leader that he was paying me well to address the symptoms but not the problem. So I would conduct a dog-and-pony show over a couple of weeks to earn the right to tell the leader that he was the problem. As you can probably surmise, a few assignments were cut short following those conversations.
My wife is a psychologist who has also dealt with organizations for many years, namely marriages and families. Any time two or more people are gathered together for a purpose, an organization exists and there is an opportunity for leadership.
In her practice, parents often bring in their children pleading, "You've got to fix these kids! These kids are acting out terribly!"
Early in her career as a "neophyte shrink," Denise would accept the assessment of the parents and begin "fixing the kids" while the parents went off to dinner. In short order, she came to the same conclusion I had--namely, that the problem invariably resides in the leadership team, not in the expressed symptoms being acted out in the organization. Now the kids go off to the playroom while she goes to work on the parents.
There is another phenomenon that occurs in our respective businesses. We both tend to work with the extremes of very dysfunctional organizations and very healthy organizations--organizations or individuals with such severe symptoms that they must reach out for help, or organizations or individuals that are "doing quite well, thank you" but want an even better edge as they strive for continuous improvement and being the best they can be.
We have observed a similarity between healthy organizations and unhealthy organizations, healthy marriages and unhealthy marriages, healthy churches and unhealthy churches, healthy families and dysfunctional families. And the similarity revolves around leadership. We have found the single greatest predictor of organizational health or dysfunction to be leadership or lack thereof.
About fifteen years ago, I made a decision to stop trying to fix the symptoms and begin focusing on the root of the problem. I have been teaching the principles of servant leadership ever since.
"Everything rises and falls on leadership."
"It all starts at the top."
"No weak platoons, only weak leaders."
Could there actually be something to these old cliches?
LEADERSHIP IN OUR INSTITUTIONS
In my travels in the corporate world, I am troubled when I observe far too many "managers" concerned about doing things the right way and looking good for their boss rather than striving to do the right thing for the people they lead.
I look at our great nation's capital and see many of our elected politicians analyzing polling data and making political calculations based upon what people want rather than providing leadership and seeking to give their constituents what they need. Mercifully, there is evidence this may be changing in a post-September 11 world. As President Harry S. Truman put it, "How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?"
I observe far too many parents attempting to be "best buddy" to their children by running around trying to gratify their never-ending wants rather than providing the leadership they need. Leadership that provides boundaries, love, feedback, and discipline that children so desperately need to be the best they can be. I see parents more concerned with spoiling and lavishing upon their children the material things they themselves did not receive growing up while failing to provide them with the important things they did receive from their parents.
I encounter far too many professionals in our educational institutions who see their roles primarily as imparting book knowledge to a "bunch of kids" they don't really care much for. They are more interested in rushing to get everything "covered" before the semester ends rather than seeing themselves in leadership roles with the responsibility of serving their students and assisting them in developing their character, so necessary in order to live a successful life. Theodore Roosevelt said it best: "To educate a person in mind but not in morals is to educate a menace to society." We must never forget that the horrors of Nazi Germany arose from the educated and refined land of Nietzsche, Beethoven, Einstein, and Mercedes-Benz.
I observe coaches intent upon winning at all costs rather than mentoring and leading our young people in their character development, utilizing the great metaphors athletics can provide.
I know leaders in churches and synagogues who appear more concerned with the weekly head count and budget considerations than in providing the leadership their congregations need most. I observe religious leaders more intent on saying the things people want to hear rather than having the moral courage to say the things they need to hear for fear of upsetting them, resulting in their withholding contributions and/or support.
In short, I observe far too many in leadership positions failing to do the right thing for those they lead. Too often, leaders are taking the path of least resistance and trying to "avoid the hassle."
This widespread lack of leadership is a failure of character, which is why leadership has everything to do with character. Character is about doing the right thing. Leadership is about doing the right thing. It has even been suggested that managers do things right while leaders do the right thing.
The good news is that we can all choose to do something about our character. In fact, we can choose to grow our character until leadership and doing the right thing become second nature.
In The Servant, I defined leadership as:
The skill of influencing people to enthusiastically work toward goals identified as being for the common good.
Over the past several years, I have modified this definition somewhat as my knowledge and experience in leadership has been evolving.
Today, I define leadership as:
The skills of influencing people to enthusiastically work toward goals identified as being for the common good, with character that inspires confidence.
The operative words in this definition are skills, influencing, and character, which will be explored later.
But before we go there, let's explore what leadership is not.
LEADERSHIP IS NOT MANAGEMENT
When conducting leadership seminars, I often begin by saying, "I am going to level the playing field right from the start this morning. My basic assumption will be that you are all excellent managers, have solid technical abilities, and are skilled at accomplishing tasks. I will give each of you an A-plus in management skills right out of the chute this morning.
"In fact, chances are you rose to a position of leadership in your organization by being proficient at those things. If you came to hear about being a better manager today, you are in the wrong room. Today we are going to talk about leadership, not management."
Management is about the things we do: the planning, the budgeting, the organizing, the problem-solving, being in control, maintaining order, developing strategies, and a host of other things. Management is what we do. Leadership is who we are.
I have known many great managers who were train wrecks when it came to leading other human beings and inspiring them to do great things. Conversely, I have known some highly effective leaders who were not particularly astute managers. Few ever accused Winston Churchill, FDR, or Ronald Reagan of being a good manager.
"Good managers" often have a style that is authoritative and command-and-control because they mistakenly believe they must have all the answers, fix all of the problems, and, above all else, maintain control. Most leadership training, if they receive any at all, is simply more management training turning out people capable of managing things but not producing people capable of leading and inspiring others to action.
Simply knowing how to do the job well has little to do with developing the skills necessary to inspire others to do the job well. The technical and task-oriented skills that managers work so hard to develop and that have served them well in rising to leadership positions do not serve them well in becoming effective leaders. A whole different skill set is required.
Leadership involves getting people from the neck up. Leadership is influencing people to contribute their hearts, minds, spirits, creativity, and excellence and to give their all for their team. Leadership is getting people to commit to the mission, to take the hill, to be all they can be.
When Ross Perot ran for president in 1992, he made a great statement that I will paraphrase: You do not manage people; if you want something to manage, go manage your inventory, your checkbook, or yourself.
You do not manage people.
You lead people.
From the Hardcover edition.