Thursday, June 3, 2010

Authenticity or Something Like It

Another essay for a grad school leadership class...

From The Buddha’s The Eightfold Path to E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, from Jesus of Nazareth to Herman Hesse, the tradition of servant leadership has had a long and honorable history, yet it has been underappreciated and underutilized in the business world (Herman and Marlowe, 2005). It has been long understood and applied in the fields of education, social services, and among populations not allowed by social convention to contribute more directly to a male-dominated hierarchy (Bowman, 2005; Crippen, 2006).

For this paper I’ll compare and contrast a chapter written for The Leader of the Future 2 (2006) by Ken Blanchard and Dennis Carey with another written by Richard Leider. These authors claim to espouse versions of servant leadership and how best to apply it. One chapter succeeds, the other does not. The former – written by authors whose perspectives I find transparent, cynical, and sadly wanting, have more weaknesses and blind spots not shared by the latter – written by an author whose healthy perspective on the role of personal authenticity and servant leadership has already helped reshape my leadership practice and personal ethic.

The chapter Regaining Public Trust, a Leadership Challenge, written by Ken Blanchard and Dennis Carey, seems jarringly out of place when compared to other chapters in this otherwise solid collection. Perhaps it was written for the audience Carey cultivates at G100, his “exclusive club for CEOs only.” Blanchard and Carey express the opinion that the American corporation is entitled to operate as it chooses, unfettered by government regulation or the criticism of a free press simply because it “has generated more wealth per capita for U. S. citizens than any other economic system in the history of the world.” They make the ludicrous claim that business excesses began with Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, and Adelphia in the 1990s.

They could have only guessed at the magnitude of the impending sub-prime lending debacle, but there is no mention of the saving and loan crisis of the 1980s. They have no memory of mining and manufacturing industries busting up attempts at unionization with goons wielding clubs and guns. They do not mention the era of the “robber barons” at the dawn of our modern industrial economy. Nope, they explain that it was a few bad apples that ruined it all for the rest of American businesses, and only just recently. If only there had been a little more self-interested self-regulation (Blanchard and Carey 2006).

Blanchard and Carey’s argument is internally inconsistent, frequently condescending, and sometimes offensive. They suggest that the corporate free enterprise model has always been the best answer. They claim that unethical leadership occurs due to moral confusion that exists in organizations lacking a clear and compelling vision. Then they tell us that in their experience only 10% of American businesses have a clear and compelling vision. They complain that boards have not been sufficiently involved in supporting business activities in the past, but lament their involvement now that Sarbanes-Oxley has forced the members to actually engage in the governance they were elected to perform. They argue that it’s self-serving leaders who create organizations in which employees “act like victims and go ‘quack, quack, quack!’” (Blanchard and Carey, 2006).

As part of their solution they espouse what one hopes will someday be seen as a quaintly anachronistic idealization of the profit motive as the first line of their “triple bottom line.” Then they recommend a cure to what ails corporate America. Without crediting the Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term (Leider, 2006; Bowman, 2005, Herman and Marlowe, 2005; Crippen, 2006), they champion a concept called “servant leadership” as the best way to return to the old days of minimal government regulation, quiescent boards, prodigiously productive employees, and eager customers with open wallets. Blanchard and Carey proceed to pay lip service to the idea of servant leadership as a means to their desired end, but not before deciding that establishing the vision and direction must be set by executives at the top of a traditional hierarchical pyramid, “While top management should involve people in shaping the direction, the ultimate responsibility for having a vision and communicating it throughout the organization remains with the higher-ups and cannot be delegated.” Then, and only for the purpose of implementing the vision and direction, do they acknowledge that servant leadership calls for inverting the hierarchical pyramid (Blanchard and Carey, 2006). Why not adopt the genuine position espoused by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in their own chapter of the anthology? “If you’re going to stir the soul of your constituents, if you are going to lift them to a higher level of performance, then this is what you need to know: it’s not the leader’s vision, it’s the people’s vision that matters most” (Kouzes and Posner, 2006).

Blanchard and Carey use Southwest Airlines as an example of employee empowerment because Ken Blanchard was allowed to board a Southwest flight using a picture on himself on a book cover instead of providing legal ID. Usman Ghani (2006) gives a more complete picture of Herbert Kelleher, founder and chairman of Southwest. Kelleher, Usman notes, used a variety of methods in his efforts to integrate his business. He coached employees, listened to the board, served as a challenger and creator of new business ideas, guided the execution and evaluation of the operational side of the business, and insisted on taking the visionary long view. Somewhere along the way Kelleher created an organization in which an employee felt enabled enough to help a forgetful “Chief Spiritual Officer” make it through security to get to his flight on time.

Blanchard and Carey say they believe that “profit is the applause” and that what keeps the cash register going “ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching for the long haul are Raving Fan customers and Gung Ho people.” Before admitting that most business people don’t think the words “servant” and “leadership” belong in the same sentence, they explain American corporations must expel the signs of self-serving leadership and “aggressively adopt and drive a servant leadership point of view throughout their organizations” (Blanchard and Carey, 2006). Too bad these authors didn’t get a look at the galleys for Edgar Schein’s chapter where he reminds us that “’Imposed cultures’ only last as long as the coercive tactics of the leaders” (Schein, 2006).

About the only other place in the book where a similar plaintive cry is heard is in the chapter by Joseph Maciariello, Peter F. Drucker on Executive Leadership and Effectiveness. I don’t get the sense he was quoting Drucker when he penned the following words, “The difficulty and expense executives are now incurring complying with the requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, enacted as a result of the public outcry over numerous accounting scandals of the 1990s, were preventable. All that was needed was self-regulation…” (Maciariello, 2006).

At the other end of the spectrum is the chapter written by Richard Leider. As a leader in the midst of my own mid-life reassessment, I was pleased to see an author take a healthier, more organic, and personally vigorous view of leadership in his chapter titled The Leader in Midlife. He regards leadership as a calling to which not everyone in authority has been summoned, that “there are simply too many people who occupy leadership positions yet have neither the calling nor the gifts of leadership.” The calling Leider describes is typified by the common characteristics of service, passion, and fit. These leaders work not first for profit, but to serve. The right work is a source of joy – passion – to this type of leader. The leader has gifts that are aligned with the needs of the organization and there appears to be no difference between who they are and what they do. What’s more, in my favorite passage in the entire book Leider tells us, “Wise leaders enable others to heed their callings. They help them uncover their gifts and natural talents. They help people see beyond whom they are today to whom they can become tomorrow.” (Leider, 2006).

Interestingly, authentic servant leadership cultures are appreciated even by members who do not feel they fit in, some of whom even choose to leave the organization, because the opportunity to change, learn, and grow is regarded as a sincere offer on the part of the leadership team (Kezar, 2001). In such environments internal authenticity and the courage to engage in genuine 360 degree reflection allows a person to lead from his or her strengths, to ask for feedback, recognize patterns, “compose a self-portrait,” and redesign one’s job (Roberts, Spreitzer, Dutton, Quinn, Heaphy, and Barker, 2005).

Leaders can make use of approaches described in both chapters as they strive to become more effective in their roles, but perhaps not in the manner intended by the editors of The Leader of the Future 2. Blanchard and Carey have much to teach us, but only as the antithesis of genuine leadership, authenticity, and those who serve before leading. If a leader chooses to work in an environment where quarterly profit is the key to remaining in power then the cynical application of modern leadership practices might work, but only in the short term. In time, however, those driven by ego, power, and greed will out themselves. Once the cover is ripped from their true motivations one hopes they’ll encounter a backlash at the hands of employees, customers, and society sufficient to make an example of them to their fellow executives, the board of directors, greedy investors, and their end-all be-all markets. One hopes the ascendency of this flawed style is over.

So, are these approaches sustainable in the future or should we expect them to be short-lived? Genuine servant leadership is part of the answer to the economic and social quandaries we find ourselves in, but it will only work when applied by honest and transparent leaders, not when cynically applied as the latest flavor of the month. These new, or rediscovered and refined, disciplines need time and encouragement to take root. Perhaps the myriad examples of current corporate leaders who do not have the mindset needed to extricate themselves from the messes they’ve made will give the new styles, such as servant leadership, deep change, and authenticity, time to grow and flourish. In time John Alexander assures us, “the nature of outstanding leadership will shift…with the ‘soft skills’ of building relationships, collaboration, and change management becoming more crucial” (Alexander, 2006).

Will internal and external factors influence the success of these approaches? Of course, both for worse and for better. Externally, so long as “The Electronic Herd” (Friedman, 2000) is ready, willing, and able to instantaneously take its capital where it can “earn” an extra penny per share, the pressures of the worldwide capital market will encourage faithless, greedy, and fearful leaders to make craven responses to business challenges. How to get the capital markets to tolerate investment in social equity and long-term goals is going to be a huge problem, and I don’t see how it can be resolved by principled leadership alone. Internally, companies, their missions, leaders, and employees must be in alignment. Not everyone will want to do the work that servant leadership requires. As noted by Andrea Kezar (2001) “personal transformation needs to be in alignment with where the institution needs to go” but if a leader cannot be authentic and successful in a particular organization he or she may need to find an environment where his or her talents are needed.” Such a turn of events is a loss to the company but not the transformational leader described by Robert Quinn in Deep Change (1996) who said, “If this company doesn’t want someone like me, it doesn’t deserve to have me.”

Using workers as replaceable cogs in a machine designed to accomplish the goals of the company is as old as the notion of profit. I’ve encountered persons in a position of authority spouting “think and grow rich” platitudes lifted from the latest business book, imagining that’s what makes leaders genuine or effective. It isn’t. I’ve seen leaders manage with an iron fist, others with knife in the back. But leading and following is a two way street. Quoting the sage, Confucius, Peter Senge said “that to become a leader “One must become a human being” (Senge, 2006). I have not always been the best leader I can be. As I’ve grown as a person – and become a better human being – I’ve learned that I must act without fear, or least without letting my fear get the best of me. In this I’ve been guided by bosses, coworkers, mentors, and instructors who create an environment in which dissent is respected, hard work honored, and mistakes tolerated – so long as I learned from them. Writing about Robert K. Greenleaf, Leider says, “The ultimate leadership challenge is self-leadership – mastery of the inner wisdom and courage to serve others” (Leider, 2006). I’m still working on that and hopefully I always will be.

I’ve learned that I’m most successful and joyful when I place the interest of my people ahead of my own and that of the company. When they know that their success is my primary concern they’re usually willing to listen to what the client wants from us, what our employer wants to do, or why the mission might be fun. It’s very much the way Stephen Covey sees it, “that leadership is not a formal position; it is a choice to deal with people in a way that communicates to them their worth and potential so clearly that they will come to see it in themselves.” (Covey, 2006)

So, it’s easy to tear down, harder to build. What will I do with my newfound passion around this topic? How will I integrate servant leadership into my professional practice? First, I will reject at every turn the shallow, short-term thinking typified by Blanchard and Carey. I never really believed in it I guess, but my silence served as tacit approval. Our families, American society, and the worldwide economy have had enough of being surprised by wolves in sheep’s clothing. Shame on us for deluding ourselves that self-regulation of publicly-traded for-profit enterprises was any different from letting the foxes guard our hen houses.

Then I must apply myself, in ways small and large, short term and over the long haul, to help leaders, and those who follow them, who want to lead authentic and internally consistent lives at work. I hope to summon the courage to take a lead from none other than Peter Drucker, who said “People, I realized, were what I valued, and I saw no point in being the richest man in the cemetery” (1999). He quit his safe and secure banking job at the height of a world-wide depression and sought genuine authenticity and opportunities for service, eventually becoming an esteemed leader of those who would help prepare leaders worth following.

This week I made a several small starts. I inverted my organization chart. My little box is now at the bottom, as I work upward through my supervisors and officers to serve our client’s 2500 employees and staff. It’s only ink on a page but it feels different. Then I wrote three simple surveys using that are collecting 360 degree feedback from the people I work with. I asked my employees what it’s like to work at the client site, for our employer, and with me. My client was asked about the ups and downs of working with my employer and me. I asked my leaders and peers at the office what I’m doing right and what I can do differently. Everyone I sent it to was at first confused, wondering if I thought I was in trouble for something. No, I said, I just want to know how I can do better. This week I also had to remove a poorly performing officer who had been a drain on the team for some time, despite many efforts to turn him around. I might have found a way to leave him in place, but not without telling my client that my convenience was more important than their service expectations, showing my employer I lack the resolve to take necessary action for the health of the organization, and most importantly, sending the rest of my team the signal that I value his mediocrity the same as I do their excellence. I need to find a new venue for my enthusiasm. My current primary assignment to a publicly-traded financial services company is not the right place for me. The solution may be teaching at the college level. It may be consulting. I may need to see how the non-profit sector could make use of my talents. Perhaps my solution will be a combination of all these and something else.

So, have I been too hard on Ken Blanchard and Dennis Carey? Maybe, but the idea of servant leadership is too valuable to be diluted, damaged, and devalued by being associated with anything resembling the styles of the weak, fearful, and greedy leaders that have led us to our current precipice. When it comes to the next generation of leaders, the ideas of servant leadership, leading from the spirit, and the transformational leader acting with integrity and authenticity, we must accept only the best examples.


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Bailey, D. (2006) Leading from the spirit. In F. Hesselbein and M. Goldsmith (Ed.), The Leader of the Future 2. San Francisco: Josey-Bass a Wiley Imprint.

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Senge, P. (2006) System citizenship: the leadership mandate for this millennium. In F. Hesselbein and M. Goldsmith (Ed.), The Leader of the Future 2. San Francisco: Josey-Bass a Wiley Imprint.

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