The Heart of Life-and-Death Leadership

“We lead men into harm’s way. We lead, they follow, and where we’re taking them is potentially to their death.”

I’ll never forget those straightforward, weighty words spoken to me many years ago by my late friend and mentor, Brigadier General John Hirt.

national guard

John and I were lying on our backs in sleeping bags in the Masai Mara region of Kenya. The Milky Way was more luminous above our heads than I had ever seen it. We were talking about his years of military service and what leadership looks like in times of war. The gravity of that conversation opened a hollow place in my chest, and some questions have lived there ever since.

“What kind of a leader will people follow toward harm? What leadership qualities will cause men and women to run into the teeth of danger, rather than shoot the leader in the back and flee (which, we all know happens)?

General Hirt’s answers to these questions were simple to understand, yet challenging to live. In memorial tribute to John’s memory, and to my living veteran and active service friends, Bruce Bickel, Ken Jennings, David Jennings, and others, here are his answers.

Men will follow a leader into harms way if they know that the leader loves them.

Men will follow a leader into harms way if they trust that leader, trust his character, his courage, and his capability.

Men will follow a leader into harms way if that leader leads them; if he both goes first and goes alongside them.

Men will follow a leader into harms way if they know that the leader won’t abandon them when times get difficult.

Thinking about leadership during the Memorial Day holiday blows a lot of smoke out of the room. Leadership is, first of all, leading. It is going first. Following requires a person to accept the initiatives of the leader. Giving commands is a part of leadership, but it isn’t the biggest part.

Second, leadership is proving you are trustworthy. It is having command of the task, exercising the courage the situation demands, and doing what you say. The leader who is followed is the leader who loves his followers, and has earned their respect and trust.

The greatest Memorial Day tribute I can think of is for us to pledge to grow in our leadership, to become more like the men and women we are memorializing. Love your followers! Earn their trust! Go where you ask them to go! Never break faith with them!

My thanks to the servicemen and servicewomen of this country who have committed themselves to a life of sacrificial service. And, thank you, dear friend, Dr. John B. Hirt, for your personal dedication and service to the mentorship of me!

John Stahl-Wert is co-author of the best-selling book “The Serving Leader.” He serves as President of Newton Institute and Director of its Center for Serving Leadership. Learn more at

Photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Wayne White, right, points out strike areas to a soldier from the 19th Special Forces Group during Exercise Eagle Eye at Warren Grove Gunnery Range, N.J., Feb. 18, 2016. Air and Army National Guard units teamed up for the joint training exercise which featured a variety of air assets. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht/Released)


Merry Christmas!

Throughout the course of the year, I have the privilege of working with extraordinary men and women who are committed to serve others and to serve a calling greater than themselves. Such men and women – leaders who chose to serve, or “serving leaders” – fashion organizations that produce extraordinary good in the world. They do so because the decision to place themselves into service frees them to put people first, principles first, excellence first, customers first.

Christmas Gifts

When we place self at the service of others, we are freed of a thousand daily distractions created by ego, fear, greed, and insecurity.

When we place self at the service of a great calling, we are empowered to focus time and energy toward things that make a true difference for the world.


Raise Vision High and Run with Great Purpose

A common myth about leadership is that a leader is responsible to “establish a compelling vision.” This is just not true. Many leaders step into an organization that already has a great vision, and they should not try to prove that they are a leader by cooking up some new vision.

Raise High the Vision

It is the leader’s job to make sure everyone understands why the business exists. Leaders aren’t required to come up with a great vision, but they are required to serve a great vision. Leaders who do not raise high a great purpose are throttling the contributions of the people who work for them. Human beings desire purpose. An organization’s vision must provide a compelling and noble reason for employees to care.


Leaders must raise vision high enough for everyone to have a direct sight line to it. Obviously, this demands that leaders communicate what the vision is—which we call Great Purpose. However, people respond to leaders’ actions more than to their words. Leaders must demonstrate the Great Purpose. This work not only includes communicating the vision to new employees, but also daily actions needed to reinforce the importance of the vision.

Great organizations are successful at getting their people to own the vision. As this happens, employees become more engaged and committed to doing their part to serve the Great Purpose.


Join Me at the Summit

When I first read Robert Greenleaf’s The Servant As Leader in the 1970s, I did not know I would dedicate much of my life to helping leaders put actionable steps to some of the author’s groundbreaking ideas.

Today, we’re seeing a movement towards servant leadership. From manufacturing industries to fast food franchises, organizations are leaving autocratic, hierarchic leadership models for practices that “Upend the Pyramid,” value people, serve customers, and paradoxically increase productivity and profitability.

This movement is served by a growing number of contemporary leaders, a number of whom I have the honor of joining in a special, online event entitled the Servant Leadership Summit. It takes place on Monday, November 9th, and you’re invited to participate in this exclusive, free webinar.


Hosted by Becky Robinson of Weaving Influence, and Karin Hurt of Let’s Grow Leaders, the online Summit will pair two thought leaders for 30-minute conversations on various aspects of servant leadership in action.

In addition to myself, participants include:

  • Ken Blanchard, bestselling author of The New One Minute Manager and servant leadership guru.
  • Mark Miller, bestselling author of 5 books including Chess Not Checkers, and Chick-fil-A Vice President for Leadership Development.
  • Cheryl Bachelder, CEO Popeye’s® and author of Dare to Serve.
  • Ken Jennings, bestselling co-author of The Serving Leaderand leadership consultant.
  • Pat M. Falotico, CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
  • Matt Tenney, author of Serve to Be Great, social entrepreneur, and keynote speaker.

During the online Summit, questions from participants will be taken, enabling us all to learn together. The speakers will discuss ways leaders can serve effectually, and how it will make a difference in your organizations and lives.

I encourage you to register today by clicking here and to share this blog post with your friends on social media.

See you at the Summit!

John Stahl-Wert is co-author of the best-selling book “The Serving Leader.” He serves as President of Newton Institute and Director of its Center for Serving Leadership. Learn more at


How to Close the Gap Between Knowing and Doing

Stanford professor of organizational behavior, Robert Sutton, says, “The gap between knowing and doing is larger than the gap between ignorance and knowledge.” I can’t verify Sutton’s observation empirically, but experience seems to bear this out. We are prone to cram our minds full of new things to know, yet fail to put into practice those few important things we need to do.


Let’s call this problem of knowing but not doing the “application gap.” Every one of us experiences this challenge, especially in our information-driven work world. While it’s true that there’s an ongoing need to learn and know more – you’ve heard the lament, “if I had only known!” – implementing what is already clear is our greater need.


How To Grow TGIM People

At the heart of Serving Leadership is a non-negotiable premise: people are your organization’s greatest treasure. This point of view requires a change in leaders accustomed to thinking of people as a tool, function, or cost.


Don’t get me wrong. Employees must be useful. They’re hired to accomplish important work. “What can I do to be more useful to you?” is a fantastic question for a young person to ask a first boss. It is guaranteed to distinguish that new worker from the rest of the pack.

But that’s my advice to workers. My advice for leaders is this: “Help your workers discover what they most love to do, what they’re best at doing, and how they can make their greatest contribution.”

There’s a paradox when it comes to how leaders view employees. When we view our workers primarily as tools to get stuff done, we tend to get less stuff done. But when we view employees as human beings worth investing in, we get more done.


Why Those Who CAN, (Must) Teach!

There’s a famous quote that is just, plain wrong. Those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach. We’ve all had the misfortune of bumping into a couple of blowhards who can neither do nor teach. While they’re “teaching,” it’s apparent they don’t know what they’re talking about. But apart from such, the greatest teachers are men and women who live what they teach.



This is especially true about leaders. Let me explain how this works, and why it is imperative that leaders who are good at leading must make a commitment to teach.


Why Serving Matters in the Workplace

Robert Greenleaf catalyzed a modern “servant leadership movement” in management philosophy over the last 40 years. His famous quote on the subject was this: “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”


This is the right question to ask. Do the people you lead—do the people you serve—become stronger, gain sharpness, grow in excellence and initiative, and deepen their sense of worth and purpose as a result of your leadership? And just why is this the right question? It’s the right question, simply because the people you serve do all the work. The more awesome they become, the more awesome their work.


Why Values Matter in the Workplace

Values are the foundation of an organization’s culture. Where Great Purpose addresses why we work, values guide how we work. This guidance will be intentional, or it will be unintentional, because every organization has values. The question is: “Will we choose the values that will guide us, or will we allow ourselves to be pushed around by the riptides of opportunity and crisis?”


Identify and Define Your Values

The enterprise that says – “We don’t waste our time on things like values. We’ve got a business to run!” – is, in reality, showing their underlying values. Examine the pattern of decisions and you’ll know what their “values statement” would say.

The business that says it values integrity, but rewards the salesperson bringing in the most business while cutting ethical corners, is displaying its true values. The stated values are not real, of course, but the company still has values. By their fruit, you will know!


6 Answers to the Heart’s Cry for Purpose

In my nearly 57 years, I’ve walked many long pathways alongside discouraged, depressed, or despairing friends and loved ones. I’ve sat by their bedsides. I’ve listened to the laments and the outcries of dear souls who feel utterly separated from life’s meaning and joy.

The leaders I serve are not immune from this kind of struggle, either. While others would assume their lives are going swimmingly, leaders, too, can descend into deep discouragement and malaise, even right in the midst of apparent triumph.

Sunset Oregon Grass

Milonica, my beloved wife of 35 years, has encountered long seasons of abject darkness; She who is—hands down—the brightest, most colorful, most deeply alive, and courageous human being I have ever known. And beautiful. Just saying.

When I was a young man, I was terrified of such despair, and I didn’t want to let it come close to me. But over the years, I’ve learned to be a companion to my friends and loved ones in their times of suffering. I’ve learned to be present, to walk alongside, and to be, simply, with. I’ve also learned to listen; really listen, beyond the noise of my own answers and my need to fix (which Milonica credits to my XY chromosome pattern).

One of the simplest and most frequently asked questions I’ve heard over the decades is, “What’s it all for?” This question is asked in a variety of ways: “What’s the use?” “What does any of this mean?” “What’s the point?” Or, when really stripped bare, the question comes out more simply as, “Why?” “Why am I even alive?”

We should be deeply curious about the fact that these questions—and this kind of despair—can strike anybody, visit every kind of circumstance, and torment all types of people. We human beings require meaning, is the short of it, and this fact should raise the hairs on the back of our necks. People who have every advantage, privilege, and perk of life can be brought to their knees with questions about life’s meaning. As can people suffering the worst of human privation. Equally astonishing is the availability of hope, which is no more a respecter of persons than despair. The privileged can live in hope, as can the poor.

A human person needs meaning and purpose, just as a daisy needs sun. We are more than the sum of our material parts; that is for sure. There is a life force—a law of our nature—that is at work within us, beyond survival and material want, and this life force cries out for purpose.

Listening closely over the years to the people I love and serve, I have learned that in our “search for meaning,” money, fame, power, and pleasure do not bring us satisfaction. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with money, fame, power, or pleasure. But men and women who believe that these things are the ultimate goal of life often report, when they gain them, that their despair only worsens.

So, what does answer the heart’s cry for purpose? Thus far in my listening and in my paying attention, I have identified six answers to this question. The human person cries out:

  1. To be known. We have, within us, an unassailable conviction that we are somebody, uniquely so, with a one-of-a-kind identity. In order to be known, we must go on a journey of learning about who we are, reflecting on our own life, and opening ourselves to feedback and discovery. We, ourselves, need to know who we are, just as we need others to know who we are.
  2. To be needed. Darwinian survival of the fittest misses the point. Human beings perish when they aren’t needed, useful, valued, or put to service. The retiree who doesn’t have anybody to get out of bed for doesn’t have long to live. That somebody needs us can explain our desire to live.
  3. To make a difference. Beyond being needed, we want to have a real impact in the world. We want to leave an imprint, to be effectual, to be heard and seen and felt. We long to know that the world is different—better—because we lived.
  4. To create. I have never met a human being that didn’t have an idea, a vision, a plan, or a scheme to bring something into existence. Parents create, as well as painters, entrepreneurs, gardeners, and pianists. Integral to our humanness is the inclination to take a notion, and then to bring into existence that thing we conceived.
  5. To love and to be loved. The truth about our requirements for love—both to love and to be loved—is manifest everywhere on earth. Suffice it to say that, arguably, the human person is the only creature on earth who cannot survive, let alone thrive, without love. Love is a human requirement, as is food, air, and water.
  6. To have purpose. Taken together, our cry to be known, to be needed, to make a difference, to create, and to have loving relationships constitutes our experience of purpose. And purpose is required. Life is simply impossible without it.

Recently, late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon fell in his apartment and nearly lost his finger when he caught his wedding ring on the corner of a table as he was going down. The entire ordeal landed him in the ICU for 10 days, which gave him time to think about his life and his purpose. During his hospitalization, Fallon read Victor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he “absolutely loved.” “I know the meaning of life,” Fallon recently said to his audience. “If anyone’s suffering at all, this is my job … this is why I’m here, I want to spread the love.”

Fallon gets it. What’s it all for? We’re here for others. Frankl says it this way:

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

John Stahl-Wert is co-author of the best-selling book “The Serving Leader.” He serves as President of Newton Institute and Director of its Center for Serving Leadership. Learn more at

Photo by Toni Kellar (Sunset off the coast of Oregon)