Yesterday, I spent several hours with a group of under-40 entrepreneurs in Chicago, reflecting on the deep paradox of leadership that is captured in The Serving Leader, which I wrote with my friend, Ken Jennings.
In summary, here is what we dialogued about yesterday.
Fully alive human beings are needed at every workstation in a company, each man and woman with their brains humming and their hearts beating and their imagination soaring, with their eyes seeing, their ears tuned in, and their empathy fully alive. Great organizations are great because the people who show up at work every day bring their humanity with them and take up their posts thinking and acting as though they themselves are the owner of the company.
A manager cannot incentivize that kind of behavior, nor write it into detailed job descriptions, nor threaten sufficiently to cause it to be forthcoming. Carrots and sticks don’t win the human heart!
And here is the hard truth. Workers who give their full humanity to a job choose to do so.
They choose to, or they choose not to. Their freely given “second-mile” contributions, which are infinitely greater in value than the specific tasks they must do to earn their paycheck, are entirely electable (or rejectable) by the man or the woman who is on the job.
A human person can say, “I’m going to go the second mile here, and I’m going to make a difference.” Or that person can say, “It is fruitless for me to do that extra thing, even though I know it would make a difference.” Either way—choosing to do more or choosing not to do more—the human worker gets to keep their job; indeed, the boss is usually never the wiser.
A man or a woman gets to decide when a job is just a job and when a job is so very much more. Either way, they will collect their paycheck, their family will be fed, and they will be able in the evening time, or on the weekend, or over vacation, or perhaps eventually in retirement to devote more of their personhood to things they care about deeply.
The greatest companies on earth are great because many people show up in a big way—beyond the performance management system, the incentives, or the threats—to do great things for the company. In this sense, leadership is not very important. People, acting by choice and according to their own free will, do the great work that makes a company great. In short, people do the great work! Leaders don’t!
But, paradoxically, the greatest companies on earth are great because a humble, high integrity leader creates a workplace in which men and women freely choose to give their very best. In short, great leaders shape the kind of organization that people find to be worthy of their utmost, worthy of their very life.
It is the people who do the great work, and who must be helped to grow. It is the leader who grows the people, and who causes the organization to be worthy of service. The people must grow and become strong. The leaders must serve and share their strength.
At the end of the day, when the work is done and the results are achieved, it is the people who make the difference, not the leader. The people stand tall, produce big, achieve greatness.
And the leader? The leader serves. The leader knows that greatness, in so far as the leader’s contribution is concerned, begins with laying greatness down. The power and privilege the leader enjoys has a purpose, and its purpose is found in service to the organization’s vision, to its people, to its core values, to its mission, and to its growth and strengthening.
Where are you on your journey to become such a leader? Are you on your way? Yes, it’s a long journey, this growing up into great leadership. It takes roughly a lifetime (usually, I say, it takes approximately a minute longer than a lifetime).
Keep pressing! The human beings who work with us long to give more and be more.
Let’s become more worthy of them!
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