Leadership is about Giving


By James Lewis

There is be a global tendency to believe that positions of power are platforms that entitles one to take from the world.

It is little wonder we have bred generations of narcissistic autocratic management that manifests toxic cultures that suck the enthusiasm and spirit from those with the desire and talent to contribute.  In fact, one of the most common retorts when people are asked to serve is ‘what is in it for me?’.

It seems too few people in positions of power, desire to be a catalyst or a contributor to the betterment of the world.  Too few people desire to be true leaders.

Mahatma Gandhi said that: 

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

How many more iconic leaders need to tell us that we need to change the prevailing paradigm. Leadership is about what we give, not what we take or make.

When I think back over my life, I recall many leaders who acted on values of giving and of service. My parents were such leaders. I had teachers who practiced these values.  I have also met exceptional people who I have had the privilege to work with and I have read about the lives of great political leaders like Mandela or Gandhi. I have been shaped by what these people ‘gave’ me.

These examples are predominately out shadowed by a darkness, that I can only liken to a ‘leadership vacuum’ in the world.  A leadership vacuum driven by fear, control, and rampant and unchecked egos. And, in times of great uncertainty, it is human nature to self-preserve.  We tend to protect ourselves and those closest to us.  So, when we are out of touch with those we are supposed to be leading, they are unlikely to be close to us and protected by us.

The burning question I have is why so many people in authority have not grasped the critical principle of leadership as a service?  Why are we so enamored with such a destructive approach to ‘leadership’ – one which is typified by desire for power, authority and entitlement? One which expects to be served and not to serve?

Perhaps it is because our political and business cultures are so toxic and leaders have, quite frankly, lost their moral compass.  These ‘leaders’ have chosen power over influence, a common human conundrum that dominates how people align themselves with groups instead of a higher moral purpose.

Perhaps, it is a focus on profit at all costs, with systems designed to get the most out of people through any means necessary.

Perhaps it is because so many people lack the courage to lead with conviction and authenticity, in a world dominated by corruption and driven by fear.

I believe failing leadership can be blamed on the way we think about business.  We are intensely manipulated by the bottom line; focused only on what we can make from markets versus the value we provide. Even accolades such as ‘Businessperson of the year’ are awarded based on the revenue they have generated and not what they have contributed to society.

We incentivize greed.   As Harvard Busines School’s Bill George so correctly notes; “We have idolized the wrong leaders, associating image with leadership and confusing stock price with corporate value. You cannot legislate integrity, stewardship, or good governance. We need a new generation of corporate leaders to restore the public trust in our corporations.”

I wonder whether leadership, in the corporate and political contexts, can become something other than self-serving and ruthless? Is it possible to practice servant leadership within these systems when this self-serving image of ‘leadership’ has been propagated by the corporate world over the last 100 years or more.

I believe it goes even deeper than the systems at play.  Many people in authority are stuck in an egotistical paradigm of leadership. To them, leadership is an indication of self-importance that requires service and loyalty from others.  True leaders, however, are those with a deep sense of self-awareness and an understanding of their purpose in the service of others.

I believe that if these were the types of leaders in power, they would see how their organisations are, in essence, failing humanity.

It was Bill Gates who aptly said that

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”

And to empower is to give.  Leaders give time, opportunities, value, respect, ideas, energy, feedback, counsel, support, hope, interest, space, confidence, assurance, personal recognition, the list goes on. 

In fact, when you consider negative experiences you’ve had with people in your life – could they have taken any of these things from you?

This is what differentiates a leader from a person in a position of authority.

I believe that for the self-aware and conscious leader, leadership is very much about giving.  These leaders do exist. They are known as Level 5 leaders, a concept developed by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great.  Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not for themselves. They often work under the radar and out of the spotlight. They serve their purpose regardless of whether they receive praise, recognition, or financial incentive.

Leadership founded in the principle of giving and service is alive in many places, and in many people.  It is just not always where we look for it and where we desperately need it. There are pockets of the most effective servant leadership, but these are overwhelmed by the counterweight of self-serving, oppressive, and corrupt bodies of authority.   They are overwhelmed by those masquerading as leaders through their privilege, historical lines of authority, technical skills or because of structured placement strategies designed to re-engineer inequity or self-serving agendas.

Yes, humanity is up against barriers of systemic corruption, power-mongering, cowardly management and moral decline.  True leaders are often fighting for their own moral and spiritual growth.  This all makes the choice to lead quite risky.

However, I believe we are all born with the potential to lead.  And perhaps, all it takes is a little introspection and asking the simple question; “Why is someone richer, for having interacted with me today?”

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone,
The courage to make tough decisions,
and the compassion to listen to the needs of others,
He does not set out to be a leader,
But becomes one by the quality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”   Anon