Saturday, May 7, 2011

Grounded Leadership

 The above image comes from the website for the book SEVEN PILLARS OF SERVANT LEADERSHIP, by James Sipe and Don Frick. Anyone who has visited this blog in the past will know I am definitely a believer in servant leadership as professed by Robert Greenleaf. Because of this I looked forward to delving into Seven Pillars, especially since I found Don's Frick's biography of Greenleaf a great read. 

As I came across the image above in the "Introduction" to the book, I was at first intrigued by the simplicity of the diagram, the structural metaphor, and the components of servant leadership that make up the structure.  As a former civil engineering student, I recalled one of the basic lessons from a structures class that for any structure to be stable, there is a need for a foundation supported in the earth.  Unfortunately, the well conceived design by a psychologist and leadership-communication professional wouldn't pass the basic structures test.  

My first clue to the pillars instability came from the second pillar, "Put People First".  At first glance this seems like a great concept, one that often seems to be forgotten by most organizations.  But on deeper reflection, it is this concept of putting people first and separating ourselves and our institutions from the rest of the planet that actually drives most organizations. This separation from the Earth allows us to treat it as an endless source of resources to consume and manufacture products from; dump the resulting wastes into the air, land and water; and fuel our primary drive for profit.  Once we separate people from the earth, the next step is to start segmenting people into those like us and those different from us, and use them as resources the same way we use the earth.  And these are the structures that build our hierarchies and these are the stories we tell ourselves and our children. 

An example of this process of accepting the division of people into the haves and have-nots can be found in the chapter that highlights the pillar "Person of Character".  Sipe writes about a client of his who "was a highly successful attorney, founder and CEO of an influential lobbying firm" and "a man of character" and "of principle, humble in spite of his considerable wealth and power".  He "was in the process of trying to secure a six-figure account with a healthcare organization that was up against a much larger competitor for the right to build a new medical complex" and "he was reasonably confident that he had a strong shot, given his track record in healthcare and  his thirty-year friendship with the district's popular state senator, whose vote would tip the scales in favor of his prospective client."

Unfortunately for the lobbyist, the health care organization did not hire him, and got the needed votes to gain the contract without having to pay the lawyer his six figure contract.  Apparently this "humble" CEO demonstrated character by not using his influence with the senator to have him vote against the health care organization who spurned the lobbyist.  It seems to me that it is easy to keep your integrity when you lose six-figure contracts when you already have considerable wealth.  That is not the humility that finds its roots in humus - the earth.  

What keeps these messed up concepts about humility and character being passed on from generation to generation has much to do with the stories we tell ourselves and our children.  Sipe uses his passing on the "tooth ferry" story to his five-year old daughter as one of the "Defining Moments in Action" of his life.  In his reflections, he tells how early in his psychology career he found himself spending long hours at the office at the cost of lost time with his wife and daughter.  His "defining moment of his character formation" occurred when his daughter lost her first tooth at the breakfast table and then lost the tooth to boot.  He and his daughter lamented the lost tooth, the lost opportunities for a visit from the tooth ferry, and lost opportunities to earn some booty in the form of cash for the pain suffered in loosing the tooth.  His daughter burst into tears, and Sipe found himself unable to perform at work that day. 

So in order to avoid his own pain of facing his saddened daughter after work he concocted a scheme to obtain another child's tooth from a dentist and with surrogate tooth in hand he happily went back to work.  After work, he lied to his daughter telling her they found the lost tooth, the imaginary tooth ferry came, and his daughter earned her reward of cash in the bank.  Sipe was rewarded by an easing of his guilty conscious for spending too much time at work, "a barrage of hugs and kisses" by his daughter, and to top it off "an expression of understanding and admiration" from his wife.  

I don't mean to criticize Sipe for his parenting methods as I can recall similar instances in trying to raise my own daughters.  But telling lies to our children is not what servant leadership is about and telling stories of tooth ferries leaving money in exchange for teeth will not help our children to understand the aches and pains of life. Defining moments in life occur when we can be honest with our children about our mistakes and when we realize that making money is not what life is about. 

Its too bad that Sipe and Frick could not come up with better examples of what real servant leadership looks like.  The corporations they highlight as servant led, demonstrate regularly that without a foundation based in the earth -- people get laid off, unions get busted, and safety problems get hidden.  See the headlines below for examples. 

FAA inspectors: Southwest tried to hide safety problems

Cloaking a corporation in servant leadership does not make it an ethical institution any more then putting lipstick on a pig changes the the pig.   

So despite some good efforts by the authors to simplify Greenleaf's concepts, you cannot make the model work, unless it is grounded in in a solid foundation.  If we want institutions to serve people, we need to put the earth, and the ecosystems that sustain us first.  When we do this, we won't have to worry about putting people first anymore, but rather keeping ourselves in the proper perspective of our ecosystem.  Perhaps the model below might be a beginning  example of how we can do this.