When Helping is a Disservice

LendAHandServant leadership is more than doing something nice for others.  Yes, kind and generous actions are a key element.  But the more you assess the situation and the better you understand those being served, the more that all involved will experience the full richness of servant leadership.  Without it your actions could actually be a disservice to those you are attempting to serve.

Robert Greenleaf said the test of servant leadership is this,

“Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

To deepen my understanding of servant leadership I periodically form and refine my own definition.

To serve is to live in such a way that others become more from what I do.  Servant leadership is serving in a way that others become servants who lead.

Before you reach out, reflect within on a few questions.

  • Does my service help them reach their goals?  Or is my only objective to achieve my own goals?
  • Does my service help them to become more skilled, more knowledgeable, more self-aware?  If I do what they are able to do themselves,  will I deny them an opportunity to learn and grow?
  • Does my service help them to become more self-sufficient and self-confident?  Or is there a risk they will become dependent on my assistance?
  • How will their life be different as a result of my service?  What change will this bring about?
    • Are they prepared for this change?  Will they be equipped for the new reality?
    • Are they involved in the process enough to feel ownership of the results?
  • Does my service allow me to be enriched by the experience?  If service is harmful to the one who is serving, it is a disservice to all.  We each have our own unique gifts to share.  And if anyone, even the servant, becomes less we all become less.  Give of yourself without giving up yourself.

A key is relationship.  In relationship we gain the understanding necessary to serve effectively.  In relationship an act of kindness becomes a message of love.  In relationship we share responsibility for the outcome.  In relationship we grow and become more from what we do.  In relationship we lead.

Go the extra mile to do something special for others,
but also go deeper to be someone of significance to others.

Image: foto76 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Remembering Van Eaton

VanEaton2 When I learned the story of Thomas Van Eaton I was troubled by it, but even more so by the circumstances around it.

Mr. Van Eaton was an early European settler in Central Minnesota in the 1860s. In 1862 conflict between the Dakota people and the growing number of settlers erupted in violence, in what is commonly referred to as the Dakota Uprising.  While the worst of the fighting was over fifty miles south of Van Eaton’s homestead, there were attacks in other areas as well.  Thomas brought his wife and five children to a stockade twenty miles away.  Returning to his farm a couple days later to check on the cattle he was attacked by a group of Dakota.  Defending himself with his back to a tree he killed eight of them before he himself was brutally killed.

Though the details of the death of Mr. Thomas Van Eaton and the eight Dakota were disturbing, what disturbed me most was the realization this took place a few miles from where I grew up.  And I had never before heard the story.  The tiny village of Grove Lake where his homestead was, where he died and where he is buried today is just four miles from my boyhood home.  Why was I learning of it now for the first time?

Why are there no signs or monuments to recognize this historical event or the nine men who lost their lives in it?  Why was there never any mention of it in school?  Why had I never heard of it in the local lore?  And what of the eight Dakota?  Where is the story that at least tells us their names?

This past summer a couple family members and I went to the Grove Lake Cemetery to seVanEaton1e if we could find Thomas’ grave.  It took us awhile, but we eventually found the gravestone matching a picture online.  It was off in the corner, tucked in against a tree.  The stone looks like it was badly damaged and poorly repaired.  The name Van Eaton is misspelled and backwards.  This alone is the physical marker of the events around the life and death of Mr. Thomas Van Eaton.

In addition to bringing light to this story, I also feel compelled to point out an important lesson the circumstances hold for leaders.  One of the key roles of a leader is storyteller.  Leaders need to shape a story of a better future around a shared vision.  But leaders also need to keep alive the stories of the past.  While it is not good to dwell in the past, we do need to remember those events that shaped who we are.  This includes not just the recollection of our great victories, but also our struggles and our failures.  In the shadows of our humanness we are reminded to hold fast to the light of our humanity.

The story of Thomas Van Eaton

For the Benefit & Enjoyment of the People

YellowstoneEntryWritten upon the Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park are the words,
“For the Benefit and
Enjoyment of the People.”
These words come from the 1872 act of Congress that formed the park.

What if those words were carved in stone at the entrance of every organization, and the people within lived this in shared purpose and vision? “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”

Now I’m not suggesting that every place of employment should be turned into a playground, a 9-to-5 recess time. Hardly. Imagine though if every organization existed first and foremost for the sake of the individual. What would it be like if the primary objective was to provide each and every person meaningful work? What if the purpose of all organizations was to provide opportunities that one could not realize on their own, to live out the best of who they are in work that matters, to be challenged to become more and to be enriched and grow from the work?

“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” What if?

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get from it, but what they become from it.”
John Ruskin

Can you?

In a first for the Be blog here is a video post.  I wasn’t sure if I could do this or not, so I gave it a try.

“Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why.”
Benjamin Zander

“When you take risks there is the very real possibility of failure. When you take no risks there is the absolute certainty of failure.”
Ralph Marston

Organizational Leadership?


The words ‘Organizational Leadership’ can seem incongruous.  The key elements of leadership are very personal and relational.  How does that fit within a structured group environment? Basically, leadership is leadership, and Organizational Leadership is leadership that occurs within an organization.  But it does present special challenges and opportunities, and in the context of certain leadership principles ‘Organizational Leadership’ does make sense.

Leaders lead people. 

Leaders don’t lead programs or projects or processes.  Those things are managed.  The people involved in them are led.

Organizations are people.

And like people, organizations are defined not by what they do but by who they are.  It is first and foremost about the being of the organization – the story, the beliefs, the abilities, the culture of shared values, the vision.  This is then lived out and reflected in what the organization does.  Leaders of the organization focus first on leading the organization and the individuals within it to know who they are and to become more.

Leadership isn’t found on an org chart.

There are operational concerns with organizations that need to be handled by managers.  But the responsibility of leading people should not be placed solely on these same people.  Whatever role a person has within an organization, manager or not, they will be more effective in that role the more they are capable, committed and free to lead.

Organizations exist ultimately for the benefit of the individual.

Organizations provide efficiency that allows individuals to accomplish more than they could on their own.  But more importantly organizations provide an environment that allows individuals to become more than they would ever realize on their own.

Organizational success is marked by individual growth.

Using individuals for the sake of the work of the organization will not bring sustainable success.  If individuals within the organization are not becoming more as a result of their being a part of the organization, the organization is not fulfilling its ultimate purpose.  The responsibility to fulfill this organizational purpose falls on each individual, to respond as called upon to be a leader to others around them.

Take a moment to think about each organization that you are a part of, both occupational and volunteer, and ask yourself – Am I finding personal fulfillment and growth from being a part of this organization?  Are those of us within the organization clear on who we are, and who we want to become, as an organization?  Is this honestly reflected in what we do?  How am I a leader within this organization, serving others that they may find personal fulfillment and growth?

“In organizations, real power and energy is generated through relationships. The patterns of relationships and the capacities to form them are more important than tasks, functions, roles, and positions.”  Margaret Wheatly

“An empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success.” Stephen R. Covey

“The quality of leadership, more than any other single factor, determines the success or failure of an organization.” Fred Fiedler & Martin Chemers

Image: Liz Noffsinger / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What is Servant Leadership?

MountainLeadServant leadership – what exactly is it?  How is it unique from other perspectives on leadership? Who or what is it that is served?  What does it mean to be a follower of a servant leader?

One of my goals in 2013 is to explore those questions.  I want to learn more of how others define and live out servant leadership, and better formulate my own understanding of it.  For now I set a marker on the trail, to measure against later, laying out here what I believe servant leadership is, and what it is not.

Servant Leadership is not self serving.

One element that is clear is that servant leadership is not self serving.  Being a leader doesn’t mean that I have somehow become more at the expense of others becoming less.  Becoming a leader is not the outcome of a competition with others.

Servant Leadership is not self deprecating.

While I do not become more from others becoming less, it is also true that others do not become more from my becoming less.  A distinction of servant leadership is that I give of myself.  But to give of myself does not mean that I give up myself.  Servant leadership isn’t self serving, nor is it self deprecating.

Service is not sacrifice, it is surrender.*

More precisely, service is not sacrifice of self, it is surrender to us.  As a servant leader I surrender to a different reality where all grow because each grows.  I give of myself, and I lead others to give of themselves.  Together we serve each other in order that what we do brings us to a place where we all become more.

By influence, not authority;
by heart, not title;
by relationship, not structure –
leaders lift people
and bring all together
on higher ground.

How exactly does this come to be? How is this lived out in the day-to-day? Well, this is all part of what I have yet to learn.

“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.
Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.
That person is sharply different from one who is leader first.”
Robert Greenleaf

Photo courtesy of AESThetic Photography


* While this view of service and sacrifice seemingly conflicts with the writings of Robert Greenleaf, who stated that sacrifice is a key part of servant leadership, our views are much the same in concept.  He wrote, “I believe that the essential quality that sets servant-leaders apart from others is that they live by their conscience – the inward moral sense of what is right and what is wrong. That one quality is the difference between leadership that works and leadership – like servant leadership – that endures.” and “The essence of moral authority or conscience is sacrifice – the subordinating of one’s self or one’s ego to a higher purpose, cause, or principle.”  What he describes as sacrifice is similar to what I describe as surrender.  I hesitate to use the word sacrifice because of the connotations that have been ascribed to use of the word.  People tend to assume a reference to the subordination of self to others, but what Robert Greenleaf espoused was the subordination of self to a higher purpose.

Happy New Year, Anniversary and Birthday!

HalfDogNew Years is a marvelous time.  We look ahead to the year before us with hope and anticipation.  There are predictions of what we think might happen and plans and resolutions* for what we want to happen.

The way we approach birthdays and anniversaries, however, is much different.  These are events to look back and reflect on the year that has past.  While New Years is celebrated at the beginning of the year, birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated at the end, giving them an overtone of, “We survived another one!  Let’s celebrate!”

What if birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated in the same way as New Years?  What if they were a time to eagerly look forward to the year ahead?  What if we celebrated a child’s first birthday on the day they are born?  What if couples celebrated their first anniversary on their wedding day?  What if organizations celebrated the first anniversary of their existence on the day they are formed?

Now I’m not advocating that we rewrite treasured tradition.  However, I do suggest that each and every day is a time to reflect back as on birthdays and anniversaries, and a time to lean forward into the future as on New Years.

Each moment is lived on a fine point in time between what has been and what is yet to be.  Life is a dance of hopes upon a stage built of memories.  This ever shifting place called Now is rich with experience and possibility.  The wonders of a new beginning are there for us, if our eyes are open to see them, and our hearts are open to embrace them.

Happy New Year!  Happy New Day!  Happy New You!

“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on,
with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.”  Hal Borland

Photo courtesy of AESThetic Photography

*For a great perspective on plans vs. resolutions check out the recent post by Steve Keating – Plans or Resultions?

Leadership of the Heart

IceCanoeBy data I know.
By reason I trust.
By faith I believe.

As a leader,
I can use data to convince people to follow.

As a leader,
I can use reason to persuade people to follow.

But in a place beyond logic and reason,
when people have faith in me as a leader and belief in the vision,
then leadership of the heart occurs.

This requires relationship.

To lead by heart is an honor.
But more so it is humbling, for leader and follower together
serve a purpose greater than any one alone could ever realize.

When you follow, follow your heart,
and choose your leaders wisely.
And when by heart you are chosen to lead
grab hold of that which you could never possess

and lead on!

When the Do Falls

Life isn’t lived in a straight line.  There are bends we plan for and hairpin twists we never see coming.  These changes in course have an impact on our life, for they are the stuff of life itself.

In the Be-Do cycle our doing flows from our being, and enriches our being. When that is in place it’s a cycle of growth. But a change in what we do can have a significant impact on the cycle.

Milestone life changes such as graduation, marriage, a new job, moving or retirement are events we look forward to with joy and anticipation.  But they can have unexpected effects if we don’t stop to think through how life will be different afterwards.  Being promoted to a new job brings new opportunities, but can also mean leaving behind relationships that affect our lives in ways we don’t realize.

Profound events such as the unexpected loss of a job or the death of someone close to us can really shake us up.  One day our normal routine comes to a screeching halt, and we’re no longer doing what we were doing before. The most severe, punch-in-the-gut experiences can even leave us with a hole in our life that can’t be filled, where there is no new lifestyle that will provide the activities that allow the same expression and enrichment of who we are. It’s a time when we really need to dig deep and get a good hold of who we are.


What we do is an expression of who we are.  When what we do changes it can take away a channel for us live out who we are.  The key thing to remember in times of such change is that what we do does not define us.  It should reveal us and reflect us, but we are who we are, not what we do.  Even though what we do is changing, we are still who we are.

A change in our doing actually provides a good opportunity to step back a moment and reflect on who we are.  Am I who I think I am? What are my core values? Are my new activities true to these values? Do I need to adjust my vision? How was I living out who I am prior to the change?  In what new ways can I live that out?


What we do should enrich who we are.  This is where a disruption to Do can really be hard.  When we lose a source of enrichment and fulfillment in our lives it can have a major impact on our being.

Again this is a good time to reflect.  What benefits and blessings was I receiving from what I was doing before?  Which were the most meaningful to me?  What would my life be like without that?  Can I find another source in my new activities, or start another new activity that would provide what I need? If a new job isn’t supplying an important element of enrichment for me, can I find it in a volunteer activity?

As a leader

Leading is guiding people forward and bringing about change.  But change for people often means a change in what they do.  As a leader it is important to be aware of the impact this has.  If the leader has built this change upon communal values and shared vision, the new actions will provide the people an even better means to live out who they are,  and will enrich who they are in new and wondrous ways.  However, if the change brought about by a leader only interferes with the Be-Do cycle of the individuals, then the individuals will not grow, and neither will the team or organization.

When life takes a turn and there is major change in what you normally do – Hold onto who you are. Seize the opportunity to better understand and even refine who you are. Reflect on how to live that out. Seek new means of enrichment, in order that you may become all that you are meant to be.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Alan Watts

Photo courtesy of AESThetic Photography

The Mythical Pyramid of Leadership

“Flatten the pyramid!”  While the call to reduce or even eliminate the pyramidal management structure is nothing new, I have noticed it gaining volume of late.  The new generation of employees demands a less bureaucratic reporting structure, states one recent article.  The current speed of business requires a leaner operation, says another.  Often referred to is the company Valve, which has no hierarchical management structure at all.

What strikes me, though, as I look at the details of the demands is that at the core of the issue this isn’t even a matter of management.  It’s about leadership.  A reduction of management is not what people are truly seeking, even though they say it is.  Rather their aim is an expansion of leadership.

Our concepts of leadership and management are too closely interwoven.  Career success is to get as high as possible on the managerial pyramid, and the person that’s ahead in the race is therefore the leader, right?  Really?

Leadership is not about rising above others, it’s about lifting others up. 
Leadership isn’t about getting ahead of others, it’s about moving others forward.

People want to make a difference.  They want the freedom to lead.  But when leadership is falsely woven into the managerial pyramid it denies the opportunity for all but a few.  Leadership needs to be recognized as distinct from management.  Yes, managers should be expected to be leaders.  But so should those not in management.

When leadership is seen for what it truly is something amazing happens.  The leadership pyramid goes away.  Leadership is not a position.  And if there is no position, there is no pyramid.

Each organization needs to determine the management structure best for them, and as long as leadership isn’t tangled into this they’re fine.  In an organization with a culture that allows everyone the opportunity to lead, regardless of title or position, the managerial pyramid is turned from a blockade of bureaucracy to a stepping stone towards greatness.