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Leadership: a Quest for Power or an Obligation to Serve?


Leadership: a Quest for Power or an Obligation to Serve?

The beginning of commerce in the ancient world provides us with a critical clue for the essence of enduring leadership. Imagine yourself as a traveling merchant on a dusty village road in the ancient world toward dusk. Not a motel in sight, and not a street lamp either. It’s going to be dark soon, and you are getting anxious. You knock on a door. The owner takes you in, offers you a bowl of water to clean up, then a meal, then a safe place to sleep. You talk about your business. In the morning you offer a small payment or a gift, perhaps even the offer of a little work before you leave; then you continue on your way, probably with a few leads as to who to call on—perhaps with a reputation that is just a little better than yesterday. Thus hospitality and commerce are combined. Indeed, without hospitality your very life in commerce may not have lasted very long.

I’m sure there were as many scoundrels then as there are now. Some then, and some now, prefer opaqueness over transparency; some found it easy to put the proverbial thumb on the scale, to get a little more than they deserved. So where do we draw the line? The answer is the moment we sense that we are on the slippery slope toward a quest for power over an obligation to serve. What will you be remembered for? Will it be self-effacement over self-aggrandizement? Will you build a statue to yourself or a park-bench for others to sit on and rest? Is your behaviour temperate or extreme? Is your hand even or heavier when it comes to guiding others. Do you hide the ball or do you explain everything? Do you exploit or do you nurture?

Are you mean or generous; and seriously, do you really see life as a zero-sum game?

While I’m at it, please keep in mind that kindness does not equate to weakness. You can be every bit the strong and effective leader and still leave others feeling satisfied and heard. Justice, decisiveness, measured-ness, generosity, and care can all be combined with strong and effective leadership.

I once asked a very successful and philanthropic industrialist why he derived so much pleasure in his charitable activity. He said, “Paul, money is like manure. If you pile it up it just stinks; but if you spread it around carefully, things grow.”

Please take time this summer to think about your legacy, and your leadership.

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