Timothy R. Clark: Are you a servant-leader?

Published: Monday, July 23 2012 10:46 a.m. MDT

We’ve had a spike in scandals the past few days. First there was the Secret Service party in Bogota. Then we had it come to light that Barclays and other banks have been fudging numbers in an attempt to manipulate LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rate) to reduce borrowing costs. Then the Louis Freeh report revealed that Penn State head football coach, Joe Paterno, university president, Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley collaborated in their failure to report Jerry Sandusky for alleged child abuse. And finally, Peregrine Financial Group founder and chairman, Russell Wasendorf Sr. confessed that he had defrauded his clients out of more than $100 million over a period of 20 years.

Do we take this all in stride? At what point is our descent into corruption deep enough to stop us in our tracks? When does it become sufficiently repugnant that we can’t endure our own silence any longer? When does the fire of indignation burn hot enough that we look around and admit that feckless, nihilistic, value-neutral schools and government institutions are failing us, and that the institution of the family is in desperate need of support?

As sports writer Jason Gay wrote recently about the Penn State tragedy, we just don’t want to “look into the soul of the scandal.” As a society, we don’t want to look into our own souls for fear that when weighed in the balance, we are found wanting. So much of this begins and ends with leadership. We are forgetting what the term means. Above all else, leadership is about moral responsibility. Indeed, the servant-leader model of leadership is the only model of leadership. All other conceptions are self-serving variations that seek personal enrichment. Personal enrichment is what happens when your effort is directed beyond self.

New York Times columnist David Brooks explains the pattern: “Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

It takes enormous strength of character to lead and withstand the seductions of serving self. Dan Vasella, the CEO of Swiss Pharmaceutical giant, Novartis, does what senior leaders in all organizations should do as they mentor their younger counterparts: I talk to my team about the seductions that come with taking on a leadership role. There are many different forms: sexual seduction, money, praise. You need to be aware of how you can be seduced in order to be able to resist and keep your integrity.”

Leadership is beguiling for all the wrong reasons, most notably the three Ps —profit, power and prestige. Too often the three Ps overpower the leader. The leader is not a leader anymore. That is what happened at the Secret Service, Barclays, Penn State and Peregrine Financial. The power of the three Ps was stronger than they were. Now those leaders will go to correctional institutions, but we won’t correct anything until we start focusing on character education instead of corruption prevention. The ambulance at the bottom of the cliff is too little too late.

The problem begins when we set our heart on the 3 Ps, when we worship them. The late David Foster described it thus: “If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. ... Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.”

Whatever’s on the inside eventually comes out. If you have drunken ambition, it comes out. If you have a servant’s heart, that comes out.

A servant-leader is happy to bask in the reflected glory of his team. Let’s remember that.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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