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Donkin on Work - Leadership

January 1999 - Servant Leadership

One of my favourite books is a children's story called The Trip to Panama by Janosch, the pseudonym of Horst Eckert, the German illustrator. It is a story about two animal friends who live in a house by a river. They are reasonably happy but share a belief that somewhere else life might be so much better. One day they find an old banana crate floating past their garden. On the side it says "Panama".

Without knowing anything about the place, they decide that Panama is the "land of our dreams" and set off to find it. On the way they meet and befriend other animals. All seem entranced by this magical place called Panama.

After what seems like endless days of wandering the friends come upon a house. It looks perfect and they conclude that this really must be Panama. They settle there, blissfully happy that they have found the land of their dreams. It is their old house, of course.

It sometimes seems to me that we are all in search of Panama, chasing something undefinable that, if we stop and look around us, we may discover has been there all along. Perhaps the journey is an essential part of this self-discovery. In Robert Frost's poem, Directive , he wrote of being "lost enough to find yourself".

Maybe Janosch's story is a milder variation of The Wizard of Oz , exploring ideas of self-discovery without the harsher experiences of Dorothy and her companions; or maybe it is a simple explanation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Finding the land of your dreams could be the equivalent of striving towards what the management writer Abraham Maslow called self-actualisation - fulfilling your potential or doing what you know you must do.*

Some of these thoughts were inspired partly from reading a collection of essays by Robert Greenleaf** - recently re-published in the US - and partly from a meeting with Mark Dixon, chairman of Regus, the business-centre company.

Greenleaf, a former research manager at AT&T, made a name for himself in later life expounding his concept of the servant leader. His idea was that true leadership could be found through service. I did not fully understand his meaning in a corporate sense before speaking with Mr Dixon, who has some refreshing views on conventional leadership . "There is no hierarchy in this company," he says. He sees himself at the bottom of the organisation, instilling his own vision into the company's employees.

Mr Dixon has a very clear idea of the direction and aims of his business. He sees it not simply as a profitable enterprise but as a service that will help to change the way that people work.

A large infrastructure of office space with support staff and technology, he argues, could herald a return to the values of the community, allowing people to work near their homes. "When employing someone in five year's time, they'll say 'what's the salary, what's the benefits, and can I have an office down the road'. They will not assume there is an office at headquarters. This is a fundamental shift in thinking. People will not want to waste two hours in traffic every day."

But it is Mr Dixon's pragmatic approach to leadership that is most striking. It is not seeking power but information, primarily in one direction - what do people need and how can I provide it? Surely this is true servant leadership .

Greenleaf was also attracted to the moral dimension of leadership , the idea of self-fulfilment in providing a service to society. Again this seems evident in the Regus concept.

One of Greenleaf's most important observations, however, is that you need not be a business leader, or indeed any kind of titular leader, to provide this kind of leadership . This was a theme explored by Elwyn Brooks White, an American essayist, again in a children's story, this time about a mouse called Stuart Little. White's story, about the mouse's search for a bird called Margalo, which embodied his ideal of beauty and goodness, ends inconclusively. The reader does not know whether the mouse ever finds the bird.

White explains that Stuart Little's journey is symbolic of that made by many people, seeking something that is "perfect and unattainable".

"Much of life is questing and searching," wrote White, "Whether he ever found her [the bird] or not, or whether he got home or not, is less important than the adventure itself." Janosch's characters do indeed find the land of their dreams. It matters not that they ended where they started, that the grass, in fact, was greener on their side of the fence.

These are cautionary tales for the ambitious, particularly in these days of flatter structures. They also expose the nonsense of "managing expectations" among employees, an approach that smacks of institutionalised wing-clipping. People need to pursue their dream but it helps if they can celebrate some triumphs on the way. These might manifest themselves as personal insights - a realisation that a particular moment in your life is as good as it gets.

Such an experience might occur while looking at the garden, enjoying a game with the family or walking along a beach. The point is to recognise the moment for what it is - one of life's pinnacles. Enjoy it, then move on. Sadly, such episodes are easily eclipsed in the pursuit of ambition.

This is not to say that it is wrong to pursue some desire or ambition. Greenleaf identified this seeking quality as a significant driving force among Quaker industrialists.

The Religious Society of Friends originated among a group of people, previously described as "seekers", who were looking for some vision. The social impact of their business ethic that recognised the needs and aspirations of employees proved a powerful influence in both the UK and the US during the 18th century.

Greenleaf suggested that the Quakers lost their momentum when they arrived; when their movement became a church.

Another point stressed by both Greenleaf and Maslow is that the journey must have some meaning. Work for work's sake was never part of the rationale behind either servant leadership or self-actualisation. On the contrary Maslow argued that "To do some idiotic job very well is certainly not real achievement."

The vogue for re-publishing the works of management thinkers like Maslow and Greenleaf has much merit. Unfortunately it has not spread to children's books. The Trip to Panama is out of print.

*Maslow on Management, by Abraham Maslow, John Wiley & Sons $ 24.95 **The Power of Servant Leadership , by Robert K Greenleaf, is published by Berrett Koehler, $ 17.95.

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