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
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
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
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
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
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
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
*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,
as a pdf file