Sunday, March 30, 2008

Peter Block - Servant-Leadership

Peter Block is an author, lecturer, and organizational consultant who has some very intriguing thoughts about service. Below you will find excerpts from the keynote address Peter gave to the 2005 International Servant-Leadership Conference in Indianapolis Indiana. Links to the full address, and the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership are included in the text below. (Visit for more on Peter Block and his work)

Note:  I realize that some of the links on this post are broken.  At this time I do not have links to the text for the full address given by Peter Block.  If you would like more information, I am sure Peter would be happy to share his thoughts with you directly.  You can reach him through his web page .

Excerpts from the Keynote address, 2005 International Servant-Leadership Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana Published in The International Journal of Servant-Leadership, Volume 2, Number 1, 2006, by Larry Spears and Shann Ferch (Gonzaga University in collaboration with The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership).  Unfortunately this information is no longer available on line.  
More information on Servant-Leadership can be found at

Servant Leadership: Creating an Alternative Future

Change the conversation, change your thinking, change your life.

…[M]aybe the audience creates the performance. Maybe the listening creates the speaking. Maybe citizens create leaders, maybe employees create bosses, maybe students create teachers and children create parents. Maybe the purpose of problem solving is to build relationships.

The only way the future gets created … is through invitation.

I’d rather have two people in the room who chose to be there than a thousand who were sent.

…[T]he idea of invitation is very powerful. What constitutes a powerful invitation? One that says, “Please come, and if you come here’s what’s required of you.” Most invitations are too soft, there are elements of begging: “Please come, it’s going to be great, nothing much will be required of you, it’s not going to take long, we’ll be fast, it’ll be organized, Robert’s Rules of Order, there’ll be food, there’ll be drink, the seats will be comfortable, and if you can come late, come at all, leave early, whatever, please come. God bless you.” A powerful invitation is one that says, “We want you to come! Now if you choose to come, here’s what will be demanded of you. You’ll have to show up. You’ll have to engage with your peers in powerful conversations. You’ll have to leave your interests at the door. We didn’t come together to negotiate; the future’s not created through negotiation, it’s created through imagination. It’s created from a dream… [A] possibility creates an alternative future. We’re not coming to negotiate. Leave your interests at home. You’re coming to engage in the primary actions between you and other citizens, you and other people who came. If you’re willing to live by these requirements, please come.”

To me servant-leadership… is a leadership that confronts people with their freedom.

… [T]he act of love is to confront people with their freedom, is to assemble, lead, in a way that says the choice resides in all of us. What greater gift can you give somebody than the experience of their own power, the experience that they have the capacity to create the world?

The skill of servanthood to me is to get good at questions that no matter how you answer them, you’re guilty. No matter how you answer this question you’re on the hook for being a creator of the future. You’re on the hook for being accountable. You create questions so people will choose accountability. We can’t hold each other accountable. We think we can legislate accountability. We can do performance management, we can have rules of the road that we’re (going to) enforce, but people talk about empowerment when all they really want to talk about are boundaries and limits, what will happen to me; we talk about consequences, there’ve got to be consequences; all of these are forms of patriarchy and they have no power. They have no power to create an alternative future. They have no power in the world. The question is, “How do I engage people so they choose to be accountable?” Well, questions do that. There are certain questions that if you start to answer them, you’re in trouble. No matter what you answer, you are responsible for creating an alternative future. The task of servant-leadership, in my mind, is, “Change the conversation, change the future.”

…[T]he questions have to be ones that have embedded in them the notion that choice resides in the world. It doesn’t reside in leaders; it doesn’t reside in the cause. It’s not in the performer, in the parent, in the teacher; cause resides in people’s connectedness to each other, in individuals.

Most of our organizations and communities are parent-child, boss-subordinate, mayor-citizen conversations — we think that matters. We think the boss-subordinate relationship matters, but I don’t think it does.

We think bosses are responsible for the emotional well being of their subordinates. If they have a depressed, low-morale team, it’s their fault! ...Maybe people are responsible for their own emotional well-being. What would it be like to be in a world where individuals were responsible for their own emotional well being, and we didn’t pretend that the boss was cause and subordinate was effect?

Here are some thoughts about conversations that have the power to create an alternative future. One’s the conversation of possibility. What’s the possibility I came here to live into or to create?

There’s a conversation of ownership. Take whatever you’re complaining about and say, “What have I helped do to create that situation?” Beautiful question. “What’s my contribution to the problem? What have I helped do?” It means I’m an owner. Whatever I complain about, let me turn that question and say, “How have I created that thing?” It’s a conversation of ownership.

There’s a conversation of commitment. Commitment means, what’s the promise I’m willing to make with no expectation of return? That’s a commitment. …“What’s the promise you’re willing to make with no expectation of return?” … Now who do I make the promise to? To peers. If you’re in a leadership spot and you want to create choice, engagement among people working for you, then you say let them make promises to each other. Let them sit in witness of those promises, peers, and say, “Okay, is that enough?” and that shifts the focus from boss-to-subordinate to peer-to-peer.

[W]hy not ask each individual, “What are you here to create? What’s the vision you have?” Now people get nervous: “Suppose we don’t have agreeable, compatible visions,” but I’ve never heard a vision that wasn’t embraceable. I’ve never heard an individual say, “The possibility I’m living into is to walk over people. To succeed at the cost of others.”

“Well, suppose my only purpose in leading would be to bring the gifts of the margin into the center. I just love that thought. I have no idea what it means, but I love the thought. And suppose when we come together we agree for the next six months we’re only going to talk about gifts. And we do it in the moment. We do it with each other and say, “You know, here’s the gift I’ve gotten from you in the last ten minutes.” And you teach people to breathe that in. Most people, when they’re given love or given a statement of gifts, exhale. And they begin a story. And so that’s the thought. And then you devise ways of doing that. So the gift conversation has a lot of power to it.

…[H]elp is just a subtle form of control. People want to give advice to each other. They want to tell you what they did when they were at your stage of life. They have an answer for you, and it’s called generosity; for me it’s mostly a conversation stopper. Whenever you engage people in powerful questions you have to set them up very carefully and tell them, do not help each other. Do not give advice. Do not mask your advice in questions: “Have you thought of this, have you thought of that?” Do not tell them what you did at this stage.

I want you to substitute curiosity for help. Every time you have the instinct to be useful, helpful, to have an answer, to give advice... Ask the other person, “Why does that matter to you? What’s the meaning that that has to you? What’s at stake for you?” In a deeper sense you say, “I came here to serve you by valuing meaning over speed. Meaning over efficiency. Meaning over problem solving.” People say, “I’m a problem solver.” I know you are, but it’s only a part of who you are. You have to inoculate people against the search for the quick answer, by asking them: “What does this mean? Why does it matter to you?”

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Going Deeper

The terms vision, ethics, reality and courage are relatively easy to understand. When we hear the words we quickly understand what they mean and can readily bring to mind images that provide a context for each concept. We know what it is to have vision, to behave ethically, to be connected to the real world, and to act with courage.

However, over the ages many wise and thoughtful authors have challenged humanity, both as individuals and collective societies, to examine this tendency to live life at the surface. They have taught those who chose to be students that it is necessary to think more deeply about our values and assumptions, to study our beliefs, to question facts, and to carefully inspect our fears, our motivations, and the very core of our being.

This all sounds very ominous, dark and a little frightening.

But, there is hope. Taken in small doses you can get in touch with your inner being, and see into the nooks and crannies that make you who you are, without having to hire a psychiatrist.

What you gain from this introspection is a better understanding of what drives you, what you value, what core beliefs shape your thinking, and why you react the way you do in certain situations. (This is a way for you to "Get into the Balcony" on a more personal and intimate scale. See the post below for more information.)

What you lose is the ability to live at the surface. You can no longer mentally hide out. You will find yourself examining your thoughts, what you say, the things other people say, and the world that is presented to you by others at an entirely new level. Admittedly, this can be a little scary because you find that you hold yourself to a new standard that can be difficult to maintain.

To help you on your journey, I would like to recommend a few resources:
  • Leadership from the Inside Out, by Kevin Cashman, is a great book for introspection, and self-examination. If you follow Cashman through the process, and do the exercises he describes in the text, you will discover many things about yourself, and gain a new understanding of what drives you, what makes you behave the way you do, what you value, and how to put this new knowledge into action. If you click here you will find a short article from Fast Company magazine from 1999 that talks about Cashman and his approach to developing a leadership mind.
  • Organizational Culture and Leadership, by Edgar H. Schein, gives you some insight into the culture of organizations. Although Schein's approach is very different from Cashman, the ultimate goal is the same - to gain an understanding of what drives an organization, what it values, and what beliefs and assumptions the organization as a whole makes about itself and the world around it. The first couple of chapters will give you the flavor for Schein's approach to understanding organizational culture. Click here to see a quick overview of Schein and his concepts.
  • The Philosophic Consultant, by Peter Koestenbaum, is probably the best of Dr. K’s books on leadership principles. He covers all aspects of the Leadership Diamond model, and the deeper meaning of each concept in a way this is accessible to all. In 2000 Fast Company Magazine did an article on Dr K that gives you a feeling for his philosophy and his theories, as well as his desire to look deeply into the concept of leadership.
  • The Answer to How is Yes - Acting on What Matters, by Peter Block, briefly touches on the idea that the inward journey is a necessary part of being able to do meaningful work. It is an easy read, with a perhaps a less easy message about the need to focus on purpose rather than methods, and on doing what matters rather than on tools and techniques. You can read an interview with Peter done by the National Staff Development Council by clicking here.
  • The Heart Aroused - Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, by David Whyte, is perhaps the most philosophical of the books on this list. David is a poet, author, and lecturer of some renown. In this book, David invites you, the reader, to bring your fears, loves and dreams into the workplace. Of course, this cannot happen without first discovering what it is that you fear, love and dream. I recommend this book for your more reflective moments, when you are not in the mood to do the work that Cashman puts you through.
If any of you have recommended books or articles, please post a comment with the information. Maybe I can add a new post with additional resources based on your suggestions in the near future.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

What is Real?

Reality is the fully integrated recognition that there is a world around you that is in essence different from you, does not care about you, but is a world that you desperately need.  (Dr. Peter Koestenbaum, Philosopher, author and Mentor)

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself.  And, you are the easiest person to fool. (Richard P. Feynman, Physicist, 1918-1988)

Reality is all around us. And yet, we rarely stop to examine our perceptions, or critically examine the conversation that goes on inside our head.

We tell ourselves that we know what is real, that we live a life well grounded in reality. We assume that our reality is what matters. And, therein lies the problem.

Unfortunately, a connection to reality is not as simple as forming our opinions and living our lives within our self-created perception. Nor is reality based on accepting a dogma that is espoused by our political party, religious leaders, or teachers.  Reality demands an examination of perceptions and teachings, and a drilling down until we reach the facts that underlie all that exists around us.

Reality can be a hard master. Money, laws, physics, culture, and time do not change to accommodate assumptions. However, a great leader will understand the realities that apply to a particular situation, and will use this knowledge to select the path that leads to success.

Don't confuse reality with current conditions. For example, existing laws may prevent you or your business from entering a certain market, or your city from providing a certain service. But laws can be changed. So the reality that may be most important is not the present law, but the process for changing the law and the likelihood of success.

External realities are sometimes easier to deal with than the inner realities of the soul. We all have an inner vision of who we are, how we interact with others, and how our coworkers, bosses, classmates, teachers, families and friends perceive us. We find ways to make our inner selves comfortable with the fact that we did not complete our work on time, did not attend a class, or did not deliver on a promise or commitment. We separate our inner selves from reality in order to make ourselves comfortable with who we are and how we behave.

Ignoring the reality of who you are, how you are perceived by others, and living in a fantasy world is just as dangerous as ignoring external realities to anyone who wants to be an effective leader.

As you apply the concepts of reality in your leadership life, a clear understanding of both external and internal realities will help you develop the two critical characteristics of great leaders - Authenticity and Competence. (There is more at this Blog Entry - Authenticity, and this entry - Gaining Competence)


PS - If you can't deal with reality, you might be interested in a world called Second Life. Take a look at this short summary with links to the Second Life web site. There are people that now spend as much (if not more) of their time in a virtual reality, as they spend in the so-called "real world".

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Gaining Competence

Learning any new skill, or becoming competent in any new subject takes time an effort. And, it comes as no surprise that the same applies to learning to apply the concepts of leadership to your life at work and home.

One way to understand this is to use the metaphor of learning a new sport. For a moment, lets say you have never ridden a horse. As you move through the process of mastering the skills and techniques that will allow you and your mount to float effortlessly over even the highest jumps (or fences), you move through the four stages of competence:
  1. Unconscious incompetence - At this stage you don't know what you don't know. You have no idea that there are muscles you have never used, or that there are signals you send to the horse through your seat, legs and hands. You have no concept of the depth of the knowledge you will need to master the sport.
  2. Conscious incompetence - At this stage you become conscious of the vast amount of learning necessary to master the sport, and that you do not yet have the skills that will make you a successful rider. But, the good news is that the world of possibility has opened before you, and you are ready to take on the challenge.
  3. Conscious competence - Now you have learned the skills, but each time you apply them it takes significant conscious effort to remember the correct position, command, sequence, and subtle nuisances of the relationship between your and your horse. After completing a ride, you are exhausted from the effort of having to think through every muscle movement, and correcting every error.
  4. Unconscious competence - And finally, you have reached the stage where you have mastered the sport. You and your horse communicate without even having to think about commands or analyzing feedback. You flow together around the course as if you are one. No conscious effort is required to apply the skills that only a few months or years ago seemed so foreign and difficult.
It is the same with leadership. The concepts of leadership initially seem difficult and cumbersome. It is difficult to hold all that you have learned in your mind at the same time. And it is particularly hard to call on the concepts when you are under stress, or on a tight deadline, or the proverbial waste material has hit the rotating blades.

However, comfort comes with practice. Every time you apply the concepts of leadership you take a step toward unconscious competence. And, at some point in your future you will find that you are able to apply a leadership perspective to the challenges of life.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Applying the Diamond to Local Politics

Lets suppose that there is something that you need from your local city or town council. And, just for argument sake, lets suppose that this is your first experience with your local political process.

What might the leadership diamond teach us about how to approach the problem?

I have penned (or typed) a short piece of advice to those who are interested in addressing their council with some advice on how to proceed. The final paragraph of that little advice column shows how applying the leadership mind to the challenge of local politics can give you the edge.

To read this short column please click >>>>HERE<<<<.

Applying the Diamond to Life

You don't have to wait until you are facing a huge, overwhelming philosophic problem to begin applying the Diamond's principles. There are many opportunities in life where a few minutes of contemplation on how your current situation can be viewed within the Diamond may change your direction forever.

Author David Whyte illustrates this point in his book Crossing the Unknown Sea - Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity:
"We can spend a third of our lives preparing ourselves for our work, and find ourselves forgetting the original inspiration behind all that preparation the moment we take a seat at our new desk." ( p 164).

A vision of our future, of how we want to make a difference in the world (or at least our small part of the world) drives us toward a career, school, a job search, and finally our choice that places us firmly within the working world. Our vision of the future pokes, pulls, and prods us until we settle ourselves on a path.

However, it is courage that will keep us on the path that eventually leads to making our vision become a reality. Whyte goes on to explain that it is courage that gives a person "...the ability to remain unutterably themselves in the midst of conforming pressures." The pressure from our friends to conform, to become part of the system, and to not rock the boat, to think and act in the accepted way, can be an irresistible force unless we have a clear vision, and our courage is firmly in place.

On this most personal and private level the time a person devotes to getting clear on his or her particular vision of the future and how that vision (and the process of moving toward that vision) effects both the person and those who are closest to him or her is time well spent. In addition, a person must be ready to call upon his or her courage to keep their feet on the path.

Your first task, upon taking your seat at your new desk, is to firmly plant your vision before you and keep your feet pointed toward your chosen future.