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?”