Rediscovering Leadership: Service Versus Self-Interest

Whatever happened to leadership? Have all the great leaders gone from the world scene? Are leaders born, or do they emerge in appropriate circumstances?

A few years ago the London Sunday Times ran an article with the title “Whatever Happened to Real Leaders?” It read in part: “The foreign secretary was a stuffed shirt. But the prime minister was not even that: ‘he was just a hole in the air.’ The words are George Orwell’s, applied to Lord Halifax and Stanley Baldwin, in the late 1930s. What resonance they have today! . . . What the country needs is leadership, and this is true of the Western world as a whole.”

The article continued, “The gap between the desirable and the real has never been as great in this respect. As you open the newspapers or watch the television news, is there a single political leader in the West whose words you would expect to remember? Would you expect to learn anything from them? Do you expect them to do anything inspiring or creative, or even just the right thing? We have reached a real low point in leadership, lower than at any other time in recent history. . . . ‘I sowed dragons, and I reaped fleas,’ said Nietzsche.” It’s a powerful plea for the kind of leadership that can deliver humanity from the grip of its many problems and evils.

Late American newspaper commentator Walter Lippmann, in his syndicated column Today and Tomorrow, defined leaders as “the custodians of a nation’s ideals, of the beliefs it cherishes, of its permanent hopes, of the faith which makes a nation out of a mere aggregation of individuals.”

Custodian. The word means a keeper, a guardian or a caretaker. It is a proactive word that implies action on the part of the bearer. Custodians hold something in trust on behalf of others. Custodianship does not imply behavior motivated out of self-interest.

A custodian, then, is an individual who upholds what is best for all people, even if it may not be in his or her own interest to do so. A custodial role must be approached as atemporary role, preserving something greater than the self—principles of enduring and lasting value. This embodies an attitude that focuses on the task at hand and not on what the leader may gain from the position. It implies a caring and concerned relationship between leaders and followers; it implies individuals motivated by their constituents’ best interests.

This idea seems at odds with what we see happening around us. In all too many arenas, we see leaders holding nothing in trust for those they purport to serve, instead merely advancing their own ideals and hopes. It is often difficult to tell whether our leaders are serving themselves or us. And it is all too common to find leaders simply helping themselves to privilege, prosperity and power. Mismanagement, deceit, greed and from-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire problem solving all beg the question, Where are our leaders leading?

To whom can we look for the direction we need? Is Lippmann’s statement merely an idealistic, unrealizable dream?

Service or Self-Interest?

Throughout time, leaders who have exhibited the proper kind of custodianship—that is, leaders who have sought service over self-interest—have been held in high regard. People have gladly looked to them for direction and guidance in times of indecision, turmoil and trouble.

Leadership is a form of service. In order to lead, a leader should be willing to meet the needs of the individuals in the team.”

John Adair, Not Bosses but Leaders: How to Lead the Way to Success (third edition, 2003)

One such custodian stood out in the fifth-century B.C. Roman republic. The Roman army was surrounded, and the country was in need of a leader who would seize the moment and turn impending defeat into victory. They called upon a man who was out plowing his field, a farmer named Cincinnatus. He came. He saw. He conquered. He went home. Cincinnatus gained fame for his selfless devotion to his country. This half-legendary hero gave his all in a time of crisis, and then, when the task was done, he gave up the reins of power and went back to his plow.

A more modern example is America’s first president, George Washington. Considered the “father of his country,” he provides a paramount example of the kind of custodial leadership that Lippmann espoused.

Washington was an aristocratic gentleman farmer of distinctive character. When called upon to defend the interests of a fledgling nation as commander in chief of the Revolutionary Army during the American War of Independence, he rose to the challenge and persevered against all odds. Then, after eight and a half years of being the most powerful man in America, he resigned his commission and returned to his agricultural pursuits.

Not surprisingly, he was the automatic and unanimous choice to become the first president of the United States. He served two terms, and following this supreme act of service to his country, like Cincinnatus (to whom he had often been compared by his contemporaries), he stepped out of the limelight and retired to his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

Washington is remembered for his strength of character and discipline, his loyal patriotism, his principled leadership and his selfless devotion to public duty. He held in trust for the American people the very values and beliefs that made their nation possible, without regard for his own gain.

True leadership is and always has been a selfless action. It involves taking yourself out of the picture and considering the needs of others. It is a way of thinking that takes other people into account even when your own needs are pressing. It asks what is right or best in the wider interest. Few would doubt the need today, in this respect, for more leaders like Cincinnatus and George Washington—leaders who will complete the job they are asked to do without regard for themselves, and who will lead rather than merely registering the collective will of the people.

Yet it would be difficult to build a consensus as to how a leader might accomplish this—how a leader might be a custodian of or hold in trust a nation’s or a group’s values and beliefs.

How might we answer this question in a world that has seemingly grown unmanageable? Today our world is faced with serious, even life-threatening problems of a global nature. Where will we find the wisdom to deal with modern civilization’s most pressing dilemmas?

It’s Everone’s Business

Clearly leadership is an issue that affects all of us. Not only are we impacted by it, but we are also called upon to exercise it. Whether we are involved in leading government or business; guiding young minds; leading a family, a sports team or a committee; organizing a dinner, a class project, a carpool or a household; or just standing for what is right—everyone has a leadership role to play. We are each thrust into many different leadership roles again and again throughout our lives. We are each called upon to be custodians of what is right and good, lasting and of value, for those in our care.

Surprisingly, this idea of custodianship even runs through the work of the Renaissance writer often thought to be among the most cynical political thinkers of all time, Niccolò Machiavelli. Today Machiavelli is most often mentioned in connection with deception and duplicity. Yet he insisted that leadership was virtuous only if the good of the community was sought out and achieved above all else. A good leader, in other words, was a steward of the community.

When we are called upon to lead, what kind of custodian we are will depend greatly on what we understand a custodian to be, how we think about other people, and how we determine what is right and worth holding in trust.

The word custodian, in this context, is the same as the word steward as it is used in the Bible and throughout history. A custodian or steward watches over that which is placed in his or her trust by the one who owns it or for those who will benefit by it. Stewardship is a service performed for others. It is not about ownership or control. It is not a technique. It is who and what the leader is. It is an attitude—a state of being—a way of looking at the world. But it is not the passive, hands-off leadership that some have attributed to this way of thinking. It is a component of leadership without which leaders cannot fully function.

In the context of what Lippmann talked about, it means not only maintaining the vision of and faith in ideals, beliefs and hopes, but also living those values as a model and example for others to follow. It means raising the sights and holding the focus of those we lead so that they are empowered to reach their potential. It means enabling people by getting the roadblocks out of their way and often out of their thinking. To do this, of course, the leader must visualize the big picture at all times and hold the course for the benefit of all.

Without a healthy dose of heart, a supposed ‘leader’ may manage—but he does not lead.”

Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (2002)

Understanding Custodial Leadership

In the widening chasm between what we want and expect from our leaders and what we are getting, it seems only natural to take a hard look at leadership itself. And many do. Finding that the leadership we see around us is lacking, we think that traditional views of leadership must be inadequate and outworn. Out of sheer frustration, we toss out many traditional ideas for new and, we hope, improved ideas of what leadership is all about. Because we believe there are problems with what leaders are doing, the faults of the old views seem sufficient to float the new. Yet these new ideas all too often prove to be myopic and ineffective.

The self-serving nature of many of the leaders we have looked to in the past has led some to call for more passive, follower-driven leadership. One such version has called for replacing leadership with a concept also called stewardship. Although this new “stewardship” might appear at first blush to be what Lippmann was referring to, it is not. Neither does it refer to the biblical concept. True stewardship cannot replace leadership, because it is an integral part of it.

This nouveau stewardship, as we will refer to it here, has as a guiding principle the belief that people have the knowledge and the answers within themselves. As such, there is no need for a leader to manage other adults—no need to teach others how to think, behave or conduct themselves. While this sounds very appealing, democratic, liberating and almost mystically primal, it is naïve. We know from experience that people do not always act in their own best interest, much less that of others.

To suggest that this approach is naïve might sound arrogant in a society that has placed personal knowledge in higher esteem than external guidance. As we see the structures and institutions that have traditionally provided us with external guidance dissolving—family, schools and religion—the desire to believe that we are our own best source of wisdom and will act accordingly is strong. Theoretically, it would seem to make sense. Practically, however, it has never worked in any sustainable way. Studies have shown that we all take our cues not from the realities of the environment but from our own biases, desires, perceptions and distractions. A function of leadership, then, should be to help followers create a more accurate and constructive view of reality by painting the big picture.

True Stewardship

The nouveau-stewardship model is based on a myth that leadership—where direction, vision and guidance come from the top of an organization—creates a dependency on the part of the followers and removes personal responsibility and satisfaction.

Let’s analyze that idea. When the concept of nouveau stewardship is presented, it most often claims to have roots in the Bible. Perhaps so. But then proponents of this brand of stewardship go off on a tangent that the Bible does not support. The concept of stewardship is first presented in the Bible in Genesis 2: Adam was instructed to “dress and keep” God’s physical creation. This does not present the picture of a passive, hands-off approach. Adam was to apply God’s laws and thinking to the physical realm God had created. Adam was expected to do something. While living in harmony with that creation, he was to actively maintain a standard in accordance with laws and thinking higher than his own.

In the same way, when we are given any leadership responsibility, we, too, are obliged to maintain a set of standards that is in line with higher laws. Again, we should not impose our own thinking and desires on those we lead, but rather apply those standards that were designed to be best for the whole. Naturally they should be implemented with respect for, and in two-way communication with, those we serve.

True leadership does not take away the freedom, choice, accountability or responsibility of others. Just as leaders should serve and take into account the ideas and needs of those they lead, those following that lead should do the same thing. In doing so, they, along with the leader, practice self-restraint, develop character, integrate discipline, and practice love and respect for other people. This creates a kind of self-leadership at all levels of the group. It promotes an environment where all are empowered and working toward the good of the whole because that is in the best interest of all.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, refers to this kind of concern for the feelings, ideas and opinions of others as empathy. But, he cautions in a Harvard Business Review article, that empathy “doesn’t mean a kind of ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ mushiness. For a leader, that is, it doesn’t mean adopting other people’s emotions as one’s own and trying to please everybody. That would be a nightmare—it would make action impossible. Rather, empathy means thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings—along with other factors—in the process of making intelligent decisions” (“What Makes a Leader?” 1998). In other words, true stewardship or custodianship means taking others’ ideas and feelings into account while holding in trust—keeping as boundaries or guardrails—the group’s ideals, beliefs and hopes. Ironically, an attitude of service keeps leaders aware of others’ needs while in turn enabling them to become better leaders.

The nouveau-stewardship model sounds right on the surface, but it plays out more like a defense mechanism than a constructive method to get leadership-thinking back on track. As Lippmann correctly defined it, leadership is truly about choosing service over self-interest. Leadership, properly executed, is not a consensus-building exercise but an exercise in outgoing concern for others, including defining and setting boundaries as needed.

A Firm Foundation

What is critical to the leadership process and its success is where the values come from that determine these boundaries. They can’t come from a single individual. Nor can they come from the collective whole. Where do we get the ideals, the beliefs and the permanent hopes that Lippmann wrote of and that define the boundaries—those guides that mold and shape us?

George Washington believed that those values and boundaries came from God. In his first inaugural address he asserted that “the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained” (emphasis ours).

Again, truly effective boundaries must come from something outside of ourselves. An effective leader has an agenda designed to produce results, but is guided by a core of values that come from outside and not from within. This process is maintained by means of the leader’s integrity—his custodianship of those values.

Stressing the need for integrity to an outside core of values in the performance of proper leadership, John Adair, visiting professor of leadership studies at the University of Surrey and Exeter in England, stated: “Although it is impossible to prove it, I believe that holding firmly to sovereign values outside yourself grows a wholeness of personality and moral strength of character. The person of integrity will always be tested. The first real test comes when the demands of the truth or good appears [sic] to conflict with your self-interest or prospects. Which do you choose?” (Effective Leadership). 

Perhaps it is time to apply those “eternal rules of order and right,” those “sovereign values,” to the leadership roles we perform at every level in life. Even everyday, mundane activities are opportunities to demonstrate and illustrate the values and beliefs for which we must be custodians. If each of us works to uphold such values, the element of empowerment is introduced into our lives: every person becomes in some sense a leader, rather than only those over us who provide us with direction and instruction.