DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Good to Great and Last to First: Serving the Company and Serving People

Written by: on September 19, 2014

Leadership and greatness are generally linked together. The significance is the way we define the terms and the concepts or ideology that undergirds our understanding of great leadership. What is greatness? An academic dictionary states it is “the quality of being great, distinguished, or eminent,”[1] which it turns out is only a tranche of meaning as greatest is engendered more broadly in terms of leadership: distinction, illustriousness, repute, high standing, significance, fame, prominence, genius, expertise, mastery, and the list expands. When linked with leadership, greatness is descriptive. The real question is, “What makes a leader great?”

I have a number of leadership books. An innovative and provocative understanding comes from MaryKate Morse in Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space and Influence. Great leadership, MaryKate would say, is the good stewardship of power as exhibited in presence and space. “[L]earning how to use power is a core competency … that will have a catalytic impact on how we lead.”[2] Successful leadership “is an intricate dance between potential leaders and their followers so that power is group-made.”[3] Making Room, as the title suggests is not about great leadership, it is about shared leadership that is great. I like this concept as it allows for all participants – or to use the business term, stakeholders, to contribute.

Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness states his foundational thesis of moving to greatness: “caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built.”[4] Unwittingly perhaps, Greenleaf extrapolates the movement from good to great as he notes that to become great “is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant…”[5]He does give a very clear definition of what makes and how one becomes a great leader. He understands from the story of Hermann Hesse as told in Journey to the East “that the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness.”[6]People respond to the servant-leader because they are proven and trusted. Leadership, then, becomes great when those who can lead have a willingness to lead – taking the opportunity and being what Greenleaf calls “prime movers.”[7]

Later in the term we are assigned to read A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in an Age of Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman. An initial perusing of this works suggests that it stands somewhat parallel to Morse and Greenleaf. Friedman notes that there is a present day crisis in leadership and the way out “requires shifting our orientation to the way we think about relationships, from one that focuses on techniques that motivate others to one that focuses on the leader’s own presence and being.”[8] In other words, leadership is not necessarily about know-how and expertise, more important, it is the presence the leader occupies in the lives of those being led. This requires the “self-differentiation” of the leader and a leader’s willingness to “face their own selves,”[9] a concept similar to Morse’s “influential presence.”

Jim Collins in Good to Great writes in a different genre, the language of the business world which is the language of the “bottom line.” It is the language of numbers and the interpretation of numbers. Collins indicates how tediously they researched, mined the data, to discover the truth of how companies moved from the good to great.[10] Ultimately one’s acceptance of Collins’ five commonalities that make companies great is based on the acceptance of the research model Collins and his team used. To some extent, it seems to me, there is disengagement with people in the leadership models that Collins presents. His stories of corporate leaders are spell-binding but the outcomes are ultimately about the numbers. This stands juxtaposed to Friedman’s relational model. Friedman refers to a “data orientation,”[11] similar to Collins, in contrast to the self-differentiation that allows the leader to establish an identity presence in the leadership space.

Collins good-to-great study results in five common principles that insure continued greatness. Are they actually leading indicators, necessary to attain greatness? I am not convinced, again because of the numbers orientation; however, all of the principles are worthwhile considerations in developing a leadership model. Perhaps most significant for me is the leading principle, “Level Five Leadership.” He distinguishes this leadership trait as “ambition first and foremost for the company and concern for its success rather than for one’s own riches and personal renown.”[12] I make the comparison to Greenleaf’s servant leadership model “[those] who could sharpen and clarify their view of the more serving society they would like to live in and help build— if in no other way than by holding a deepened interest and concern about it and speaking to the condition of others.”[13] In other words, servant leadership puts others before self … this is not necessarily the same leadership quality exemplified in Collins level five that puts the company first.SK0-003

The Bible speaks to greatness in leadership. There are many biblical stories of great leaders. I would characterize the stories as exhibiting the leadership qualities of obedience, humbleness and service. One passage that parallels Collins’ concept of good-to-great is Jesus’ instruction to his disciples where they are jockeying for position and power after Jesus makes clear his impending death and departure: “Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.’”[14]

[1] The Google Online Dictionary, © 2014 Google.

[2] MaryKate Morse Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space and Influence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), Kindle 2028.

[3] Ibid., 79.

[4] Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadershio: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness 25th Anniversary Edition, (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1977), Kindle, 1171.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 462 (emphasis original).

[7] Ibid., 441

[8] Edwin H. Friedman A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2007) Kindle, 158.

[9] Ibid.,

[10] Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), Kindle, 90-200.

[11] Friedman, 518.

[12] Collins, 485.

[13] Greenleaf, 446-447.

[14] Luke 22:24-26 (NIV).

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