Almost exactly a year ago, I took a trip to Kiev, Ukraine. I went there to begin my research on an organization that taught “ServantLeadership” curriculum in several international universities. My mission was to discover how the teaching of the curriculum was impacting the university and the community around the school. The training had been going on for several years, so I assumed that there would be plenty of information to gather and evaluate. To my surprise, what I discovered was a large group of people, both faculty and students, who were disillusioned, discouraged, and confused. You see, although the curriculum was fine in theory, it did not transfer into practice – not with the leadership of the university, and not with the leadership of the organization I was there to research. Talk is easy; application is another thing altogether. So I too came home disillusioned, discouraged, and confused. And it was only a few days later that Kiev burst into chaos. Ukraine’s national leadership was exposed for what it really was, corrupt and disingenuous. And then the country was plunged into civil war and is still making headlines a year later.
Leadership. This is a loaded word. One’s definition all depends on one’s experience. For those who have worked with good leaders, the term brings warm-fuzzy feelings. For those who have experienced poor leaders, the word triggers painful memories and negative feelings. In this week’s reading, Jim Collins adds his input into the leadership conversation. His work is based of solid, thoughtful research. Collins coins a new term, what he calls “Level 5 Leadership.” I am not so sure I like the term, but I do like what his research uncovered, particularly what I see as balance in his work. After my disillusionment with “servant-leadership” theory, I was heartened by Collins’ input:
It is very important to grasp that Level 5 Leadership is not just about humility and modesty. It is equally about ferocious resolve, and almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.
Indeed, we debated for a long time on the research team about how to describe the good-to-great leaders. Initially, we penciled in terms like “selfless executive” and “servant leader.” But members of the team violently objected to these characterizations.
“Those labels don’t ring true,” said Anthony Chirikos. “It makes them sound weak or meek, but that’s not at all the way I think of Darwin Smith of Coleman Mockler. They would do almost anything to make the company great.”
Then Eve Li suggested, “Why don’t we just call them Level 5 leaders? If we put a label like ‘selfless’ or ‘servant’ on them, people will get entirely the wrong idea. We need to get people to engage with the whole concept, to see both sides of the coin. If you only get the humility side, you miss the whole idea.”
I am all for humility and servant-heartedness, but I also believe in the values of commitment and decisiveness, what Collins refers to as “unwavering resolve.”
In the Ukraine, a former Soviet state, the phrase “servant leadership” is not easily translated into Ukrainian. It is misunderstood. As Collins stated, it feels like weakness. And weakness is not tolerated well in an Eastern European setting. Even my translator was puzzled by how to translate the concepts. Recently, she left the university and the servant-leadership organization, looking for a healthier workplace. I don’t blame her. I left too, to look for a better subject to research. And, through the help of my advisor, I changed my research topic at the end of 2013 to Traditional Native-American Leadership Practices. To my surprise, a lot of what Jim Collins speaks about in his book is true of Native leadership.
Traditional Native-American Leadership is much more about practice than about theory. In an interesting article on the contrast between Western and Native leadership styles, Miles Bryant points out that Native leaders have several values and practices that might seem odd to the Western mind (at least to an American leader’s mind). These particular values/practices are as follows:
- Decentralization of Leadership
- The Recognition of the Immanent Value of All Things
- A Reduced Sense of the Importance of Time
- A Collectivist Decision-Making Approach
In tribal settings, everyone’s voice matters, not only those of the elders (although they are most valued) but also those of the young. Leadership is decentralized. People in the tribe are allowed to make their own mistakes. And, decisions are made collectively. Every voice is heard and valued. This is not an easy way to lead or to make decisions, but it is a way that worked for many tribal peoples.
In his book, Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto, Taiaiake Alfred offers several qualities that are attributed to healthy Native leaders:
- They draw on their own personal resources as sources of power. They do not give other people’s money away to gain support. They are very productive, they are generous, and their values are not materialist.
- They set the example. They assume the responsibility of going first and taking the greatest risk for the good of the community.
- They are modest and funny. They minimize personality conflict and use humor to deflect anger.
- They are role models. They take responsibility for children, and they realize the educative and empowering role of government in the community.
These descriptions of leadership are a far cry from what I experienced in Kiev. These are invaluable qualities for leaders, virtues that give me hope, even as Collin’s book did for me this week.
In Chapter four of Good to Great, Collins speaks about the importance of confronting the facts, which of course necessitates a willingness to hear the truth – whatever it might be. But how does one create a climate where the truth is heard? Collins offers four suggestions:
- Lead with questions, not answers.
- Engage in dialog and debate, not coercion.
- Conduct autopsies, without blame.
- Build “red flag” mechanisms.
These suggestions open up leaders to listen, not merely to tell. They also force leaders to be realists, rather than empty-headed optimists. And, leaders who are willing to hear the truth are those who will likely stay humble, while at the same time be unwaveringly resolved to lead their organizations down the path of greatness.
Leaders can hurt or help an organization, a church, a business, or an institution of higher education. Frankly, my experience has made me almost want to run away from all leaders. But the reality is that each of us is a leader, whether we like it or not. But it is not only what I believe about leadership is that matters; it is what I do with what I believe. Talk is cheap. Actions are valuable. May we learn from Collins and from others in such a way that we practice what we preach.
 Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Lead…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001) 30.
 Miles Bryant, “Contrasting American and Native Views of Leadership” (Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the University Council for Educational Administration, Louisville, KY, October 25-27, 1996) 10.
 Taiaiake Alfred. Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 90.
 Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Lead…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001) 74-80.