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Chapter One:Characteristics of the Leader as Servant
In the caine mutiny, the vivid and complex World War II novel, Herman Wouk describes a destroyer as "a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots." Wouk's description is a mite cynical and perhaps overstated, but until very recently--fifteen or twenty years or so--our organizational systems were just that. They were designed to display in graphic form--organization charts, flowcharts, timetables, and immutable plans—how we were to operate our organizations and manage our people. Just follow those master plans and rules and—presto—our organizations would run. Geniuses dreamed up these systems with the assumption that any average person would be able to plug in and do a reasonably good job without risking a collapse of the organization.
And it made our jobs easier. But something happened. One, we discovered that it wasn't really working. Two, if it had ever worked, then our organizations outgrew it and, to top it off, the world of work changed so radically that the old rules could no longer apply.
In the midst of these changes came a flurry of responses—everything from Total Quality Management (TQM) to Reengineering to the Learning Organization. Changes did take place, yet in the workplace there still seems to be overwork, frustration, discontent, and, in many places, a general malaise bordering on serious morale problems.
Yet unemployment is low, and people are generally better off economically than they were before. So what's missing? I submit that what has been missing is a deeper connection with our work, a connection that transcends position and power and money, a connection that earlier generations had but that we seem not to have.
I call that connection, that deeper meaning, the spirit of work. Before getting into the meat of this book—the ideas and techniques for applying your spirit every day—let's talk a bit about that subject people have trouble talking about. Let's try to put into words something that almost cannot be put into words. Perhaps the best way to begin is with a poem.
Why do we keep on keeping on,
in the midst of such pressure,
when business is no good for no reason,
when everything done right turns out wrong,
when the Fed does something
and interest rates do something
and somebody's notion of consumer confidence does something
and the dogs won't eat the dog food?
What keeps us working late at night
and going back every morning,
living on coffee and waiting for things to bottom out,
crunching numbers as if some answer
lay buried in a computer
and not out among the people who
suddenly and for no reason
are leaving their money in their pockets
and the products on the shelves?
Why don't we just say to hell with it
instead of trying again,
instead of meandering into somebody's office
with half an idea,
hoping she'll have the other half,
hoping what sometimes happens will happen,
that thing, that click, that moment
when two or three of us
gathered together or hanging out
get hit by something we've never tried
but know we can make work the first time?
Could that be it,
that we do all the dull stuff
just for those times
when a revelation rises among us
like something borning,
a new life, another hope,
like something not visible catching the sun,
like a prayer answered?
I wish I could tell you that the way we humans most often connect with one another is through joy and celebration. Those things are important connectors, to be sure, but it is through our loss, our sadness, and our disappointments that we most often feel the deepest connections. Think about it for a minute.
Have you ever had a serious illness or a death in your family? When that happened, how did your coworkers respond? Were they there for you? Did they send you expressions of comfort, of sympathy, of support? Did they try to make things easier for you on the job during those days?
I know that for most people, the answers to the last three questions are yes, yes, and yes.
Here's another question: Were you surprised in those sad circumstances to find that one of those supportive and comforting coworkers turned out to be someone you'd always had negative feelings about? Perhaps you had thought that coworker was overbearing or officious or disruptive or obstructive. If so, I'm not surprised.
When that happened, you discovered a very important truth, one that should underlie our attitudes when we are with other people: All of us—whoever we are, whatever jobs we hold, and however we look--are more similar than dissimilar. Underneath it all, we have very similar hopes and fears, desires and ambitions. We love, we celebrate, we suffer loss, and we grieve.
This simple fact transcends everything else about us, and this simple fact is the foundation of an attitude that can truly transform the workplace if only we will learn and practice a few guidelines for how to be and how to behave.
There's a line from an old spiritual that goes "Everybody talkin' about heaven ain't goin' there." I've thought of that line many times over the years. I thought about it when I heard some executives talk about TQM, then watched them try to use it to put the squeeze on employees. I thought about it when I heard much hoopla about "teams" while watching many companies use teams as a dodge for downsizing. I thought about it when I heard managers talk grandly about empowerment while still looking over the shoulders of, and micromanaging, their employees. As the spiritual says, it's a lot easier to talk about something than to put it into practice.
No news about that. But now there's another subject, one that is getting a lot of attention lately because it has the potential to bring about enormous changes in the workplace, in the lives of employees generally, and in your own life specifically.
The subject is spirituality and work.
Now I can hear the groans and sighs of those who must be thinking, "Here's another one of those touchy-feely 'Let's all love one another so we can be productive' books by a self-appointed guru."
If you're thinking that, you have every right to. And my purpose is not to try to talk you out of that skepticism, but to talk about how you have to be, not what you have to do, to put the spirit of work to work, to become a leader who serves rather than one who expects to be served.
I say "the spirit of work" to distinguish your spirituality at work from the more personal spirituality that comes from your relationship with the sacred, with God, with a higher power. Certainly the spirituality you bring to work is derived from the same source—but the expression of it is in another context, which is, "How does your spirituality find expression in the workplace, in your attitude about your work, in your relationships with your employees, peers, colleagues, customers, vendors, and others?" That's the question and the challenge, because it is in your attitude and behavior as well as in your relationships that your spirituality expresses itself at work—an expression that is most often manifest as service.
I've said it before, I say it again: Business is about people. Business is of, by, about, and for people. And it is ultimately how you are with those people that makes all the difference in whether or not your spirituality finds an expression within the context of your work.
This is not about some arbitrary decision. "Okay, now, let's all be spiritual; then we can be happier and more productive that way." This is not a trick or a gimmick. This isn't a technique. It's not even a process. It is a conscious choice about how you choose to be and about how you choose to live your life at home as well as at work.
I know there's always the risk of sounding too otherworldly, too disconnected from the reality of the workplace, when I talk about being versus doing, so let me state clearly my belief that what you do at work is a direct reflection of how you are. If you want to make that connection between your spirituality and your work, then the proof of it, in other people's eyes, is in what you do and the way you choose to do whatever it is, from an appraisal to running a meeting to, yes, even firing someone.
From the Trade Paperback edition.