A Conversation About Leadership and Servanthood

I recently met James, a senior studying Human Biology at Stanford, and we ended up spending lots of time talking about about the definition of leadership. After the weekend, he emailed me and I thought it would make another great email/blog post.

I was just thinking about your comment that leadership is bringing people to a brighter place… I actually agreed with your logic. I wonder if leadership might ultimately be about servanthood. Perhaps one imagines the perfect leader being one who truly has the interests of those he/she is leading in mind, such that success is determined by the well-being of those being lead.

In some ways that does seem correct—the entrepreneur is a leader insofar he enables those around him to engage in a fun project, or insofar she serves people in the world who are looking for this particular product.
In some ways of course, that concept is also somewhat flawed. Some of the best “leaders” in the world, at least nominally, are hardly thinking of others. I don’t know if Warren Buffet is thinking about serving his staff or his customers so much as getting rich sometimes. Doesn’t mean he’s necessarily a poor leader? Or does it?
Meh. Just food for thought. I really enjoyed talking with you, and I respect your will to action that’s so well tempered with a penchant for thoughtfulness. That’s something I will try to learn from you/emulate.
Haha :). Now you’re sorta my role model. Better do a good job ;).


Hey James,

Thanks for the email and bringing up the connection between leadership and service. It’s a great point: there is a reason why we often say someone “serves as the” CEO/Executive Director/Managing Partner of XYZ organization.

I believe that all leaders must think of those they lead because in the end, true leaders have followers that volunteer to be led. If you are the best computer programmer in the world, then you can choose to work at any company you want – you choose the leader/manager you want to serve under. So you’ve got to give that programmer a great work environment, exciting challenges and strong compensation to keep him. A bad boss isn’t a leader, (s)he’s a dictator.

If you are interested in the concept of service you should read more about “Servant Leadership” which says that leaders exist to help others grow as persons while they are being led.

The definition I gave of leadership, which I think makes the nebulous concept more clear, comes from a really great book called The One Thing You Need To Know by Marcus Buckingham, which you can see the extensive book notes for here. A taste:

  • Great leaders rally people to a better future
    • “You are a leader if, and only if, you are restless for change, impatient for progress, and deeply dissatisfied with the status quo.”
  • Leaders may be pessimists or even depressive (see Lincoln), but nothing, not their mood, not the reasoned arguments of others, not the bleak conditions of the present, can undermine their faith that things will get better.
  • “Properly defined, the opposite of a leader isn’t a follower. The opposite of a leader is a pessimist.”
  • “Despite their realistic assessment of the present challenges, they nonetheless believe that they have what it takes to overcome these challenges and forge ahead.”

It was great meeting you James and I respect your dedication to service and the young adults you worked with as well as your ongoing questions about how you can contribute more effectively to your issues. You’ve got some really good stuff going on – and hopefully I’ll live up to your expectations.

Warm Regards,

PS – Warren Buffett is actually a pretty thoughtful guy – I know you were using him as an example, but check out some of the things he’s said about management and money –

  • (When speaking of managers and executive compensation) “The .350 hitter expects, and also deserves, a big payoff for his performance – even if he plays for a cellar-dwelling team. And a .150 hitter should get no reward – even if he plays for a pennant winner.” (Link)
  • “I was wired at birth to allocate capital and was lucky enough to have people around me early on – my parents and teachers and Susie – who helped me to make the most of that … we agreed with Andrew Carnegie, who said that huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society.” (link to FORTUNE interview discussing why he gave $30B to the Gates Foundation)
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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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