Graphene On The Horizon

During a recent leadership group meeting in Washington, DC, Gene Gabbard responded to my question:  what is the most significant development on the horizon that will affect or change our lives?

He answered in one word – graphene!

I had not heard of it, nor had anyone else.    He described it as a newly developed or discovered material that has the potential to change everything we touch from our clothes to our computers.   I did a little research and so was somewhat prepared for the article on graphene that appeared this week in the New York Times.

Bend It, Charge It, Dunk It: Graphene, the Material of Tomorrow

And then I came upon an April 16 announcement from the Outsider Club.

Graphene is the future. Plain and simple. It’s 200 times stronger than steel, thinner than a sheet of paper, and more conductive than copper.

I learned form the NY Times article that graphehe is a form of carbon only a single atom thick.  One ounce could cover 28 football fields.    While it was discovered a decade ago, in 2010 two physicists at the University of Manchester were awarded the Nobel Prize for their experiments with it.

In 2012, the American Chemical Society said that advancements in graphene were leading to touch-screen electronics that “could make cellphones as thin as a piece of paper and foldable enough to slip into a pocket.

This is remarkable stuff.    It is already here and it will change the future.

Which brings me to the responsibility of servant leaders to prepare followers for the future.   That’s not predicting the future.   As Peter Drucker wrote:

“Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.”

Dick Schubert, associate of the late Peter Drucker remembers that Drucker would insist that he could not predict the future, he could only observe trends and tell where things are headed.

Drucker also said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.”

While we don’t expect our leaders to be futurists, we do expect them to be aware of what’s going on and given the trends bring us together to create a better tomorrow.

Which makes me wonder how many other “graphene” like inventions, or movements are on the horizon that will provide the opportunity, and the need, to create our preferred future.

A 10-Point Listening Test for Leaders

A continuation of the the thread on servant leadership with Robert K. Greenleaf’s observation that active listening is single most important skill for those who would be servant leaders.

When leaders listen well both they and their followers are changed for the better.   Listening leaders become more aware of and responsive to those around them.  And followers, knowing that they are understood, are motivated to serve well.

Organizational culture improves when people know that their thoughts and feelings are heard and respected.

Since we are familiar with hearing tests, why not a listening test?

Here’s my 10-point test.   I’ve had some help with this from my sister Lois Wagner, a nurse who recently retired from teaching community mental health at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.   She recalled being challenged by one of her daughters.

“I remember one of my girls when she was a teenager saying to me, ‘mom you’re not listening’ and my responding with ‘I heard everything you said’ and she said, ‘Yes, but you’re not listening.’  That started me on this quest to become a better listener.  Even though we teach it and advocate listening skills, it is an art and skill that needs continual practice.”

You will have a clue about how well you are listening by asking yourself these questions after a conversation.

  1. Who did the most talking?
  2. What, if anything, got in your way of listening?
  3. Did you ask questions?  What kind?
  4. Did you notice anything about posture, gestures or other physical expressions?
  5. What did you learn about the other person – other than what was said?
  6. Are you aware of how the other person was feeling?
  7. Were you more aware of what was said than how it was said?
  8. Did the other person feel understood?
  9. Were there moments of silence?  How comfortable were each of you with those?
  10. Did your mind wander (take little trips) during the conversation.

I went over this list after a recent extended two-hour conversation.    I could have done better!

On Becoming A Servant Leader

In the “The Servant as Leader,” one of Robert Greenleaf’s original essays, he wrote about the leader of “a large, important and difficult-to-administer public institution,” who was unhappy with the way things were going.

He took the unusual step of not reading newspapers or listening to news broadcasts for three months, depending entirely upon what he heard from those around him to know what was going on.

As Greenleaf tells it, “In three months his administrative problems were resolved.”

It sounds simple, and it is.   Yet it is difficult.   Greenleaf asked, “Why is there so little listening?” and then suggested that the path to servant leadership is “through the long arduous discipline of learning to listen.”

In his little book, “The Art of Listening in a Healing Way,” James Miller asks, “When was the first time you felt really listened to?”  and then reminds us of the difference between hearing and listening.

Listening is paying attention to what is seen, non-verbal communication, as well as what is heard – the sound and meaning of words.

Miller writes that when you really listen to what someone is saying you rely on your eyes as much as your ears – how the speaker looks and moves.

He claims that only a third of the message comes from what the ear can pick up – the tone of voice, the rhythm of the words, and the rate of speaking.

Active listening is anything but passive.   It takes discipline, time and concentration.

And it is not necessarily silence.   A good listener knows when to respond and to ask appropriate questions without taking over the conversation.

Much of what is required for listening is lost with our constant e-mailing, texting, tweeting, Facebook and other electronic instant communications.

Even as we hear and read more we listen less.   We have more information, but less understanding of one another.

If Greenleaf were alive today I think he would tell us the same thing as what I heard him say over 30 years ago: that listening is a way to become an effective servant leader.

As much as he would recognize the value, if not importance of email, social media and even phone conversations, he would tell us that there comes a time to shut it down, turn it off, take messages and learn to listen.

He might say that in a conversation interrupted by phone, text and email messages the other person doesn’t feel listened to nor understood.

I’m sure that he would agree with the Storycorps theme that “listening is an act of love.”

How to tell a servant leader from a non-servant leader

Lest the negative image of CEO’s be overstated – there are good servant CEO’s among us – some of them my close associates and friends.    One the best is Bob Sloan who commented to the blog last week and responded further to my question about how to tell a servant leader from a non-servant leader.

Bob recently retired after 27 years of distinguished service as CEO of Washington’s Sibley Hospital.  He has gone on to serve as the President and CEO of the Jane Bancroft Robinson Foundation to support projects that break the cycle of poverty in Washington, DC.    In 2013, he received the “O” award, the highest honor from his alma mater, Olivet Nazarene University.

He described the effect of non-servant bosses in his early life.

“I worked for two CEO’s in my career that had the characteristics that you describe in some of your writings.  Both CEO’s suffered from a lack of confidence and intimidated those who served with them.  They were harsh, critical, demanding and made people feel insecure which created turnover in the organization.

Their leadership certainly had a negative impact on the organization.”

And then he reflected on the servant leaders who set an example for his own career.

“I also served with three outstanding leaders who were smart, hard working, committed, humble and loyal to their subordinates.  As a consequence those who served with them worked extra hard just so they would not disappoint or let their leader down.  The morale in the organization was very high in each of the organizations with these leaders.

I was able to pattern my leadership after the ones that I admired and I was able to avoid bad habits because of what I learned under domineering leaders.  I was very aware of the characteristics of both styles of leadership.”

In his writings on servant leadership, Robert Greenleaf wrote that servant leaders are known not so much by what they do as the effect they have on their followers.

The best test,” of servant leadership, he wrote, “and difficult to administer, is this:

Do those served grow as persons: Do they, while being served become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?

And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived.”

Bob Sloan’s personal experience confirms Greenleaf’s observations.   Servant and non-servant leaders come in many different forms and with a variety of styles.   But one thing is constant – the effect they have on others.

The followers of non-servant leaders flounder while the followers of servant leaders flourish.

On Having the Right Stuff for Leadership

Leadership development emerged as a major theme, if not an industry after my seminary days in the early ‘60’s.   Back then nearly all we heard about was the SNL – the ‘strong natural leader.’   Leaders, we were led to believe, were born, not made.

Like many others of my so-called ‘silent generation’ (between the WWII ‘greatest generation’ and the Boomers) I began my career feeling inadequate compared to the larger-than-life iconic leaders we were tempted to emulate.

That’s a tough feeling to shake – never sure you were born with the right stuff.

Leadership development advocates turned that around.   Leaders are made, not born, claimed Warren Bennis in his book, “On Becoming A Leader.” Leadership, he taught, is a skill to be mastered.   Some have gone so far as to claim that everyone is or can become a leader.

The problem is that the dominant leadership image or model was, and remains to a large extent, an authoritative, self-centered CEO.

It was not until the early ‘70’ that we began to hear about another leadership model.   In “The Servant as Leader,” Robert Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive wrote about the need for a more humane, if not effective corporate leader—a servant leader rather than the ubiquitous command and control CEO leaders among us.

At first, leadership development studies were resisted in the faith community since some clergy leaders were inclined to behave like self-serving, autocratic CEOs rather than the servant example in their own traditions.

Which brings me to a February 27, report from the Catholic News Service, in which Pope Francis is quoted as saying that “bishops should act not like ambitious corporate executives, but humble evangelists and men of prayer, willing to sacrifice everything for their flocks.”

He went on to say, “We don’t need a manager, the CEO of a business, nor someone who shares our pettiness or low aspirations.”

His complaint is that the stereotypical self-serving CEO model of leadership is not working for clergy leaders.

In fact, that kind of leadership is not working anywhere – in business, the military, government, politics, or the public sector.

That’s what Robert Greenleaf was saying.

And that’s what Barbara Kellerman wrote about in her 2012 book, “The End of Leadership.”  Unfortunately, most CEO’s, she wrote, are “neither effective nor ethical.”

Servant leaders are needed as much in the corporate world as in faith communities.

I’m not sure that everyone can be or should even aspire to be a positional leader.

However, to the degree that anyone can serve, then perhaps anyone can lead.

The Best Super Bowl Commercial – And The Power Of Stories

I watched the recent Super Bowl even when Seattle was so far ahead of Denver that it was no longer competitive.   I wanted to see the commercials.   They attracted almost as much media attention as the game itself.

And the best Super Bowl commercial according to polls after the game?   It was another Budweiser story of a horse and a dog, this time “Puppy Love.”The commercial said nothing about beer, let alone why the Anheuser-Busch company thinks their brand is the best.   It’s a story about the tenacity of a 10-week old puppy who earns a place on the Clydesdale team – a sentimental story the sponsors hope beer drinkers will remember.

In fact nearly all the commercials were short stories.   Which supports the thesis of Jonah Sach’s book, Winning the Story Wars, that “those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the world.”

I was recently in a discussion group with Abdual Aziz Said who since 1957 has taught international relations and global peace at American University.

He is a co-author of “Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East,” in which he contends that peace will come in the Middle East only when “compatibility stories” replace the “confrontation stories” that fuel conflict and violence.

Every organization and individual has a story.

We are all mid-stream in stories that began before we came along and will be remembered and continued after we are gone.   But while we are here we have the opportunity to know, live and tell our own stories within the larger stories that could make a difference for the good.

Washington needs elected leaders telling compatibility stories rather than the paralyzing confrontational stories that have left us in a political gridlock of partisan fundamentalism which Said writes, “implies a refusal to listen to the ‘other’.”

Even our faith communities need new stories.   Evidently the increasing number of ‘nones,’ who claim no religious affiliation, are not a reacting to spirituality and compassion.  They are just fed up with the old negative stories of religious disputes, contentious true believers and self-centered indifference to a world in need.

“Know Your Story and Lead With It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership,” by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones, presents a model for leaders everywhere.

Effective leadership is knowing, living and telling stories that have the power to change our lives and the world around us.

Leading Out Of Duty When It Would Be Easy To Quit

In “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” (New York Times #1 best seller), former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes that even though he often felt like quitting, out of his sense of duty to the troops he continued to serve 4 ½ years under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

In the 600-page book he provides candid, personal observations about why and how the decisions to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan were made by the White House, Pentagon and Congress and executed on the battlefield by the troops.

Duty, he writes, compelled him to serve despite his misgivings about the wars and his constant struggles with the White House staff, congressional leaders and the Pentagon bureaucracy.

In a surprising revelation he writes: “I didn’t enjoy being Secretary of Defense.”

He agreed to step in when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were going badly and was eventually directed to develop plans to bring them to a necessary end regardless of the outcome.

Throughout the book he describes times when he wanted to quit.  He was ready to walk out of White House planning meetings, congressional committee interrogations and Pentagon bureaucratic marathons.   He memorized his exit remarks.   These internal struggles were the wars that really wore him down.

In his closing reflections he reveals why he took the job and stayed with it.

When I was asked in October 2006 if I would be willing to serve as secretary, I said that because all of those kids out there were doing their duty, I had no choice but to do mine.”

He saw hardships and casualties on battlefields, physical and mental wounds in the military hospitals, life-long disabilities and the toll of war on families.    He relates how he took personally his responsibility to send young men and women into harms way.

The troops,” he wrote, “were the reason I took the job, and they became the reason I stayed.”   Throughout the book he draws the stark contrast between “their self-less service with so many self-serving elected and non-elected officials back home.”

And for that he is remembered as the “soldier’s secretary.”

Two questions –

How many leaders from all walks of life serve from a sense of duty to others?

How well do leaders serve when they are tempted to quit a job they don’t like?

Three Steps to a ‘Leadership Revival’

In his recent NY Times column “The Leadership Revival,” David Brooks offers a simple three-step path to high quality government leadership that applies to leadership everywhere, particularly in nonprofit organizations.

It’s not complicated.   No seminars, conferences or books are needed.  It’s simply mentoring, awareness and renunciation.

He is unusually optimistic, convinced that these steps can improve the leadership in the public sector.  “The quality of people is high,” he writes, even though he thinks the quality of government leadership is low right now.

He takes it even further – “We live in a nation of good people.”

I believe that.  Living in the Washington DC area for over 40 years, surrounded by government workers and leaders, I’ve seen it.  This is especially true for those in the nonprofit organizations and faith communities that I know best.

For the most part people who work for the government and nonprofit organizations are good, well-intentioned, high quality people, as Brooks puts it.

He believes that with these three steps they can become high quality leaders.

First, he writes, “apprentice yourself to a master craftsman.”   This takes mentoring to a higher level.

The essentials for quality leadership can only be acquired from relationships where one learns from “imitation and experience.”

He explains, “you will not be effective in public life unless you find a wise old person who will teach you the tricks of the trade, hour after hour, side by side.”

After leading training seminars on how to be a good mentor I’ve come to believe that the equally important question is how to find a good mentor.

Only a few leaders in the groups I’ve worked with have had a formal, intentional, mentoring relationship of the kind that Brooks describes.

Second, he advises leaders to take a break, get away from their assignments for a few days or an extended sabbatical.

Go far enough away so that you become, as he suggests, “an alien in a strange land.”

High quality leadership requires awareness of how the rest of the world lives.   It has to be experienced -  “the smell of the street, tinges of anger and hope and aspiration.”

I’ve heard pastors talk about the value of taking sabbaticals to visit other churches to experience what it’s like for laity in the pews.

When I began to serve in an African American community I quickly learned what it feels like to be in the minority.

I never thought about what it is like to be white until I served in a Black community.

There is a tendency for leaders to become trapped inside their own frames of reference.

Brooks writes that such a “reality bath” gives you “foreign eyes, to see the contours of your own reality more clearly.”

Third – to be effective, public sector leaders must be committed to a cause more important than their own careers.

Brooks assumes that they are in it for something more than the money.  This is especially true for nonprofit and faith community leaders.

When you lose sight of the compelling vision that inspired you in the first place the quality of leadership suffers.

High quality leaders learn to become, in his words, “masters of renunciation,” saying “a hundred Nos for the sake of an overwhelming Yes.”

Mentoring, awareness and renunciation – three steps on the path to leadership excellence.

Brooks isn’t sure these ideas will “improve the quality of the nation’s leadership, but” as he concludes, “something has to.”

Prophetic vs. Partisan Leaders

In this election year and the 50th anniversary year of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, politicians are debating the best way to reduce poverty and narrow our widening income gap.   (See “2 Parties Place Political Focus on Inequality” – NY Times, February 9.)

This is good.   Entrenched poverty and income inequality were hardly, if at all mentioned in the 2012 U.S. elections.  As President Reagan put it: “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”  Nicholas Kristof points out in his recent op-ed article, that even though “There Has Been Progress in the War on Poverty,” 16 percent or near 50 million Americans remain below the poverty level.    An increasing number of those are the working poor.

In the recent past poor people, especially children have either been ignored or blamed for misfortune.

It gets worse.

Those in faith communities who have bought in to the notion that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, it follows that poverty is a sign of God’s displeasure.   The poor are poor because they are sinners.

There is a long-standing debate in American culture about the undeserving poor.

Talk about blaming the victim.

Poverty and inequality are more than political and economic problems.   In the Judeo-Christian tradition these are moral and religious issues.

The Biblical directive about wealth and poverty originates in the Jubilary laws found in Leviticus.   These laws were intended to prevent anyone from becoming too rich, hoarding their wealth, or from becoming destitute.

During harvest farmers were instructed to leave some grain in the fields for the gleaners.   Every 50 years, in a year of Jubilee, properties that had been bought and sold were to be returned to the original tribal families.

Since the Jubilary laws were neither followed nor enforced, the Hebrew prophets began to anticipate that with the coming of the messiah a new society would emerge in which the ideals of the Jubilee would rule.

(This theme is developed in “The Politics of Jesus,” by John Howard Yoder, 1972 and in “Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution,” by Andre Trocme, 1973.)

It was this prophetic tradition in Isaiah 61 that Jesus identified with in his first sermon recorded in Luke 4.   The Kingdom of God had finally come.   The ideals of the Jubilee were being fulfilled.

This is not to suggest that there is a Biblical form of government or economics.    People of faith will differ on that.

What they will agree on is the prophetic call for a social order in which no one gets too rich or too poor.

The political debate about how to achieve this is partisan, as it should be.   The role of the faith community, on the other hand, is prophetic, always asking government leaders including themselves– “are some getting too rich and some too poor?”

Servant leaders, particularly from faith communities may not agree on public policy or partisan solutions, but in faithfulness to their tradition they have the right question.

My 10 Best Books from 2013

I set out to read at least one book a week on leadership and current events in 2013.

That seemed like a lot until I read an article “Caution: Reading Can Be Hazardous” by Charles McGrath, who read over 450 books last year as a judge for the National Book Award.

At the other extreme, in his book “The Universe Within” Neil Shubin cites Scottish paleontologist James Croll who would spend an entire year reading a single book, often lingering on one page for a day or more to digest each idea.

Most of us are somewhere in between, a lot closer to Croll than McGrath.

When I don’t retain much I take comfort from the advice in Montaigne’s Essays – “read a lot, forget most of what you read.

My 10 best books for 2013

Five are leadership books featured in Leading To Serve blogs.

David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell

Power does not exist where we think it does.

What Keeps Leaders Up At Night, by Nicole Lipkin

Leaders often lose sleep over the wrong things.

Give and Take, by Adam Grant

Success comes from helping others with no expectation of return.

Quiet, by Susan Cain

Some of our best leaders are introverts.

“Evangelii Gaudium” (the Joy of the Gospel), by Pope Francis

A bold challenge for reform and renewal.

Five more 2013 nonfiction books I’ve read and recommend.

The King Years, by Taylor Branch

Upon the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a summary of civil rights history.

The American Way of Poverty, by Sasha Abramsky

How poverty ruins lives and how to prevent it.

Voices in the Night, by Jim Copple

A first-hand look at global injustice particularly gender violence.

Baseball as a Road to God, by John Sexton

How baseball illustrates the elements of a spiritual life from a popular course taught by the president of New York University.

The Unwinding, by George Parker

The U.S. is coming apart at the seams.

Unfinished, by Richard Sterns

The president of World Vision US challenges believers to engage in social action.

What good books will 2014 bring?   The challenge is to decide what to read, both old and new.