Strock, James

strockjames_april_bennett_w.jpgJames M. Strock is the author of Serve to Lead: Your Transformational 21st Century Leadership System. Jim Strock is a recognized expert and speaker on leadership. He serves clients worldwide, including companies, professional service firms, not-for-profit organizations, government agencies and the military. Strock is the author of Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership and Reagan on Leadership.

[Bio adapted from:]
Photo credit: April Bennett | Soul's Image

Serve To Lead

I love the idea of serve, service, serving. It's when it gets wrapped up in the "serve to lead" notion that it throws me off a bit. Sometimes I think there's just way too much emphasis on leadership, and not enough on service. So I'm curious about serving, since I think people have a harder time understanding that than leadership. I think the ratio of books on leadership to books on service is about 1 million to 1. There's a line in your book that says, "Every moment of every day you're serving someone." What do you mean by that?

JS: Literally everything you do is serving someone. Now, you might believe, depending on your religious tradition, it is or should be about serving your God. Likely you're serving people in the work environment, or should be in various ways in your personal life. But literally, everything you do is serving someone.

The things that are least effective for anyone are things that are solely serving oneself. That tends to lead to destructive behavior. Certainly it doesn't create value. And I think becoming mindful of that, and recognizing that one is, or can be, serving at every moment, can be clarifying in terms of thinking how we can best live.

So when you write a book about serve to lead, who are you serving in writing this book?

JS: Excellent question. I'm attempting in this book to have it potentially serve literally anyone. I think the lessons here are universal. And I'm attempting to add value in two ways: One is, the circumstances of leadership and the capacity to serve I think are demonstrably different today than in the past, certainly the recent past.

And secondly, I think through systematically looking at how one lives and serves and leads, you can definitely develop leadership, management, communications, and other skills to a much higher degree than you otherwise might.

How is serving now different than in the recent past?

JS: The tasks of what people in positions of authority must do are dramatically changing at the present time. In recent years you had this asymmetry develop where large companies, for example, got the benefits of mass investing, but didn't really adjust their own perspectives to be accountable along with that. What's happening now, very quickly, is that because all kinds of individuals or stakeholders are empowered with information—by the Internet and so on—CEO's, for example, if they're going to be effective, need to be very mindful of serving a much broader array of stakeholders than they used to.

Speaking of CEO's, and everybody's favorite whipping boy of the moment, Tony Hayward was until recently the CEO of British Petroleum. You speak of this notion of audience. Meaning you have to have a strong notion of who your audience is in order to serve them properly. This idea was crystallized for me in thinking about what happened to Mr. Hayward. Because he was serving one group before this tragic explosion that killed people in the Gulf of Mexico and immediately after that happened, he was serving a whole different group, but he didn't realize that. Do you agree with that?

JS: I totally agree. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

I would love to talk about that.

JS: Firstly, I'll briefly mention my ties to this. I grew up in New Orleans. The two recent presidencies [Bush and Obama] have foundered on dealings with the part of the world that I love and know very well. Secondly, I was former head of law enforcement for USEPA, civil and criminal, and Environment Secretary of California, and worked in the private sector extensively in this field, so I know a lot about what's actually occurring.

Third, BP has been a client, BP Solar to be precise. The work that I was privileged to do with them sometime ago was work that I'm very proud of. BP was doing good things. But it's been clear over the course of the past decade that BP has not been meeting the highest standards on a whole range of environmental safety and health issues.

Now, in this case, as I think you put it really well, and the way I think of it in Serve to Lead, is that effective leadership is almost always very similar, one case to another. Failures are all unique, because ultimately they go back to the confusion you talk about, about who they're serving.

First of all, there's Hayward himself. Mind you, he was serving himself first of all. We saw that with his recent, regrettably timed cash stock redemption to pay for his house right before this.

Secondly, in terms of the spill, you've heard his comments that are frankly outrageous, where he talked about how the spill disrupted his own life, apparently oblivious to the immense misery he's unleashed.

I think also what clearly happened that he didn't grasp is that the company culture under Lord Browne, then under Hayward, has been one where I would think it's pretty fair to say, they literally didn't know who they were serving. For example, you take the people at the well itself, when they're making calculations about how many dollars per day can be saved by starting the drilling earlier than might have been advised. Part of that is because they're confused with their service, and they're thinking about their immediate manager in a broken company culture. They're thinking about short-term profits only. They've lost sight of their larger obligations.

That fault also, of course, falls to the government because the whole point of effective regulation is to alter that service calculation. The government has clearly failed. That's a failure, I think it's important to add, that is systemic. It's now taken root under presidencies of both political parties in the United States. And you see it across the board from Wall Street to Main Street to BP to Massey Energy [coal mine disaster] to illegal immigration. That's the thread that links them all.

Absolutely. I didn't realize these other components of your background and past history.

JS: This is truly a tragic situation. It's not easy for any of us to watch. One just has to hope that people are looking and learning. I do think we're going to benefit from these crises. That our political and corporate leaders will take a more serious look at the various people they're meant to serve, and how best to do it. If they do that, if they map it out in a conscious way and begin to think that way, a lot of it will take care of itself. The big change today in corporate life, in the economy, is that it used to be that companies would often try to hide so-called externalities, you know, costs that weren't necessarily captured in their work.

Today, increasingly, they simply cannot do that. What's more, they can create value by not hiding these. Quite often their customers' own values can be advanced by how they deal with either externalities or with internal issues, such as how they treat their employees. So these now create value. It's not simply being ethical or somehow soft. It's hard, smart, and practical.

Transparency is the word of the moment, though one could only hope that stops being a buzz word and just becomes part of business as usual.

JS: I think there's a good chance it will, because people are increasingly demanding it. It's become a matter of competitive significance to do the right thing, particularly if you're in a business that sells commodities. Starbucks, for instance, can create added value from the customer's point of view by advancing the customer's own values. That's not about coffee per se, but it's something customers value, and rightly so. These are signs that are very positive. They also open up a lot of possibilities for creative actions by governments, not-for-profits, and other companies in competition that we're just starting to understand.

As you say, there's just so much going on. But we obviously have all of these tools—the Web, the connectedness that you talk about in your book—that allow us to see so much and understand more as consumers, as citizens, as concerned parties. We all have much more responsibility now than we used to.

JS: Absolutely. But also much more opportunity, right?


JS: For example, BP. Look at the opportunity, assuming it's not broken up and sold off, which is one possibility. If it survives as a recognizable entity, you might well have a spectacular performance by their new CEO, Robert Dudley. He may well get what Tony Hayward didn't, may have a clearer understanding of who all the stakeholders are and the new opportunities they're presented with.

Clearly, again under Lord Browne and under Tony Hayward, while they talked a good game, it's become quite clear they really didn't quite believe it. They spent a lot of money influencing politicians and interest groups, including environmental groups. Apparently they believed that those investments allowed them to under-invest in a lot of serious safety and facility issues.

The whole rebranding thing is unfortunate. I say unfortunate because for all of us out here looking at big oil companies, we're all cynical to begin with, given the kind of money the companies rake in when things go bad for the rest of us. But for them to go through this rebranding and then you just see, well guess what? Underneath, everything is just the same as it ever was. It makes it hard for other companies who are legitimately trying to change. It raises our cynicism level even higher. "Oh yeah, there's another rebranding, but nothing is going to change." This is such a huge example.

And as you say, and I hope that this could become a very positive story with somebody who comes in and sees the people side. Tony Hayward is a geologist. Nothing against geologists, I took some fabulous geology courses in college and loved them. But the guy was not equipped to deal with the people part of the problem. That's clear in the aftermath of this.

JS: I think what you're saying is absolutely correct. The one thing I might add for your consideration is again, BP, the price they're paying is likely all the greater in the marketplace because both individual investors and also institutional investors are going to assert their values as well as the actual economics at hand. At least I would think that's the case.

But then it all gets so muddled because you have people banning BP gas stations. And it turns out that BP actually owns very few of these BP gas stations. This boycott of gas stations is not hitting the proper target. People are angry. When people are angry and frustrated a lot of misguided action happens.

JS: Well, absolutely, and that's a risk of its own. There have been a lot of leadership failures with other key stakeholders in government that are ongoing as well. One thing I would point out that may not be grasped by the other big American oil companies is that there could be a huge competitive opening here for a company that does appear to have better values, serving more stakeholders, not doing the sort of predictable villainous stuff some people try to push on that whole industry often unfairly.

We'll keep our fingers crossed. Hopefully something good comes out of this. I just think of these fishermen along that coast. You must be well aware of all of that. This is a long-term problem.

JS: It's heartbreaking. And when one considers obviously what that region has been through in recent years, it's remarkable the resilience and strength of the people there. It will be nice when the day comes that they can look at people like those oil companies and their own federal government as being a help.

Now to shift gears here. We're going to move away from oil and go over to Broadway. There was an article about a woman, Marian Seldes, in the Sunday Times magazine from June 13th, "The 60-Year Stage Life of Marian Seldes." It begins with how she's well known in a small circle of actors in Broadway. She was going to see Angela Lansbury on Broadway. She's 80. She was home in her apartment, fell and banged her shoulder. But still she went to the show, she went to dinner afterwards. She was in immense pain, but being an actor, hid all that. Later a friend convinced her to go to the emergency room. It turns out her shoulder was so busted up they had to put in a titanium replacement. Here's what the author writes:

"In the mirrored bubble of show business, where people see only themselves, she sees everyone else. More than that, she celebrates them. She goes to their shows, whether on Broadway or some crummy joint downtown; she's front-row center at both their sparsely attended readings and their lavishly produced awards ceremonies. She is as avid a fan as she is an actress; she listens as intensely as she speaks. After seven decades of working, often without acclaim, her rapture at her profession remains undimmed."

JS: Wow, what an extraordinary tribute.

But then I just said to myself, oh my God, here's somebody who is clearly serving her community all the time.

JS: And one can surmise that she's having a remarkably productive old age.

She is alive. She was a single mother, raised a daughter in New York City, being an actor. At some level the one thought that popped to my mind is clearly, she's serving. Maybe she's just serving to serve. Is there necessarily a leader component to that? Or, is that where I have this all wrong, and the fact is just that she is such a server, she is a leader. It goes hand-in-hand.

JS: I don't think it's a matter of being right or wrong. I might frame it slightly differently with respect.

Please do.

JS: We're just being affected by her example. I'm going to read that article. The fact is, this person who you and I have never met will likely have an influence on how I think. Her example will be one I'm going to look at and think about in terms of how people change their service over the course of their lives. Finally, I think it's very fascinating, you know science is giving us studies all the time now about how solid relationships of various types lead to good health, particularly for older people. And those are about service.

She may not be a positional leader. But I would venture to say she's someone that has a profound example on people that in its own way I would classify as leadership.

Thank you. You put that in a perspective that I wasn't able to do. I have a lot more appreciation for her and the story.

The subtitle of your book is: "Your Transformational 21st Century Leadership System." System is one of those words that always makes me a little wary. I imagine you have a reason for using that word.

JS: I do. The ultimate ideas about leadership and about service, and how they relate to how we live, are—as Tom Peters and others have pointed out so well—timeless. But how one effectively applies such ideas, and how they become in effect usable, serviceable by people of any given generation or time, that's always changing. What occurred to me, and what I hope people find useful is that this book breaks out four questions that are very simple. The entire book is really built around just those four questions: Who are you serving? How can you best serve? Are you making your unique contribution? Are you getting better every day?

The hope being that someone can use those questions, answer them in their own way, in their own life, and with the book, be able to apply them throughout their life, throughout various leadership competencies from speaking to writing to management. And in that sense, it's systematic. That of course was also what was intended as the added value of the book, and was the challenge of writing it.

I like that. It is simple in the best sense of that term, in that it's not unduly complexified. You mention in your foreword that you're trying to create a document that people can use that isn't over-intellectualized, but is actually something that you can dip into and grab a moment out of. You want people to think of this more as a handbook than as something that goes up on the shelf.

JS: Thank you, that's the intent. I really tried to have a book that the people I've worked with or observed could literally make their own. Because the very fact that it's built on questions I hope reflects the underlying humility of it. It's meant not to give the answers, but to have each person use those questions to come up with their own answers.

Well, as you say, just having questions is half the battle. And you need to continue to ask yourself those questions every day. I like this notion of every day asking yourself: "Who am I serving?" If you really consciously think about that every day, your thinking shifts.

JS: It shifted mine. And I'm pleased to say a number of people I know, or who have contacted me, as well. As you say, it's simple, but it's also very powerful. We all tend to get certain habits that we don't examine. We all tend to be in circumstances that are not entirely in our control, but our reactions are. We can forget that. It can just be a very powerful, clarifying exercise simply to focus on who we're serving. It can be as simple as taking a moment in a conversation. Before you respond to that person, think to yourself, who are you serving? A lot of it is quite basic.

I think it's important, because the whole reason that, let's say, George Washington's rules of etiquette are so important is they do condition us through small things to think differently and, ideally, act instinctively on large things with the same commitment to serving other people.

Right, but that takes practice.

JS: It does. I think that's the whole point of trying to systematize this in the book. Or again why I argue against those people who would diminish the significance of being polite to people, being kind in daily interactions. They'll say, "Well, that's just being considerate," or, "That's just being polite." I think there's something much more important going on by developing the ways of thought that underlie that, and that make it instinctual.

Now we're seeing with books like Tom Peters' The Little BIG Things, people who've really thought this through systematically understand the marketplace value of kindness.

Right. And maybe we've lost it. I think we all are familiar with outrageous comments on the web, which seem to me to be a prime example of incivility. There's this notion that anonymity breeds incivility. Why should that be? What's the cost of that? I don't think we're even quite aware yet. That you're fighting against that is a very good thing.

JS: That kind of self-serving behavior, which is how I would characterize it, is self-indulgent. It creates no value. Just attacking people personally or not listening are very costly. Recently I was working out at a gym and watching cable programs with closed captioning, and there are four televisions on. On two of them, from two of our well known cable networks of different political persuasions, repeatedly it read, "inaudible talking over each other." I just started laughing. That clarifies in a real simple way what the problem is. And nobody learns anything from that.

On a slightly related front, I saw a tweet recently from John Kador, a Cool Friend who wrote a book called Effective Apology. He was wondering if Carly Fiorina was going to apologize for her overheard blip about criticizing her opponent's hairdo. It's a strange thing that we're in a world where Carly Fiorina can't say, "I'm sorry I said that. It was rude and unnecessary." Instead she's sitting there in a political race not wanting to appear weak by apologizing.

Kador's book is all about how apologizing creates strength; it isn't about weakness. As you had said before, it's about clarifying a conversation. I'm just sorry that we live in a world where people have to gather their strategy team together to determine whether or not they should apologize for something.

JS: And as you know, the Fiorina comment is complicated by the fact that it wasn't intended to be a public statement. That doesn't make it an easier answer, although that's one way to look at it. But the other thing I think that really goes to your point is that it's often a legal problem too. CEO's, for example, in companies are often advised not to apologize because it could be used in various ways legally. That could be fixed, but it's not.

That's tragic at some level, that our humanity is eclipsed by legality. Of course we've been suffering from that condition for a long time.

JS: In wrapping up, I'd just like to say thanks to Tom Peters and his team. Tom has been such a remarkable thought leader on all these issues. I'm keenly aware of his influence going back to In Search of Excellence regarding ways to think about serving and empowering people. The influence is now so great that I think it's often underestimated.

Thank you. It's been a pleasure speaking with you.

Email: jms (at) servetolead (dot) org
Blog: Serve To Lead