That’s the question on the back cover of James Strock’s new book Serve to Lead: 21st Century Leaders Manual. It’s the first of four questions posed by the author. Serve to Lead is filled with principles that inspire us to the highest level of leadership. It’s an essential leadership guide for anyone aspiring to take their game to a higher-level. As someone who writes and speaks about servant leadership, I found it a compelling read.
James Strock is an author and leadership speaker, an entrepreneur, and a reformer. I recently asked him to share his perspective on the changing nature of leadership.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
What has changed in the field of leadership for the 21st Century?
Our lives and work are undergoing extensive, high-velocity change. It’s inevitable that leadership—which is about relationships and relates to all parts of our world—would be transformed.
Among the most significant changes is the breakdown of longstanding barriers that defined leadership. For example, individuals holding high positions of power traditionally tended to be distant from the those they served. Today, anyone can find a way to communicate with almost anyone else through new technologies. Such individuals no longer have the zones of privacy that separated their personal and professional lives. Elective politicians have been experiencing this new world for some time. Corporate and NGO officials are now liable to be held to account in the same way.
The new trends are part of a transformational change wrought by digital technology. In the 20th Century interactions were generally transactional. Now, by contrast, we’re in a web of relationships. Those relationships can be established or defined by individuals rather than by large public and private institutions.
The ongoing empowerment of individuals and previously isolated or marginalized groups through new technology has accelerated the longstanding trend toward leadership exerted through influence rather than domination or dictation. That doesn’t mean that the world has magically become a utopian paradise or democracy. It does mean that leadership roles are subject to greater accountability, and the tools of workaday management and service are in transition.
“Organizations exist to serve. Period. Leaders live to serve. Period.” -Tom Peters
What are the unique challenges of our day that impact leadership?
A unique, unprecedented challenge of 21st-Century leadership is involuntary transparency. Traditional notions of separate work and personal lives are being upended. Presidential candidates are pursued 24/7 by stalkers with video cameras. They lay in wait for a moment of anger, a moment of exhaustion, or a moment of pique. Then they pounce! Skilled propagandists will utilize such human moments to convey a negative narrative that appears more credible through a captured moment that may have no actual relevance.
Those who would lead are being curtailed in their capacity to craft a narrative. One can see advantages when this exposes relevant hypocrisy. Yet there are also costs. It can surely inflame the mistrust and cynicism that is afflicting the populace. It can also prompt people to turn away from positional leadership roles.
How involuntary transparency will be negotiated with expectations of privacy is one of the great questions of evolving 21st-Century leadership.
“First, always ask for the order, and second, when the customer says yes, stop talking.” -Michael Bloomberg
Leaders today must be quick on their feet, have a ready answer, and operate at net speed.
Your credibility drops with ums and ahs.
Your leadership brand is sullied by blank stares or unclear answers.
No one is perfect, but it’s important to read an audience. It’s often important to improvise.
I know that I often credit my extemporaneous speaking to my early forensics club in high school and college, skills that I depend on every single day as the CEO of a global organization. It’s not something you’re born with, but something you can learn through careful practice and preparation.
Judith Humphrey, in her new book, Impromptu: Leading in the Moment, provides a perfect opportunity for every one of us to up our game and improve our skills. I’m always on a quest to improve my skills in this area, and that’s why I welcomed her book into my self-development arsenal.
I followed up with Judith to talk about her work in this area. Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group Inc., a top tier communications firm. For over thirty years, she has been a communications coach and speaker. She’s also a columnist for Fast Company.
The Importance of Extemporaneous Speaking
Why is extemporaneous speaking so important?
Off-the-cuff remarks have become the new normal for business leaders. Organizations have flattened, and knowledge and decision-making are decentralized. Not long ago, messages were delivered from “on high.” Only those in the C-suite seemed to be empowered. Now leaders at all levels are speaking out and communicating in a more open, authentic, and informal manner.
Such everyday communications involve leading in the moment and speaking spontaneously. This is leadership in the organization of the twenty-first century. It takes place in corridors, elevators, meetings, interviews, networking events, and chats. Many small stages have replaced the big stage, and impromptu communication has become far more important than scripted speaking.
“Good impromptu speaking is a matter of words, scripts, and presence.” -Judith Humphrey
Most people think impromptu speaking would be an innate skill; you have it or you don’t. But you point out that it’s a skill you develop. Would you share some historical examples of people who practiced their extemporaneous speaking skills?
History provides many examples of individuals who faced the challenge of impromptu speaking—and discovered how to measure up to that challenge.
Abraham Lincoln told young lawyers that “extemporaneous speaking should be practiced and cultivated.” He showed his own gifts as a spontaneous speaker in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Mark Twain talked about needing several hours to prepare an impromptu speech. Winston Churchill also believed in the value of preparing impromptu remarks. In one oft-quoted example, he paused before exiting his car as his driver opened the door for him, saying, “Please wait a moment, I’m still going over my ‘extemporaneous remarks.” Lou Gehrig prepared for his “Farewell to Baseball” speech, but did not read a text–he spoke spontaneously and without notes. And one of the greatest examples of prepared spontaneity is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he improvised the centerpiece of the speech.
Even though we think of impromptu speaking as winging it, we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t prepare. In fact, the word “Impromptu” derives from the Latin in promptu meaning “in readiness.”
“Spontaneous, nonhierarchical dialogue is the new narrative for business leaders.” -Judith Humphrey
The impromptu mindset begins with intention – the willingness to see every situation as a potential leadership opportunity, whether it is an encounter in the corridor, an exchange in the elevator, or a comment interjected in a meeting dialogue. This intentionality is paramount for any leader who wants to make the most of impromptu opportunities.
Beyond that, the impromptu mindset includes the willingness to listen—to be engaged in what others say. Listening is critical if one is to avoid the one-way monologue that defined traditional executive communications.
The impromptu mindset also involves authenticity. Never before have leaders had to be so open with their audiences. Authentic leaders are comfortable in sharing their ideas, values, beliefs, vulnerabilities, and stories.
Finally, the impromptu mindset includes respectfulness and the ability to focus: everyday audiences need to be respected because each encounter involves—and can strengthen—a relationship. And in speaking off-the-cuff it’s critical to focus, because your impromptu audiences expect you to be there, truly present, for them.
“The most successful executives and managers see every encounter as a potential leadership moment.” -Judith Humphrey
This weekend’s events in Virginia left me speechless.
Watching the hatred, the racism, the bigotry unfold was painful.
Though there has been much progress, there is still much work to do. We must never stop fighting for what’s right. And, though I’m at a loss for words, we cannot remain silent in the face of evil.
So, I thought to share a few quotes on racism, bigotry, and intolerance in the hopes that it would inspire us all to reflect and move forward. I still believe the best days are ahead, that Martin Luther King’s dream will indeed be a reality, and that our commonalities will prevail over our differences. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who were tragically injured and killed during the shameful events in Charlottesville.
“What a sad era when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.” –Albert Einstein
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” –Nelson Mandela
“Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel
Two weeks ago, I shared an interview that I did with legendary CBS anchor Dan Rather backstage before our onstage discussion. Today’s post features the onstage interview. Onstage we talked about a number of subjects ranging from the personal to the historical. If you have the time to view it in its entirety, I’m sure you will enjoy it. Because it is just over thirty minutes and you may not have the time to view it all, I decided to write the subjects we discussed with the approximate time.
If you only tune in for one subject, I suggest you watch Dan Rather give his perspective on Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King and how it impacted his life. Here are a few highlights from that conversation:
“I find as a nation, as a people, as a society, we have a certain amount of amnesia. Amnesia about what the reality of the civil rights situation was particularly for people of color….Covering Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement changed me as a person and as a pro….I grew up in a segregated society…if I’m this afraid…what must it be like to be of color and know this is happening down the street?”
Dan Rather understandably became very emotional as he recalled those events. “To see people in power in city government turn high pressure fire hoses loose on children…I would not have believed people could do this, turn firehoses and vicious dogs on women and children.” 15:18