Servant Leadership: The Need for Cultural Engagement

Presentation by Dr. Douglas M. Johnston

As the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon so powerfully remind us, the greatest threat facing the world today is the prospective marriage of religious extremism with weapons of mass destruction. Massive amounts of money will be spent in the months and years ahead to defend against this threat, with the bulk of it going to counter symptoms and far less to addressing cause. In looking to the future, what America needs is a new organizing principle commensurate with its interests, capabilities, influence, and imagination that will give added reference for dealing with an evolving interdependent, multipolar world.

America entered the new millennium with no clear strategy to guide its foreign policy, forcing its leaders to face an increasingly difficult task in keeping track of how everything fits together. It seems clear, however, that foreign policy leadership in the future must place a higher premium on our ability to develop common ideas and approaches with other nations. Even today, one is hard pressed to think of any serious international challenge that can be fully met on a unilateral basis. Our current need for help in Iraq is a poignant case in point. Developing a coalition mindset, however, will not come easily for the United States.

Our nation’s evolution from isolationism and avoidance of “foreign entanglements” contrasts sharply with today’s reality of total engagement and extensive global commitments, a reality that only makes more imperative the need to project an image of justice and fair play. While we do in many ways project such an image, overseas references to “American arrogance” are becoming depressingly frequent.

Even more depressing is the fact that there is a legitimate basis for such allegations. A case in point was the 1998 U.S. bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum in the wake of the terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. I was one of the first Americans to tour the ruins of that plant in the wake of the bombing and came away sobered by how much of what was reported seemed to be totally off the mark. Based on all that I saw and learned, I became convinced that it was a wrong target. I can’t tell you there wasn’t a right target to be had, only that this was a wrong target. And I’m not alone in my thinking – a host of others feel the same. The subsequent U.S. veto of Sudan’s request for UN inspectors to evaluate the situation first-hand only added to the suspicions. Even the Defense Intelligence Agency strongly criticized the CIA analysis that was cited to support the attack. Yet there has never been a word of regret, remorse, or apology forthcoming. Nor has there been any offer of U.S. aid to those Sudanese who were subsequently forced to go without pharmaceuticals.

Another example. Several years ago, we sentenced a Paraguayan national to receive the death penalty without first advising him of his right to seek counsel from a representative of his own government, when we ourselves adamantly demand that right for any U.S. citizen apprehended in other countries. Such self-centered behavior is already undermining our international credibility and moral authority. For a variety of reasons – most of them technical in nature – we also find ourselves on the wrong side of important international issues ranging from global warming to land mines and the International Criminal Court, further adding to the spectre of a unilateral mindset.

At the beginning of this century, the United States enjoys unprecedented prosperity and influence. Regardless of what yardstick one uses-political influence, economic strength, military capability, or cultural resonance-America is clearly on top, with no viable challengers on the near-to-intermediate horizon. This is the perfect vantage point from which to take stock of where we are going and to anticipate future challenges. While countering the existing perception of American self-absorption will be no easy matter, it is nevertheless important that we do so. And here it becomes useful to turn to the concept of servant leadership.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Robert Greenleaf, a life-long expert in management research, development, and education for AT&T, developed an innovative and comprehensive approach to leadership at the personal and organizational levels. His approach-which he christened “servant-leadership”- is a remarkably flexible yet morally grounded formula for leadership which, if adapted for international applications, could go far to enhance America’s moral authority over the longer term. It is a leadership style that includes Jesus of Nazareth and Mahatma Gandhi among its more notable practitioners.

According to Greenleaf, servant-leadership begins at the individual level. He says:
“The servant-leader is a servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” For Greenleaf, this distinction between a leader who is a servant first and a leader who is a leader first goes to the heart of that person’s ability to lead for the greater good. In his words:

The natural servant, the person who is servant first, is more likely to persevere and refine a particular hypothesis based on what serves another’s highest priority needs than is the person who is leader first and who later serves out of promptings of conscience or in conformity with normative expectations.

People are naturally drawn to leaders who they perceive as serving the greater good. In fact, Greenleaf often referred to servant leadership as “a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness.”

The challenge, though, is how to apply this principle at the international level, especially in unstable parts of the world where our international policy has been breeding anti-American sentiment. For openers, concerns that lie beyond our nation’s vital interests should be prioritized with an eye toward what serves the greater good. One can define the president’s allegiances by the familial obligations inherent in his or her office, that is that the United States is his immediate family and the family of nations his extended family. As most people understand, the bonds that unite a family tree are understandably strongest in one’s own immediate family. Next strong in this regard would be those countries within the extended family with which we have established a special relationship and which might be thought to have a certain claim on our intentions, such as Great Britain and some of our other allies. Among the interests relevant to the “immediate”, or national, family are national defense, education, and welfare, while those relevant to the “extended”, or international family, include such issues as global warming, nuclear non-proliferation, and international terrorism.

A number of policy interests will, of course, fall somewhere between these two conceptual poles. For example, while protecting intellectual property is clearly in the national interest, this protection cannot be achieved without international cooperation. In determining what serves the greater good, however, one interest should not necessarily be deemed more important than another based solely on its impact on the United States. American consumers may benefit financially from purchasing inexpensive foreign products produced in sweat shops or by slave labor, but this benefit is clearly overshadowed by the severe toll visited upon those who are exploited or enslaved in the process. While each servant-leader will have to develop his or her own formula for comparing “apples and oranges”, the epistemological nature of servant-leadership is ready-made to help guide the leader through such a process.

The final step will consist of integrating these priorities into a comprehensive foreign policy, determining in the process how best to allocate limited political capital in achieving the best possible results. More often than not, the trade-offs will pose a difficult set of choices. Ideally, servant-leaders should look for the win-win possibilities, i.e. those decisions that can serve both national and international interests. The zero-sum game thinking of a bygone bipolar era would ultimately prove counterproductive if applied in today’s fluid international context or in tomorrow’s multi-polar context.

That the world will evolve to a multi-polar framework should not be doubted. Indeed, it will become inevitable as democratization takes greater hold around the world and other nations adopt the same (or similar) principles of modernization as those to which we subscribe. But even in this eventuality, the principle of organization upon which servant-leadership is based-“first among equals”-should still provide an effective basis for retaining America’s leadership role.

Implicit in a multipolar world is the necessity of winning the allegiance of one’s peers on an ongoing basis. Doing so will require an institutionalized process of consultation with those peers, but without relinquishing the right to act unilaterally whenever necessary. At the end of the day, some differences will simply be too major to bridge; and although the ultimate course of action taken by the servant-leader may disappoint some or all of the other interested parties, the fact that their opinions were solicited and that they felt a degree of ownership in the decision process should help soften any discontent.

Despite the obstacles, the time for change is fast approaching. In the years ahead, the opportunities for going it alone will rapidly diminish under the influence of transnational forces and growing interdependence. If we hope to stay ahead of the curve, it is none too soon to be giving our future leadership role the serious attention that it deserves.



Presentation by Dr. Douglas M. Johnston at a conference on Shaping the Debate for Democracy Washington, DC
October 2, 2003

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