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"Leadership Wired" Interview


In the 28 years that James C. Hunter has been teaching servant leadership to audiences across the globe, he has never had anyone disagree with the principles he shares.


That’s not surprising to him, however, because he believes servant leadership simply is about doing the right thing—being patient, demonstrating self control, being kind, showing appreciation to offering encouragement, holding people accountable, being honest, practicing humility, etc.—whether a leader feels like it or not.


Hunter, a leadership consultant whose clients include several of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work for,” is the author of two books: the international bestseller The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership and his latest work, The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle: How to Become a Servant Leader. We spoke with him recently about how he came to be such a champion of servant leadership, as well as what it takes for someone to become a servant leader.


Leadership Wired: Based on your interactions with business people around the country, what are the most pressing issues—both personal and professional—facing leaders today?


Jim Hunter: Becoming a leader is the No. 1 pressing issue I see. The military is facing the same issue; young people just are not tolerating people who don’t lead very well. A Gallup poll just came out showing that two-thirds of people who quit their organization don’t quit the company; they quit their boss. That monumental shift in the labor force is creating a lot of friction because organizations now are recognizing that just having a bunch of managers isn’t near good enough. We have to develop leaders who are capable of getting people engaged from the neck up as opposed to just getting their hands, their legs and their backs. How do we capture hearts and minds and spirits? How do we move from management to leadership?


LW: How do you differentiate between management and leadership?


Hunter: I think John Maxwell nails it. John was one of the first ones to say that leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less. Leadership is about inspiring and influencing people to action. It’s about our character; it’s about the person that we are in building relationships. Management is the things that we do—the planning, the budgeting, the problem-solving, the organizing—and that’s real important. But I have met many, many great managers who were terrible leaders. I have met some great leaders who were horrible managers. Nobody ever accused Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan of being a good manager. They were horrible managers. Leadership is about the person that you are: your ability to inspire people to action, to take the hill, commit to the mission, be the best they can be. That is a skill that great organizations are looking for. We can send you to school to get an MBA. We can send you off to learn our technology. But who can come in and lead? Who can get people to line up and march through a wall?


LW: Is it possible to learn leadership or is that an innate thing?


Hunter: Are leaders born or are leaders made—the age-old question. When I first got in this business 28 years ago, I was pretty well convinced that they were born. Or at least an amalgam between genetics, your environment coming up, your experience, your education—all that kind of stuff thrown into a bucket and out jumps a leader. But 28 years later, there is no doubt in my mind that leadership is a skill—a learned or acquired ability—and I’m convinced it’s available to 95 percent of the population. There are some people that leadership is not available to. My wife is a psychologist and she talks about this group quite a bit; it’s people who have very serious character disorders, narcissistic personalities, people who are unable to have relationships. If you can’t do relationship, you’re not going to be able to do leadership.


But assuming you can build relationships, you can raise your leadership game. Everybody can’t be All-American, first-team, valedictorian or the CEO, but everybody can be the best they can be. Everybody can raise their leadership skills. We can become better listeners. We can learn how to be more appreciative, to be more humble, to hold people accountable better. We can learn leadership.


LW: How did you learn the lessons about servant leadership that you write about in The Servant and The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle?


Hunter: I had been a personnel director at a company for some years in the late 1970s and early 80s, and I just watched what worked. After I left my personnel job in 1984, I started an employee relations company in Detroit. I would go into organizations that were troubled by union drives, strikes, violence, absenteeism, turnover, low commitment, low morale—pick your symptom—and I would play company doctor. I did that for several years, and what invariably began to dawn on me was the issue wasn’t the people. The issue was in the front office. The issue was leadership, every time. Since then, this has just been confirmed to me in spades: Great organizations and sick organizations all have something in common, and that is it’s a leadership issue that got them there. Where there is great leadership, there are great symptoms. Where there is bad leadership, there are bad symptoms. I got tired of fighting the symptoms and decided I was going to focus on the issue, and the issue is always leadership, or a lack thereof. Gen. George Patton said there are no weak platoons, only weak leaders, and I have found that to be absolutely true in my career.


In the crucible of working in organizations—some very troubled, some very good—I just paid attention to what worked and what didn’t work. And what didn’t work was the power-style manager—I’m the boss, you’re not, when I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you. That just didn’t work. The ones who were successful were the ones who were about relationships—the ones who worked to identify people and meet their people’s needs, the ones who hugged people when they needed a hug and spanked them when they needed a spank.


About that same time, I became interested in servant-leadership, and it all just fit together. The role of the leader is to identify and meet needs. We’re not here to do what people want—but we are here to do what people need. Some of the great servant-leaders I have known in my career have been tough as nails when it comes to things like mission and margin and accountability and values and doing the right thing and character—pit bulls. The difference is they understand that human beings have other needs, and they’re about meeting the needs of people—the need to be appreciated, the need to be listened to, the need to be communicated with, the need to be held accountable, the need to know where the boundaries are. People have a lot of needs—not just a kick in the pants and a paycheck. The leaders who are about the business of identifying and meeting the needs of their people—these are the ones that are successful. I knew that many, many years ago, but what’s really great in the marketplace is that now labor markets and businesses are being driven towards this. We have 50 million Generation Xers and another 78 million Y’s coming in right now who don’t trust power people. Do it or else—I’m outa here. They’ll hang around for a season or two and then they leave. So that’s creating tremendous friction right now in the labor market and hence, the explosion of servant-leadership worldwide. 


LW: What skills and personality traits are useful for someone who wants to be a servant-leader?


Hunter: Leadership is not about personality. If you look at all the great leaders in history, you’ll see all different kinds of personality, from Gen. Patton to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Billy Graham, from John Wooden to Bobby Knight—as different styles as you can imagine. Personality is fixed by age six—you don’t change personality. Personality has nothing to do with leadership. Leadership is about substance, not style. Personality is style. Substance is character. Dwight Moody, the 19th century evangelist, used to say, “Character is the person you are in the dark when nobody’s looking.” Character is moral maturity. Character is our commitment to doing the right thing every day for the people we lead, even when we don’t feel like it—perhaps especially when we don’t feel like it; I’m not sure it can be an act of character unless it costs us something. Character is winning the battles between what we want to do and what we ought to do.


Leaders of character are people who are about the business of doing the right thing for their people. It’s the right thing to do to be patient, to have self control. It’s the right thing to do to be kind to your people—to give them attention, appreciation, encouragement, to listen well. It’s the right thing to do to be humble, not to be arrogant and boastful. It’s the right thing to do to be respectful—to treat people like they’re important. It’s the right thing to do to be forgiving—to give up resentment and move on to a new day. It’s the right thing to do to be honest with people—to hold them accountable. It’s the right thing to do to be committed to being the best leader we can be.


Patience, kindness, respect, honesty—that’s the work of character, the person that we are. Warren Bennis, another one of our great leadership gurus, sums up his whole body of work by saying, “Leadership is character in action.” I never really understood 20 years ago what he was talking about; I’m real clear now. He absolutely nailed it. It’s all about our character. In fact, I’ll even take it a step further. In the end, leadership development and character development are one and the same thing. If you want to raise your leadership game, you’ve got to raise your character game—the person that you are. How you appreciate, how you do respect, how you do accountability, how you do conflict resolution, how you do listening. If you don’t raise those things, you’re not going to raise your game as a leader.


LW: Can you teach someone to be a servant-leader when they have been a different style of leader? Is that a difficult process depending on the kind of style they were using before?


Hunter: Absolutely, because as I said, leadership is a learned or acquired ability. People can change their character. You can’t change personality. You can’t go to class and become a type A from a type B; it’s fixed. Your IQ is fixed by the time you’re a teenager. But not so your character. That one keeps changing. We’ve been teaching character to my nine-year-old for eight years now—over and over and over. Be patient and be kind and be a good listener and follow through and be humble, be selfless, be respectful, share, forgive, be honest, be committed—over and over and over. Well, this is what leadership development is—continuing to raise our character game. We’re not done when we’re a teenager. As a psychologist, my wife deals with a lot of people who are stuck at age 30—they stop growing. Leaders never stop growing. They never stop raising their character game. So, can it be taught? Absolutely. Can it be developed? That’s what I’ve spent my life doing—helping people raise their game in leadership. I have seen some of the worst command-and-control, Nazi-Gestapo dictator leaders you can imagine that have absolutely raised their game and become effective leaders.


LW: Is that a lengthy process?


Hunter: People can change. We’re wrong to think people can’t change. But we’re equally wrong to think change is easy. We’re bundles of habits. We didn’t develop these habits overnight and we’re not going to break them overnight. But the leaders who are committed to break their habits—the way that they’ve been behaving towards people—over time, they can start to close the gap between where they need to be and where they are. Let’s say you don’t hold your people accountable and they don’t feel appreciated. You weren’t born with that—that’s just a bad habit you’ve developed over time. You can change that, just like you developed this habit. But it takes commitment. It takes hard work. It takes feedback. It takes friction. It takes accountability. It takes a leader who is saying, “I’ve had enough.”


LW: If you were addressing a roomful of Gen-Xers and Yers, what would you say? If we don’t want to be the kind of leader that we see around us, what are one or two things that we should focus on?


Hunter: First, understand that you already are a leader. Leadership is not a position, leadership is a choice. We are all leaders. We are all influencing one another. The only difference is, we have different responsibilities. The CEO has different responsibilities. My supervisor has different responsibilities. But as a leader in my organization, whether I have anybody reporting to me or not, my job is to influence these people that I’m coming into contact with every day—influence them for good. We all leave our mark. The only question is, will your organization be glad you were there?


The second thing I would say is what Gandhi said—“We must become the change we want to see in the world.” You want your boss to be a servant-leader; you become that change. You want to be a better leader; look at your character. You need to look at the choices you’re making every day about how you’re carrying yourself and how you’re impacting your world and how you’re listening and how you’re appreciating and how you’re doing accountability with people—all the things that your leaders should be looking at. Don’t wait until you’re an official leader in a “leadership” position to start working on this stuff. 


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