James M. Strock

Books2Wealth Interview

July 5, 2010

An exclusive interview with author and leadership expert, James M. Strock by Daniel R. Murphy-

Murphy: You have recently published your third book, Serve to Lead. As you know there are lots of books out there on leadership. How is Serve to Lead different from the rest? What can the reader expect from it that will not be found in other books on the subject?

Strock: Serve to Lead is built on two foundations. The first is that 21st-century leadership is indeed something quite distinct from what’s come before. This change includes many aspects, outlined in the book. Perhaps the most important is that in today’s new world, service is the basis of effective leadership. In the past, “ethical leadership” or “servant leadership” were presented as options—perhaps desirable, but options nonetheless. Today making service your ultimate concern is mandatory. It’s a competitive necessity for effective, sustainable service by an organization or individual.

Second, leadership skills can be cultivated systematically. That does not mean that everyone can attain a high position or become a historically consequential leader— any more than spectacular basketball coaching can make anyone the next Michael Jordan. But systematic improvement can raise your game to levels previously unimaginable.

Murphy: How would you characterize the major difference in leadership in the 21st Century as distinguished from the timeless qualities of leadership from the past?

Strock: In one sentence:  Everyone Can Serve—Because Everyone Can Lead.

What is different today is that there are unprecedented opportunities for anyone to serve—and lead—in any setting. The Information Revolution has given us all the potential to build platforms for ideas and visions, remarkably free of the control of powerful institutions. Serve to Lead includes many examples of this phenomenon—and, I hope there are many more are created by readers of the book!

Murphy: In your book you teach us that everyone, no matter what position they hold, should be a leader. Is this a new idea in the 21st century?

Strock: In one sense, the notion of leadership as separate from position is as old as history itself. Many of the greatest leaders have not held high position. Thus we celebrate the leadership of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Mohammed and other spiritual leaders, for example. So, too, leaders in our era such as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not hold high position. Many who achieve high position in business, finance or politics are first recognized as leaders from their endeavors outside of—or in challenge to—established organizations or institutions.

What is qualitatively different today—and unprecedented—is the enhanced capacity of individuals to serve in ways unbounded by institutional constraints. This is truly the era of the “super-empowered individual.” We often focus on the negative of that—terrorists, bank employees who have disrupted markets, and so on—but the positives are at least as extraordinary.

Murphy: You write that your book is intended to be transformational. How is it transformational for the reader and how should the reader obtain the most transformational experience from it?

Strock: Leadership is about crafting and communicating a vision that inspires others to decide to change their thoughts and actions. Its impact is measured by results which would not otherwise have occurred.

Transformation is about one thing changing into something altogether different. Serving others effectively in leadership necessarily transforms both the leader and those served.

A reader who continually asks the book’s Four Questionsbeginning with the first, Who Are You Serving?—can rapidly transform their life experience. Serve to Lead presents the questions as a unified approach to the range of leadership situations—from customer service to management to communications.

It’s been a delight to hear from a number of readers that the book has changed their lives. To be sure, though, they’re changing their lives. I’m honored that they find the Serve to Lead approach helps them identify and undertake their calling, their unique contribution.

Murphy: What did you learn, or what most importantly did you learn in the process of writing this book?

Strock: I learned many, many things! Perhaps most important is that service, in a very real, practical sense, is the essence of leadership. Every leadership challenge can be analyzed and effectively resolved by focusing on who and how one is serving.

Murphy: What were the most important experiences in your career that taught you the lessons you write about in the book?

Strock: I’ve been blessed to have experience working in various sectors. That includes entrepreneurial, corporate, management consulting, law, government (federal and state, legislative, executive and law enforcement), politics, not-for-profit, academic, and the military. This has reached across various fields and disciplines, across the U.S. and abroad. I’ve served at every level, from intern to entrepreneur to chief executive, from consultant to board member.

These experiences made me aware of the increasing commonalities of leadership in our  time. The golden thread: one’s greatest contribution arises from empowering others to make their own greatest contribution.

When I was starting out thirty years ago, the norm was to seek to have one’s entire career with a single institution or enterprise. My experience, moving across numerous areas, was somewhat unusual. This equipped me to recognize and thrive in the emerging 21st-century world in which we all must be extraordinarily adaptive.

Murphy: You used more quotations from leadership and thought leaders then most books offer and they are so seamlessly integrated into your discussions. How did you do that? Would it be accurate to say this offers a lifetime collection of some of the best thinking on leadership?

Strock: A key message of Serve to Lead is the convergence of leadership. When service is the ultimate concern, value is created in similar ways even in very different circumstances. Thus, we’re increasingly seeing people who add tremendous value in one field, serve effectively in others. This is a notable change from the 20th century, when specialization was prized and people were often discouraged or excluded from working in more than one sector or discipline.

The diversity of quotations and references reflects that one can learn from many different experiences, from other times, places and circumstances. I hope, too, that many readers will be tempted to follow various quotations back to their sources or be inspired to seek additional sources to help them identify and achieve their unique contribution. When one’s ultimate concern is service, the possibilities are endless.

Murphy: When someone reads a book like this it looks so easy – it flows so naturally. How difficult was it to write and how long did it take?

Strock: I appreciate that question and compliment—all the more since you are such a fine writer! 

The book was written over the course of five years. The idea crystallized in January 2005 in downtown Sydney. I examined and reflected on the historic statue commemorating the leadership of Sir Richard Bourke, an early governor of New South Wales. The book was completed on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in 2010.  

I did labor over the writing quite intently. The book is intended to serve various types of readers in various circumstances. Some will read it straight through. Others may choose to search out specific items which are of use at a given moment, or to think through a pressing issue in their work or personal life. Still others may want to dip into pages randomly, seeking inspiration, information or provocation.

Murphy: You discuss in the book how best to use it, but in a few words here what is your best advice on how someone should use this book to get the most out of it?

Strock:  Whatever helps others find their way to service is the best approach. I urge people to do whatever it takes to make them, in effect, coauthor. Mark it up, underline what you like, cross out what you disagree with… but in any case make it your own.

By design, Serve to Lead is not a book of “answers.” It’s a book of questions. Only you can answer the questions, only you can create the “masterpiece of service” that represents your calling, your unique contribution.

Murphy: In your final chapter, Make Your Life a Masterpiece of Service, you discuss how a leader’s creative process throughout a life time is very important and how you can improve upon prior works. Do you see your earlier writing as leading up to this latest book? Is Serve to Lead your magnum opus, a culmination of your prior work on a higher level?

Strock: As Serve to Lead suggests, if one’s goal is to serve, one aims to continually improve—hour by hour, day by day, year by year. That is part of what makes leadership transformational all around.

The book advocates that one seeks to make use of every aspect of one’s life to achieve one’s greatest contribution. That is where leadership becomes performance art. One reason that the quotations and references in Serve to Lead come from numerous sources is that they reflect learning and experiences from throughout my life. In turn, my great hope is that others will be inspired and empowered to do the same thing.

Murphy: Are you working on a new book, and if so what will it address? When might we expect it out?

Strock: Ronald Reagan’s centennial is February 6, 2011. For that occasion, I will be publishing an updated edition of my first book, Reagan on Leadership: Executive Lessons from the Great Communicator. It will include some exciting new parts, to be announced later this year.

Overall, I believe the way I can serve most effectively is to continue to speak and write about the principles of Serve to Lead. That may result in future editions of the book, taking into account new ideas and experiences and lessons learned.

I would love to hear from anyone with ideas in that regard, including how they might get involved to help get the message out. To learn more, or to get hold of me, please visit www.jamesstrock.com.

Murphy: Thank you so much Mr. Strock for sharing your thoughts on this subject and your book. I hope we will see more from you soon.

Strock: You’re most welcome, and thank you Mr. Murphy for this opportunity to discuss Serve to Lead. I’ve got a lot of respect for the important service you provide, and it’s an honor to be included in your publication.

This interview is copyright protected by Daniel R. Murphy 2010. Permission is granted to reproduce this article in its entirety if proper credit is given. Attribution should be as follows: “Books2Wealth Interview, © Daniel R. Murphy, used by permission, www.books2wealth.com. “