The recent partial government shutdown was the result of relationally poor leadership, both from our Congressmen and women and our commander in chief. Though a temporary agreement was reached to reopen while budget talks continue, our representatives in Congress still have a great deal of work to do to come to an agreement that will keep the government open for a prolonged period of time.
I know many public servants at various levels of government who serve the public well and are individuals of stellar character. Unfortunately, there is a stereotype that far too many politicians serve out of self-interest or on behalf of special interest groups. Every stereotype is founded on some semblance of truth. Partisan politics and bureaucracy create little value, and those inclined may use the system to serve themselves and abuse others in the process.
What is true in politics is also true in business: leaders who are self-serving create little value for their constituents. As a corporate consultant, I travel the country advising Fortune 500 companies on employee engagement, corporate culture and relational health, which in turn ultimately increases their bottom line. I help leaders shift from a self-serving mindset to an others-serving mindset.
For self-servers, it’s all about getting as much as they possibly can out of any endeavor, with blatant disregard for how it may impact others. It’s about who wins and not what good has been done. They’d rather everyone lose than allow someone else to win. They are ultimately self-destructive. I call them “Value Extractors.”
On the other hand, those in it to serve others position themselves to create and bring as much value to the table for others as they can. For them, it’s about leveraging their strengths and passions to solve problems. The bigger the problem, the more value they create in its resolution. The more value they create, the more invaluable they become. In doing so, they create a positive wake in the world and spawn movements of good.
The fundamental question then is, “For whom do you serve?” If it’s for self, then it’s a very thin veneer that will quickly be ripped apart by the polls of public opinion. Leadership, to be effective, must be about something beyond self-interest, greater than self-promotion and more noble than self-service.
Those here to serve others—or “Value Creators” as I like to call them—strive to create the most value for those they serve. They collaborate to create movements of good. They reach across the aisle to find common ground. They ask the right questions.
If I were advising our Houses of Congress on how to become a more effective, more efficient branch of our government, I’d ask our representatives to remember who they’re here to serve, and then have them start asking the following questions:
I wonder if ...?
This question places inquiry over advocacy. We need to seek clarification before we draw conclusions. It’s important to understand the various dimensions of any issue, not just our own. Otherwise, our conclusions may be ill-informed at best.
Would it be possible to…?
This query puts curiosity over condemnation. It’s easy to label something as bad if you don’t understand it. Remaining curious keeps us open to the possibilities by suspending our judgment long enough to look for effective alternatives.
Couldn’t we at least…?
The emphasis here is on exploration over consternation. Partisanship produces a stalemate. We need to get “unstuck.” This question helps to find a place to at least start moving the ball in a positive direction.
How can I help…?
Now, we are placing service over self-absorption.
The bottom line is that we all fundamentally want the same things: freedom, justice, security and assistance for the underserved. We simply have different ideas on how to address the issues. In order to make forward progress, we have to be willing to reach across the aisle and connect on our commonalities. When we attack one another, we lose sight of the issues. When we face each other and join hands, then we can attack the issues effectively as allies.
It’s time for our representatives to start asking better questions. It’s time they remember who they serve, why they serve, and that ultimately, we can all agree on one thing: we want this nation to be the best it can be, a true leader on the global stage. It’s time to work together. It’s time for Congress to work again.