Thoughts on Imperial Life in the Emerald City

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Green Zone Leadership

Are you leading from the Green Zone?

I wrote a blog post a couple years ago by that title here after seeing the movie The Green Zone.

The movie The Green Zone was partially inspired by the reporting and the account of Iraq post-war (2nd war) found in the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv ChandrasekaranShortly.  After seeing the movie I started this book, but put it down for a bit and finally came back to it and finished it. To be clear, the movie is not a movie version of the book.

Chandrasekaran references a quote from T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as one of the central insights or wisdom of what he’s trying to convey.  That quote from August 20th, 1917 is,

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”

After reading it, I’ve found that so much of it resonates with my observations of American majority culture approaches to leading change among ethnic minority communities.  In fact, if I could I would make this book mandatory reading for all white ministers whose decision making or involvement even remotely impacts ethnic minority communities.  I hope to post on some of the key points of connection in the near future.

But the essence of the message of this book, the takeaways of what we can learn from the Coalition Provincial Authority in Iraq in the early 2000’s, can be summarized I believe by the following equation:

Ethnocentrism + Paternalism + Power (+ Nationalism in this case) = Really bad leadership with a lot of self-deception (including wasteful spending, poor stewardship, unethical use of power, lack of empowerment, and many more things).

For those not use to those words I’ll briefly describe ethnocentrism as seeing the world only through your own cultural lens and being unable to see from other cultural viewpoints.  Paternalism is the dynamic where those in power lead in ways in which they think they know what’s best for another people, but in carrying that out they create and sustain and power disparity and a measure of dependence and control.  Power here is having the resources or the clout to execute one’s will even in the face of resistance. Nationalism is basically thinking that your country is the best (or your company, denomination…).  A version of this also can include a divine blessing perspective in which God has clear blessed you and therefore you have a measure of authority to exert your will your way in other places.

In my organization and many others I’m aware of there isn’t much overt “Nationalism” per se, but there sure is plenty of the other three and these things are a consistent part of the landscape of a majority culture entity trying to empower people from whom their exists a great distance or gap of understanding or connection.

The Green Zone is one of ultimate examples of ethnocentric paternalistic leadership and I think there’s much to be learned in the ways of what it means to serve people and what it looks like when we don’t and why.

The Green Zone has become part of my permanent leadership vocabulary now.  If you want to read a few more thoughts of mine inspired by the movie, go here, but I highly recommend the book as a massive case study of where leadership can go wrong in trying to “serve.”

This may evolve into a series as there are so many great examples of where power driven leadership goes wrong in trying to serve.


Are You Leading From the Green Zone?

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Green Zone Leadership

Re-posted from March 29th, 2010

I’m on vacation right now with my wife sans kids for a couple days and one of the things we got to do today was hit a movie which is a rarity in our life stage.  We were on a time table and decided to watch The Green Zone.

I didn’t know anything about his movie when I went in – guy at the theater said it was like a Jason Bourne movie.  That sounded good to me at the time.  To be clear, it’s not a Bourne movie and it had more similarities to Black Hawk Down than the Bourne films though it was less war movie than political thriller.

There’s a lot of political controversy about this movie and I’m not making a lot of statements about what some have called an “anti-American” bias.  Politics aside – while there might be some sensationalism, most of the themes and portrayals are extremely believable and did not come off to me like propaganda.  So politics aside, the movie was all about leadership and I left with the wheels turning.  I had to get some of my thoughts and reactions down before they go away.

I posted a couple brief explanations from wikipedia below as to what the “Green Zone” is, but without providing a spoiler for the movie – the Green Zone is essentially a safe bubble in the midst of the leadership arena. There is a scene where the unit led by Damon’s character is fresh off of a mission in dangerous sections of Baghdad, Iraq and then he is summoned back to a meeting in the Green Zone with an official.  He and his unit stumble upon a pool in which there are tons of people partying poolside with pizza and bear and girls in bikini’s.  One of the soldiers says something to effect of “What the…?”  They are startled by how disconnected the higher levels of leadership are from their reality on the ground.

The Green Zone is where leaders are cutting deals and gathering information from a distance, but they are immune to the real sufferings and plights of the people and the community.  Values and beliefs from one context are being imported into a different context with an imperialistic vibe and no learning posture.

Leadership at any level can start to reflect the “Green Zone” when the servant posture erodes into a comfort posture.  However, one of the important things is that many of leaders in the green zone believed they were doing great things and on a moral quest of sorts.  That doesn’t equate to servant leadership though and can often lead to just the opposite.The “Green Zone” in the movie and in my experience is when leaders make big decisions with bad information or no information (bad or no intel).  Leaders are leading from the “Green Zone” when leaders from one culture and ethnic group keep making decisions for other ethnic groups assuming that what goes for one goes for all.  Leaders are leading from the “Green Zone” when they choose to live large and comfortable, immunizing themselves against the real stories of those they lead or in their communities or in the world.

Are you leading from the “Green Zone?” Matt Damon’s character plays the prophetic, change agent role and it’s an inspiring picture of servant leadership.  Again, some of you might react to the political spin of the movie, but it’s not overt propaganda.  The leadership issues in this movie are all to real and common and it’s a great theatrical illustration of “Green Zone” leadership versus Servant Leadership.

From Wikipedia:The Green Zone is the common name for the International Zone of Iraq—a 10-square-kilometer (3.8-square-mile) area in central Baghdad, Iraq, that was the center of the Coalition Provisional Authority and remains the center of the international presence in the city. Its official name beginning under the Iraqi Interim Government is the International Zone, though Green Zone remains the most commonly used term.The Green Zone is completely surrounded by high concrete blast walls, T-Walls and barbed wire and access was available through a handful of entry control points, all of which were controlled by Coalition troops.[7] It is this security that makes the Green Zone the safest area of Baghdad,[7] and is referred to colloquially as “the bubble”.[8]

REPOSTED from March 29th, 2010

Green Zone Leadership: Agendas

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Green Zone Leadership

The past few days I’ve posted on themes related to the movie The Green Zone from a couple years back and the book that inspired that movie, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

In both posts I’ve described some of the dynamics that contributed to, from many perspectives, a very disappointing leadership effort in a challenging but timely moment.  I aim to engage a few more specifically as there are parallels to things experienced and lived out in many other contexts as well – especially cross-cultural. I’ll identify the phenomenon or dynamic, share some thoughts, and provide a recommendation to counteract that.

Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Agendas 

EVERYONE thinks they are serving the local people, yet the people and many on the ground give witness to the contrary.

It’s a powerful and dangerous question to ask – “How do we know we are really serving?” 

That theme will pop up probably in each post.  But it really has become more clear to me than just about everyone who is working believes they are serving or doing some good even when they might not be.


In the context of post-war Iraq, there was great enthusiasm to be a part of something great.  Yet as things evolved it was clear that there were many “hidden” (some not so hidden) agendas that many in fact were really serving instead of the interests of the local people.  There was the “democracy in the Middle-East” agenda.  There was the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election compaign agenda.  There was the “economics / oil” agenda.  There was also the “post 9/11 war on terror” agenda.  The author documents example after example of how decisions and actions were driven by one of these agendas in place of Iraqi interests and without Iraqi input.   There was much that did “help” Iraq, but more decisions were probably made for American interests and agendas than for Iraq.


So one of the issues that those with power that are seeking to lead change amidst people different than them has to do with motivation and with managing and guarding against losing the vision to serve amidst the temptations to try to do things in ways that reinforce agendas and in ways that make those in power look good.  Many thought they were serving in the Green Zone, but they were serving a vision of creating a Middle-Eastern America, or serving the Republican party interests, or continuing the war on terror without much thought.

We have agendas.

We have visions, goals, strategies that each year affect how we see things and shape what we try to do. There are “internal” agendas that may lead us to serve some ambition or grandiose need to be liked or respected. There are “external” agendas that are about a larger goal or strategy or organizational loyalty that ends up driving decisions in a non-serving direction.

I think I have enough examples now to believe that in organizations and ministries, serving gets co-opted by other agendas (good and spiritual though they might be in themselves).  So big initiatives (campaigns, faith goals, strategies…) end up consuming most leadership space.  Meanwhile the things that determine success on the ground for people that are outside the cultural framework of those in power fail to get brought to the table.

Leaders should spend their time on big things, the problem is when strategies and initiatives and priorities consume all the space while the right people fail to have the needed conversations.  They fail to learn.  They fail to listen.  This happened in the Green Zone.  This happens everywhere.  It’s because leaders are tempted to spend all their time talking about their strategies rather than spend time learning the stories of those they are commissioned to serve.  People often have motivations to serve and do good – but it doesn’t take much sometimes to distract people from being able to attend to the realities that lie outside of one’s own experiences.

Recommendations for the Aspiring Serving Leader

I think one thing that can help, given the reality that there are always multiple agendas competing for our attention and our hearts, is to just take some time to name them.  Sometimes just naming the potential agendas that could get in the way of having a servant posture and producing the fruit of a servant leader has a lot of power to it.    Maybe there’s a season where there is a perceived pressure to produce certain types of results.  That can lead to tunnel vision on getting what you think you need versus keeping our eyes open on where we need to serve.  Maybe there’s a strong strategy, a campaign, or in ministry a significant faith goal.  These are things that notoriously hijack leaders’ attention, capacity, and vision to serve. There’s culture driven agendas, political agendas, ambition driven agendas, and many others.

There could be a lot of things that affect decision making as an individual or as a team. 

So name them. 

List them out.

By putting them on the table, you’ll be more aware of them and more free of them.  But until you name them, you’ll be more vulnerable to their influences on your vision and decision making.

* I want to be clear “serving” leadership does not mean doing what everyone else wants. But it does mean that decisions and actions must be sufficiently reflected upon and tested with regard to the ethical, moral, and human impact. That typically means you need enough experience and enough relationships to be able to get input and learning as to what is needed for another people’s best interest as a community.

Leading in ways that are ethical for other communities requires diligence, laser focus, and determination.  Serving in the context of organizational agendas is not natural and does not come easy. It requires great leadership.


What are some of the agendas that you face in your decision making and on your team, whatever level it might be?   (There are statistical agendas, doctrine agendas, power agendas….)



Green Zone Leadership: Throwing Resources

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Green Zone Leadership

The past few days I’ve posted on themes related to the movie The Green Zone from a couple years back and the book that inspired that movie, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.   The sub-title for the series could be called “How do we know we are serving?” or “How do we know our success is truly success when considered from a human and ethical lens?”

Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Throwing Resources 

One of the observed sources of inefficiency, lack of effectiveness, and even corruption in some places was the pattern of the U.S. government and the Coalition Provincial Authority was to try to solve complex and deep rooted problems by just trying to throw a bunch of money, people (often the wrong ones), and resources at the problem.

There were grand plans when the regime of Saddam Hussein was defeated.  The western world set its sights on turning Iraq into the proverbial “city on a hill” in the middle east of what a democracy could look like.  The problem was the infrastructure was a mess and there were deep rooted dynamics in culture and history that also contributed to the great challenges of leading “change.”

There was a budget and money going into the war for post war reconstruction, but was only a fraction of what would be needed to make up for decades of mismanagement and neglect.  Part of the story of the Iraq reconstruction is the competition for resources and money in particular.  Nobody had what they needed to do their jobs right – except for administrators.  There’s a lesson there – though this point would seem to go against the main point of this post.

Problem 1: Ignorant Allocation
One of the tragedies of the reconstruction is that money was often allocated by people who just didn’t know what the issues were or what was needed.  When people screamed loud enough, or if something was going to be especially strategic in terms of how people were going to perceive their efforts and progress, then money would get allocated.  But there was not much of a big picture framework of what was most important if the Iraqi people were going to be served for the long haul.

Problem 2: Indiscriminate & Impatient Allocation
Another tragedy is that when money and people was given, it was offered often in disconnection from unified understanding of what stewardship of those resources would look like. Money was distributed without plans and without real clear frameworks of what success would look like – or even what was possible.

There is also the issue of expected money and people to be able to magically solve complex problems quickly.  Western problem solving sometimes takes the form of just wanting to give people a bunch of money and snap your fingers and problem solved.  There’s almost an unconscious belief that money is a form of magic – that if you give money that the problem will get solved.   The problem – is that throwing money and resources is usually aimed at QUICK FIXES and not at the type of adaptive or generative learning needed for long term solutions.  There’s an arrogant, subtle blame-shifting attitude that can show itself too – well we gave them the money, so if the job didn’t get done it’s on them and not us.  This is the epitome of paternalistic, non-serving leadership.  Well give you the money and take the success when it happens, but if met with failure then it’s not on us!

Obviously Iraq post-war reconstruction is a case study on a massive scale.  But I see the same dynamics in other places.  We want to solve complex and deep rooted problems (particularly as it relates to cross-cultural dynamics) by just flooding those problems with money and people.  There’s more attention on how to get more people and resources then there is on what must be learned so that investment of resources will be smart and strategic and wise.  Failure to ground allocation of resources in generative learning (learning that leads to thriving, not just surviving) results in massive waste and poor stewardship.

Are we learning what we’re supposed to learn before we throw money and people at a problem?  We can’t learn everything beforehand, but we should be able to learn enough about WHO should be involved and therefore who else might be wise to include in the process of allocation for the sake of long term effectiveness.

Recommendations for the Aspiring Serving Leader

Don’t just try to solve big problems by throwing money and by trying to get “more people.” These decisions usually are birthed by insular decision making anyway.  Sometimes, a lot of the time, it’s easier to get money than wisdom.   If the goal is long term fruitfulness and the benefit of those you are seeking to serve, then we must get the needed learning and not settle for sugar daddy solutions or acts of desperation.  Sugar daddy solutions are when you are using money to try to achieve your agenda and accomplish your goals (but a secret agenda is trying to make yourself look good in the process). Acts of desperation is when you don’t know what to do so you just throw a bunch of money at a problem.

Both of these examples do not lead to serving.  They may “help” some things, but they aren’t transformational enough for those who are being served or for those that are supposedly called to serve.

Learn, Listen, Get a critical mass of the right people who can speak for the context that you are seeking to see change in and collaborate on solutions. A lot of bad decisions and waste of resources could be solved by making sure those that have the best vantage point for what’s needed are involved in the decision making.

But throwing resources and people against the wall to see what sticks is not serving.  It may feel like it at times. It may feel good to do something instead of nothing. When we throw money at the wall, the worst is that it goes to waste.  But when we throw people at the wall, they tend to get damaged or feel used.

We owe people more than that and we owe it to our calling and Maker to be better stewards of both money and resources even in the face of complex problems.


How do you guard against throwing money and people against the wall to see what sticks?  How do you work to see resources stewarded in the service of long term solutions instead of squandered for short-term solutions?

Addendum after initial posting:

This is an insight confirmed both by the green zone case study as well as through some conversations and contributions people have emailed me since posting. One of the challenges of “Throwing Resources” is that your success is misleading.  Sometimes you just luck out with an extraordinary leader or circumstance that can make the needed adjustments.  But the problem is when such decisions are made from centralized brain trusts, you’re likely more dependent on luck for success than you would like to admit.  There seems to be a higher correlation with decentralized allocation of funding and decisions about resources with long term success and the fruit of serving leadership.

Green Zone Leadership: Self-Serving Allocation

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Green Zone Leadership

The past few days I’ve posted on themes related to the movie The Green Zone from a couple years back and the book that inspired that movie, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.   The sub-title for the series could be called “How do we know we are serving?” or “How do we know our success is truly success when considered from a human and ethical lens?”

Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Party-based Allocation 

One of the themes that repeatedly showed itself during Imperial Life in the Emerald City was careless and ineffective allocation of resources.  In some ways this is a continuation of the last post on “Throwing Resources,” but this will focus more on human resource and leadership allocation. 

The crazy-making phenomena reading the account of post-war Iraq was the example time and time again of people being entrusted significant leadership with the primary criteria being party affiliation.  If you were Republican and on “the right side” and supporting the political agenda, then you were in – these were people asked to lead and oversee people, massive initiatives, and manage the budgets.  If you were the best person for the job, but politically questionable by the regime, then you were out of luck.  Such talented and experienced people were either rejected out of hand or sidelined through positions deep within the bureaucracy so as to be be “contained.” Sadly – I think this is all too common.

Allocation & The Inner-Ring
No doubt this system of allocation is part of what’s wrong with the whole political system in general, but for broader purposes I want to narrow down the core value driving such an approach to allocation.  I see that as being Loyalty is this case. People in power, to ensure they stay in power and to ensure that they can have as much as possible under their influence and preferences, want to allocate people loyal to them and their ideals.  On some level, I think this is appropriate given the importance of having people you can trust in key positions.  On another level, when the loyalty value really is in the service of things like control and power I think allocation starts to confuse trust with control.  Trust is a higher virtue than loyalty and they are not the same thing.

Loyalty can do a lot of damage.  This is one reason why a person I know not too long ago commented –

“You know there really is no safe place to take grievances in my organization – because given the web of relationships and who knows who, people always will side with who they know over who they don’t know if there is a question of impropriety. It’s not worth the risk of being labeled and alienated further from those in power by speaking up.”

I agree with these concerns in a lot of situations. We often let our social networks of who we “trust” an know shape how we relate to others we don’t know. Serving then becomes a really cloudy concept.

I can’t help but think about the essay/lecture by C.S. Lewis called “The Inner Ring” which can be found in the book The Weight of Glory. The “in” versus “out” dynamic that drives many decisions and dynamics betrays a lot of leadership decisions that on the face are said to be about “trust” to really be about “loyalty” – and a personal loyalty at that.  There’s an inability to recognize when someone might be the best person to serve in a given situation even though there might be some disagreements or no real mechanism for control or loyalty.  Maybe this is as simple as trying to mobilize “yes men” to your service.  That again though reveals that the object of who is being served is at the top of the hierarchy and it is certainly not those at the bottom.

Allocation & Dumb Luck

This is an insight confirmed both by the green zone case study as well as through some conversations and contributions people have emailed me since posting on “Throwing Resources.” Sometimes people can be allocating for all the wrong reasons and still do a great job.  Sometimes organizations just luck out with an extraordinary leader or circumstance that can make the needed adjustments with serving results and be part of the “status quo” system.  But the problem is when such decisions are made from centralized brain trusts, you’re likely more dependent on luck for success than you would like to admit.  There seems to be a higher correlation with decentralized allocation of funding and decisions about resources with long term success and the fruit of serving leadership.

Allocation & Spiritualization

In ministry we also can get really spiritually about our hierarchy and how all the pieces of that hierarchy came into being – the end result being that somehow every person in every position was divinely ordained to be in that position.  On one hand this is true – for every person is in a particular role and under various authorities.  On the other hand, this can be a dangerous rationalization for our own decisions in who we ask to do what.

I actually don’t think there’s much of a different mentality in many ministries from the military.  You’ve got the chain of command along with a strong system of belief to support that chain at all costs. I find the parallels between spiritual organizations and the military fascinating – and it’s because many spiritual organizations or ministries have a view of authority that can be very similar to what is found in the military.

But one of the main symptoms of this is the dynamic that just because someone has a title or organizational authority, then they can and somehow are gifted in every situation that those below them on the hierarchy might face themselves.  A key example here is mediation or other specialty skill sets.  The people who are “allocated” into some situations are often those with titles, not gifts and oftten without a paradigm of serving. Most of the time, people just allocate themselves as the person “in charge.”  Yet the question of serving doesn’t ever get asked.  It’s assumed that since you have the title – then you are the best person for the job.  Not true.  And I think this assumption wastes millions of dollars every year and often makes things worse through finding short-term fixes not sustainable for the long haul. Allocation is meant to serve – whether it’s a leader of a local team that is being placed or whether it’s someone more higher up being tasked to serve in a specific way in a specific situation.

The constant allocation of one’s self to handle all the business under you instead of people who have potentially a better gift mix than you to do those things is really just a mechanism of control.

Recommendations for the Aspiring Serving Leader

Don’t allocate as a means to control what happens, micro-manage, or ensure your way.

Cultivate trust with people with unique skill sets and giftings regardless of ideology or leadership philosophy so that you can put the right people in the right places at timely moments.  Don’t write them off or quarantine them just because they aren’t “on your side” on all matters.  Leaders and ministers need to practice bi-partisanship too. Ever noticed that hardly anything that happens politically ever happens that’s truly good that is not the result of significant bi-partisan efforts?

Leaders need to cultivate trust and not loyalty. The loyalty should be towards those we are called to serve and towards our highest authority – not to political and personal agendas. And agendas as we discussed in the first post are everywhere.


How do you work towards bi-partisan trusting relationships to ensure people on the ground are ultimately served in timely and important ways?


Green Zone Leadership: Rose Colored Self-Congratulations

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Green Zone Leadership

The past few days I’ve posted on themes related to the movie The Green Zone from a couple years back and the book that inspired that movie, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.   The sub-title for the series could be called “How do we know we are serving?” or “How do we know our success is truly success when considered from a human and ethical lens?”

Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Party-based Allocation 

The somewhat disillusioning conclusion to the events captured in Imperial Life in the Emerald City was that Americans who were tasked to lead change and lay a foundation for Iraq’s rebuilding, government, and economy consistently celebrated the greatness of their contribution and work – despite fairly obvious failure and disappointment to anyone truly paying attention to the full impact of the western helpers on the nationals.

Rose Colored Self-Congratulations

Maybe you’ve experienced it – but reading the book it just blew my mind how so many things could just go horribly wrong, so many dollars wasted, and so little tangible results, still could be celebrated as great success.

How does this happen? Why does it happen?

I’m sure it’s complicated with politics, ethocentrism, and other things playing a part.  But it’s simple too.  None of us ever want to look at something we’ve worked hard at and enter into that feeling that it might have been a total failure and all of our work was worthless.  That’s kind of dark place to go to.

So we find something to feel good about.  We seem to have endless capacity for justification, rationalization, and glass half-full thinking.  We can walk away never experiencing the impact, the pain, the reality of missed opportunities or unintended consequence.  There’s an existential crisis in this of sorts – for to come face to face with the possibility that all of your best efforts were just not good enough is to be pretty close to the deeper questions about who we are and whether we can make a difference in this life.

There’s the overly positive people – who only can see the “wins” no matter whether the losses overwhelm them.

There’s the spiritualizers – who believe whatever you’ve done somehow is what God wanted to happen.

There’s the positive fatalists – who believe that whatever happened was meant to be so why question it and just be content with your efforts and approach.

And of course there’s the blamers – those who congratulate themselves and justify the success of their personal efforts while blaming others for the failures.

Resolving Not to Grieve

Something we see in the Green Zone is an unwillingness to face disappointment, failure, and missed opportunities. In short, we see resolution to avoid grief.  Instead, we must focus on the bright side.  Or maybe we rationalize that we did our part and now it’s up to “them” to do theirs.  That’s a pretty insidious mentality though especially amidst clear failures.  In a sense it’s blaming those you are “helping” for the failures of setting them up for success.   This happens – we invest dollars and throw bodies at problems or priorities without much awareness or thought as to the dynamics involved, and then when the results we want don’t happen we find it a little easier to put it on the little guy instead of look in the mirror.  And it comes from an inability to grieve – to face our own failures in setting others up for success.

Walter Brueggemann describes this “resolution to not grieve” as a part of the “royal consciousness.” It’s part of the psyche that comes with being part of the establishment that has an instinct towards self-preservation.  It’s why people just seem to struggle to empower those not in power, no matter what their stated hopes and intentions are.  There’s a general lack of awareness of what is serving.  It’s all seen through the eyes of privilege and power.

In ministry or general leadership, I’m sure most of us have had experiences where we’ve been part of great initiatives that didn’t go well or even good.  I’m sure most of the time you’ve seen a general effort to have positive takeaways.  How often have you truly entered into the grief of failed efforts to serve others, failed stewardship of resources – human or financial, or even the sad reality of missed opportunities.

When’s the last time you were a part of an authentic sense of loss about a missed opportunity – what could have been and we just missed the moment?  Culturally we just love moving on and just focus on the next thing. We can sometimes grieve tragic and obvious failure, because it’s in our face.  But what about missed moments that represent what could have given huge lift to a situation or people and was missed because of a lack of preparation, awareness or intentionality?

Recommendations for the Aspiring Serving Leader

Learn to be able to see your failures.  I think a certain capacity to handle failure precedes being able to see them sometimes.  But we have to be able to ask the hard questions about whether people were served.

More often than not we focus on whether we worked hard or not as an indication of our service.  But we should ask the question, “Were the people we were trying to serve, truly served?”  It’s a sure sign that you are drifting from the heart of a servant when your thoughts primarily go to your intentions or effort in evaluating whether you did the job. 

I’m not advocating focusing on the negative. I’m advocating focusing on the people.  Feel good about what can be felt good about. As humans we don’t usually struggle with finding things to justify our efforts and feel good about. But feel bad about what you should feel bad about. Acknowledge it. Feel sad. Make amends if needed.

Aspire to find the “moments.”  Don’t settle just for the “low hanging fruit”, but for what truly will inspire, serve, and help in a given moment in context.  Pay attention to not just what went wrong or went went right – but also about what good could have been accomplished if we just were intentional about it.


How do you guard against losing the sight of people’s reality when evaluating your success? How do you fight the temptation to justify your own contributions and existence in the face of disappointment and failure?


Green Zone Leadership: Breaking Rules to Serve

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Green Zone Leadership

This is a much delayed post in the series I’ve entitled “Green Zone Leadership,” which is a compilation of reflections and insights from reading Imperial Life in the Emerald City – the account of the U.S. led rebuilding effort after the second gulf war.  I routinely reflect on this book as the account mirrors a lot of what happens when powerful organizational entities seek to help and empower others. I aimed to write this post last summer, but alas – life happens.

Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Bureaucracy

This was the easiest phenomenon to observe in this massive case study of leadership and an effort to empower.  For bureaucracy is all over the book. Bureaucracy isn’t all bad. It’s a necessary thing to some degree.  Michael Malone’s The Future Arrived Yesterday and Gordon Mackenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball both illustrate that organizations all require some measure of centralization that keeps them from losing all form and sense of corporate purpose.

But what was quite evident in the book and what most of has have experienced in one place or another is the soul sucking culture shaped by structures whose original purposes of serving have been overwhelmed by the instincts of self-preservation and the elevation of order as the highest virtue.

Servant leadership guru Robert Greenleaf wrote the following:

“Bureaucracy is defined as a system that has become narrow, rigid, and formal, depends on precedent, and lacks initiative and resourcefulness – a pretty bad state of affairs.  It is the feet of clay that seem to encumber everything that is organized.  As I see it, this is the way all institutions tend to become as they grow old, large, or respectable……..They may do some good in the world; in fact, they are all we have.  But they still tend to become bureaucracies–given size, age, and respectability.  Because we need the good they do, we tend to overlook the harm done because they are bureaucracies.” (294)

The “Green Zone” was almost synonymous with bureaucracy. The book outlines time after time in which efforts to serve were delayed, corrupted, or silenced under the power of the bureaucracy. But there is a fantastic section of the book called “Breaking the Rules” that captured how one leadership defied the bureaucracy and truly served the Iraqis and left them empowered to lead their own in that respective domain.

But he had to completely break the rules and step out of the bureaucracy to do it.  One man, Alex Deghan went to extraordinary lengths to do the job he was asked to do, yet if he went “by the book” even remotely it would have never happened – more money would have been wasted, the end product would be lower quality, and leaders would not have been set up to succeed in leading their own people.

One example – he wanted to train Iraqis to guard the science center he was developing and needed them equipped to look for car bombs and other things.  No one would help him out.  He tried to get some U.S. security guards to help. Finally he found a guy that said he would do it if he could get a full length mirror so he could enhance his sex life while in Iraq. Deghan immediately went to the market and made it happen. Now obviously – that’s a racy example, but it illustrates the kind of foolishness that can get in the way of good being done and sometimes what is required to remove unnecessary barriers to serving.

Deghan had to resort to desperate measures just to access the money allocated to his project and assignment. The Green Zone bureaucracy created insane delays and stonewalled legitimate requests because of black and white rigidity. Deghan came up with a solution that took incredible initiative and effort, but was so outside the box that an accountant told him he was actually probably breaking Federal Law. Yet later, when the rebuilding effort ran into problems financially of how to distribute money they came back to Deghan and began implementing his strategy of getting funds from the U.S. to the actual projects they were earmarked for.

But Deghan, in his relentless effort to serve – do a quality job that empowered the Iraqis and stewarded the resources, drew incredible backlash from other Americans in the Green Zone. He was threatened, stonewalled, and given the run around because he was viewed to have no respect for the system.  The author captured his reality and the fruit of his leadership well writing,

“He was the only guy in the Emerald City who feared his fellow Americans more than he did Iraqi insurgents.

Because he didn’t do business the Green Zone way, Dehgan not only managed to open the science center before the handover of sovereignty, but he also created an institution that was immediately successful.” (255)

Every organization has great people whose duty is to keep things working smoothly and staying within a reasonable measure of order.  Most systems are initially designed to serve. Yet bureaucracy sneaks up on the best of us sometimes. Sometimes change just takes a long time. Sometimes organizations are “blessed” with people who have managed to make themselves indispensable because they have held onto all the knowledge in their domain so that they feel secure and safe. Some cultures just value order and control more than others.  Whatever the reason, bureaucracy happens.  And when it does, it doesn’t serve.

The reality is, whether it’s Malone’s “core” or Mackenzie’s “hairball” or Greenleaf’s “bureaucracy”, to truly serve people that lie outside of those initial domains, a measure of freedom and flexibility is required.  Using Mackenzie’s language, we have to “orbit” to serve.  We cannot truly serve if we are solely functioning either within or for the hairball.  We have to have some separation, some freedom of identity to think and create and adapt, if we are truly going to serve specific people in specific contexts.

What this means is that if you aren’t sometimes willing to break the rules, get outside the system sometimes, or think more flexibility than the organizational structures (or those structures’ guardians) encourage or allow, then YOU ARE NOT TRULY SERVING.  You can’t serve both masters. You either are going to serve people or you are going to serve structures. We usually start with people and always drift towards structures. These structures show up in policies, curriculums, schedules, and processes that are embedded in our organizations (HR not the least of which, which is the arena in which I often work!)

I believe we are all vulnerable to bureaucracy, some more than others. But that’s what makes great leadership to me. Great servant leaders are those that reverse the direction of energy and leadership activity away from structures and back towards people.  At the heart, bureaucrats become what they are because they forget what truly serving even means. They begin to confuse order and lack of chaos for just and serving environments. Order gives the illusion that everything is ok, when the reality is that order often becomes an instrument of repression, conformity, and punitive judgment rather than a tool to be submitted for the sake of human functioning and expression, creativity, and freedom.

Structures are part of what it means to serve people, as long as they remain submitted to that purpose. But we all face decisions about whether we are going to serve people or serve order.  When faced with that moral and ethical tension – I hope you and I consistently choose to serve people.   Authentic servanthood tends to create its own “order” that usually does a better job than structurally imposed order anyway. And if we don’t know if we’re serving, I hope we all have the humility to find out!

Alex Deghan is a hero of mine and an example to be followed. He was not rebelling or “sticking it to the man.” He was navigating a giant hairball with the complete goal to serve the Iraqis and empower them for the future.  He chose to serve people, not the bureaucracy and he went to great lengths to do it.

The author made a note about Deghan and one other similar character in the Baghdad narrative. He wrote,  “Their resumes didn’t suggest them for their jobs, but they had plenty of chutzpah and, more importantly, they weren’t political hacks.” (253) These two men who had uncommon effectiveness in both explicit objectives as well as subjective measures of authentic empowerment had these two things in common – they were creatively courageous and they were able to think and function outside of the bureaucracy for the sake of the people they were there for in the first place.

I’m not advocating “sticking it to the man” or going rogue. That’s not what this discussion is about. I’m only talking about being independent of thought enough to be able to identify what serves and courageous enough to lead towards that without settling for the convenient excuses or losing heart at the silly, but formidable obstacles often faced. Maybe there are times that are extreme enough to merit some measure of rogueness like Deghan. But like Deghan’s example of funding, some measures of rogueness that result in transformational serving are frequently copied by “the man” who simply had never been able to think outside of the box and take the required risks. So sometimes being labeled “rogue” is just a matter of being the first one to try to solve a problem by those that have refused to see and solve that problem prior.

Deghan is worth listening to as he speaks to the paternalistic and controlling tendencies of bureaucracy along with a perspective that might help free us to serve….

“One of the biggest problems of Iraq was that we weren’t listening to the Iraqis, and that our presence in the room, just like perhaps Saddam’s presence in the room, was preventing people from thinking independently and taking the initiative,” Deghan said later. “The key was not for us to be more involved, but for us to be less involved.”  (255)

If you get a chance to read this book, it’s well worth it. It’s a tragedy really that sometimes masquerades as a comedy of errors. Even if you don’t, remember that the only way to serve the Emerald City is to stay free enough from the Green Zone.