Strategy Activation: The power of service and purpose

Organizations can put service programs at the center of the leadership development programs.

The drive of self-interest has become a prevalent dimension of everyday life. This societal trend toward self-interest, materialism, and competitive aggression, has been documented in magazines and books, including The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell. Leadership development—or any course of self-improvement—requires a degree of self-involvement, but there is a big-picture risk to the growing culture of “me.” Unfortunately, a rising tide of self-interest can jeopardize longterm organizational progress and strategy.

To create a sustainable impact that goes beyond quarterly statements, leaders need to embrace a purpose beyond themselves. Most leaders will naturally express a desire to do this. They want to create, serve, build, and improve in the service of a broader and more long-term goal. This sense of meaningful contribution is the reason people get satisfaction out of mentoring and teaching others. However, many leaders suppress this desire in order to serve more practical, short-term objectives. People want to serve others, but for many reasons often end up serving only their own more immediate agenda.

For an organization to unleash its potential, it must help its people experience the power of service. Leadership development, after all, is meant to improve how executives serve their teams, their customers, their organizations, and themselves. However, far too many people have been conditioned to take care of themselves first, whether for survival, financial reward, or an ego boost. The pendulum must swing in the other direction. Leaders need to experience the power of selfless service and of subjugating one’s own needs to a larger purpose.

When combined, purpose and service are the fuel for transformation. As Winston Churchill said, “If the human race wishes to have a prolonged and indefinite period of material prosperity, they have only got to behave in a peaceful and helpful way toward one another.” Service to others is more than just a nice thing to do. It inspires deep, lasting change.

If service is critical to leadership development, then the next question is how to provide leaders with the opportunity to serve. It makes sense to capitalize on an organization’s existing (or evolving) service platform. The following cases describe how three organizations put service at the center of their leadership models.

Community service as a path to leadership growth.

Most organizations donate financially to any number of worthy causes. Sometimes these causes align with a core business. Food companies address hunger. Engineering organizations target infrastructure or water. Financial institutions support community development. Many companies, however, simply donate funds to a clearinghouse that channels their money to groups in need of support. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is a missed opportunity for leadership development. It also does not create an emotional connection between employees and the cause.

Exelis, an aerospace and defense company, takes a more focused approach to community service. CEO David Melcher says, “I would advise anyone to try to find a cause that your employees can feel connected to.” Through its Exelis Action Corps (EAC), the company uses the skills of employees to serve members of the military, veterans, and their families. EAC also trains employees to organize and lead volunteer efforts.

Although financial giving is part of EAC’s philanthropic strategy, it also aims to create sustainable programs in the veterans community. “We emphasize those things here because, at the end of the day, it makes for a better employee and a better company,” Melcher explains.

Exelis employees are encouraged to give their time and talents to sponsored projects. They are also trained to lead projects and take initiatives into their local communities. Not only are they volunteering, they are also leading. Additionally, Exelis incorporates EAC projects into its formal leadership development and high potential programs. This delivers the message that service is a critical part of the overall leadership model. “I guess service leadership, to me, means being a whole person and understanding that it’s about your work life, your personal life, your family life, your social life, [and] your philanthropic life,” Melcher says. “All those things have to come together in a way that makes sense and is balanced.”

Service over self.

Service leadership is, first and foremost, about putting aside personal concerns to prioritize the needs of others. As Nelson Ford, president and CEO of LMI Government Consulting, says, “The desire to help other people accomplish something is how I define [it]. It’s not about me; it’s about what we can accomplish together. I think that’s what maybe distinguishes leadership from service leadership.”

Ford points out that the workforce at LMI comes largely from a service background. Most employees are from the military, civil service, and/or the nonprofit sector. Because of this, service is part of LMI’s organizational makeup.

However, even nonprofit organizations are not automatically geared to give back to the community. It’s up to leadership to promote the notion of service first. LMI has a mission of “improving the management of government” and tries to help employees act on a desire to serve the community. The company emphasizes the meaning and value of that service as opposed to the bottom line. Ford says, “One of the things we’re going to do is take our external engagement—our charity activity, our academic partnerships—and we’re going to make it much more a focal point of what we do so that everybody gets the connection.”

As a leader, Ford emphasizes the need to both clarify the organization’s direction as well as establish clear values for its employees. Service to others provides the organization’s employees with the structure to learn, live, and articulate those values. Ultimately, it helps clarify what the organization stands for.

Inspiring others to serve.

For Max Stier and the Partnership for Public Service (PPS), the concept of service leadership is integral to the organization. PPS is “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to revitalize our federal government by inspiring a new generation to serve and by transforming the way government works,” he explains. Instead of thinking of service leadership as a formal concept, Stier embodies the company’s mission of inspiring and serving others through his own actions as a leader.

PPS has the federal government as its customer, a formidable task for a small organization. Part of what motivates Stier and his colleagues is the notion that what they do for the government has a profound effect on people in need. PPS’ employees do not tackle hunger issues directly, for instance, one of the organizations they help does.

Stier says, “The best leaders recognize that the whole point of the organization is that you can achieve more [as a unit] than you can as an individual. Your greatest value really ought to be in helping others have the environment and support to achieve what they’re capable of doing.” To him, service leadership gives employees motivation to reach “a higher good that’s meaningful to them.”

Stier emphasizes the effect service to the government has on his own organization. Coaching, providing feedback, collaborating, and even active listening are all ways individuals at PPS are encouraged to serve one another. Stier comments that it’s “highly motivating to see individual talent excel,” but adds that “there are a whole bunch of people who have come through here that are dispersed across a whole set of different organizations that are really making a difference, and will be long after I’m retired. That’s a great thing; that’s a very motivating thing for me.”


There are many examples of self-serving organizations—driven strictly by profitability—that have exceeded the expectations of their shareholders. However, to truly activate strategy and transform organizations, a sense of broader purpose and service must be part of the equation. Although the bottom line is a powerful motivator, it is people’s desire to make a contribution which is more meaningful, sustainable, and enduring.

There are many ways to make service part of the discussion. First, link service directly to leadership development. Second, develop a purpose that is motivating for others and have that sense of purpose role modeled from the top. Third, make everyday service a priority within the organization.

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