Obamacare Today: Falling Apart Before It’s Fully Implemented

TPI078T0ISIt’s been almost six and a half years since the Affordable Care Act (known as the ACA or Obamacare) passed with only Democratic votes. The roll-out of this complicated statute took several years to implement. Some provisions (such as the Cadillac tax on generous employer plans) still haven’t been implemented. Yet the statute’s complex redesign of our health care system is already unraveling before it has been fully knitted.

Obamacare was not fully debated before it was passed. The Senate passed one version, and the House passed another version. No reconciliation of these bills ever occurred. But because the Democrats in the Senate lost their filibuster-proof majority in early 2010, the House had to adopt the previously passed Senate version to get any health care bill onto President Obama’s desk. Thus, the nation has been stuck with the Senate’s early version of health care reform, warts and all.

Since then, a flurry of regulations has fleshed out the statutory provisions on several fronts—on employer-sponsored plans, Medicaid, health care exchanges, to name a few.

  • Regulations permitted only narrow grandfathering of employer health care plans. Only minor changes were permitted to these plans. Greater changes meant that employer plans would have to comply with all of the Obamacare requirements for employee coverage, benefits, and cost-sharing with employees. (See here.) As health care costs continued to rise, few employers could continue to offer their old plans without modification. Thus, employer plans changed, probably more than Congress or President Obama had anticipated. No, employees could not keep the plans they liked. Those plans were gone, and employer plans incorporated expensive mandated minimum benefits and other provisions that drove up costs.
  • Obamacare offered subsidies to states that expanded Medicaid coverage for those slightly above the poverty level. But many states feared the future costs and refused to adopt expansions to Medicaid, so Medicaid did not cover as many people as expected.
  • For people who did not have the option of employer coverage or Medicaid, health care exchanges provided federal subsidies up to 400% of the poverty level. As we all recall, the exchanges had systems problems during the initial enrollment period, which meant their plans were selected more slowly than anticipated. Yet almost from the beginning of the exchanges—and accelerating this year—insurers have opted out because they have lost money on these plans.

Meanwhile, costs continue to rise under almost all health care coverages. Granted, costs are not rising as fast as they had been prior to passage of the ACA, but they are still rising faster than wages or inflation. So health care continues to take a bigger and bigger chunk of family income.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Obamacare is not sustainable without change. Yet the political standoff does not seem able to address this need for change. And any revisions the two parties propose are likely to be diametrically opposed—Democrats urging the addition of a public option and Republicans seeking more market-based solutions.

I am not arguing that the health care system before Obamacare was in good shape. It, too, lacked transparency and increased consumers’ demand for health care by transferring costs to employers and the government. But every system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets. Today, we’ve got Obamacare, and the results are not satisfactory to anyone. We need to examine the root causes of the problem and change the system.

The basic problem we face is that—despite promises to the contrary by the Democrats who passed Obamacare—health care cannot increase in both quantity and quality and at the same time reduce costs. We are trying for a Cadillac in every consumer’s garage at a Fiat price to the consumer and a Ford price to the government. But if consumers can get a Cadillac for a Fiat price, they will want two Cadillacs. Demand increases to an unsustainable level when the price paid is less than the service received. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the number of insurers willing to offer coverage on the exchanges  is decreasing and premium costs are rising.

As Greg Ip wrote in the Wall Street Journal on August 17, 2016,

“Selling mispriced insurance is a precarious business model.”

The exchanges are becoming unsustainable, and the fiscal problems of Medicaid and Medicare will have to be addressed at some point. Moreover, employers won’t continue to provide health insurance to workers if the costs continue to rise faster than wages and prices.

As stated above, our health care system includes problems of quantity, quality and cost. At most, we can work on two of these issues, and maybe only one of them at a time. This will require hard choices. To make choices that stick, we will have to consider all viewpoints. For some of my thoughts on how to improve health care in the U.S., see here.

There was a reason our founders designed two houses of Congress and a President to be checks and balances on each other. The Democratic cram-down of Obamacare in 2010 prevented those checks and balances from working, which resulted in what we have today. Until Congress and the White House work together on mutually acceptable changes to the ACA, we are unlikely to improve health care in this nation.

How do you think the U.S. can best improve its health care system?

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5 Steps to Avoiding Pitfalls of Delegation

delegationMany years ago, when I first began supervising junior employees’ work (I wasn’t even a manager yet, but I was more senior than these employees), I received feedback on my delegation style. The people I supervised complained both that I provided too little direction and also that I micromanaged them.

I wondered how I could commit both errors, but a little deeper review of their comments revealed the problem. Basically, they said I either delegated a project to them and walked away without giving any instruction, or I took their drafts and totally rewrote them.

I had to agree that I both of these descriptions fit what I was doing. While some of the people I supervised were competent, even they could use a little direction. And although some of the output needed editing, I was probably overdoing it.

Over time, I realized how important it is to match one’s management style to the employee being managed. New employees need a lot of direction, but experienced employees should be allowed a lot of leeway in how they do their jobs. Weak employees need constant oversight, strong employees need only to be supported.

A couple of recent articles have made that point to managers.

One article told entrepreneurial managers:

“When delegating goes wrong, it’s often because of you.”

Another article directed at attorney managers said if you’re disappointed in the work your employees do

“it may be that you need to improve your delegating skills.”

Both of these articles make similar points in how to delegate. Here are some pointers on delegation, gleaned from the articles and from my own experience:

1. Set clear expectations and describe the expected outcome

Give your employee some background information so they know why the work is important and give specific deliverables.

“I need a 3-5 page memo describing how we might implement this new compensation program” is much better delegation than “tell me what you think so I can talk to the V-P.” Or “use the structure of the brief I wrote in the last case as a model, but tailor it to the facts of this case,” rather than “just give me something I can use as a first draft.”

Even experienced employees can benefit from knowing the context of the assignment. The more experienced the employee, the more you should focus your direction on showing how the project aligns with organizational objectives, and the less you should give detailed parameters for the deliverable.

2. Set realistic deadlines

If you’ve known a 20-hour project was due for a month, it isn’t fair to the employee to delegate it the Thursday before the Monday it’s due. You’re asking to be an unpopular boss.

On the other hand, part of setting clear expectations is to tell the employee how long the project should take. If it should only take four hours, and you know the employee’s workload, or you can help reprioritize other projects, then maybe giving just a few days for the project is reasonable.

Still, the more control you can give employees over their workload, the better they will accept additional work and will strive to provide good results.

3. Be available, but don’t stand over their shoulder

Make sure employees have the resources they need to handle the project well. That includes not only time, but also access to you and to others in the organization (or clients) that have relevant information that could improve the result.

But don’t ask for daily—or hourly, as one manager I had did on occasion—updates. A couple of check-in points is probably all that is required. One of my early failings was not checking in with employees at all, which was just as bad as checking in too often.

4. Build in review time

Even though you shouldn’t look over employees’ shoulders, you need to reserve time to “inspect what you expect.” That Monday due date I mentioned above shouldn’t mean that the employee brings you their deliverable 15 minutes before you head to the CEO’s office. You’ll want time to put your stamp on the end result, even if the work was done by your strongest employee.

But when you review your employees’ work, only make necessary changes. This is something I still have trouble with today. I tend to want to rewrite any report I receive before passing it on.

Throughout my career, I struggled with the balance between putting my stamp on the work and over-editing minor points. When I over-edited, my staff became demoralized. It also tended to make them sloppier—knowing that I would rewrite what they turned in, they didn’t always submit their best work. It became a vicious circle, because I would rewrite more if I thought they hadn’t been precise.

5. Recognize the work done

Project Done

It’s easy to take the result and move on. But if the end product is strong, let the employee know. If it needed improvement, let the employee know that as well.

Show the employee any changes you made to their work and offer to discuss why you made the changes. Perhaps their work was substantively fine, but might have struck upper management the wrong way. Even good employees can learn from how your style differs from theirs.

If you have micro-managed the project or rewritten more than was necessary, let the employee know that is your failing and not theirs.

What experience have you had with delegation, as both manager and subordinate? What worked? What didn’t?

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Will Mediators Reveal What the Other Side Says in Caucus?

mediation2During most business mediations, the mediator will at some point break the parties into separate rooms and hold private caucuses with each side. Parties often wonder what the mediator tells each side about what the other says in these private caucuses.

Mediations are confidential proceedings. Except in rare circumstances (such as a party disclosing that he or she intends to commit a crime), the mediator cannot be compelled to disclose what happens during the mediation. So the mediator will not tell anyone outside the mediation about what either party says.

But what about what one party says privately to the mediator? Will that be disclosed to the other side in the dispute?

The answer to this question depends on the ground rules that the parties and the mediator set.

The first place to look is in the mediation agreement that the mediator and the parties typically sign either in advance of the mediation or when the mediation begins. Most mediators will also raise the issue in the opening session, before they start any private caucuses.

But keep in mind that mediators often find that selective disclosure of information from one party to the other will increase the likelihood of settlement. Most mediators have a bias toward wanting to be free to communicate what they think will help resolve the dispute.

There are two general practices:

1. First Approach: The mediator can disclose anything said by one party during a caucus to the other party, unless the disclosing party tells the mediator not to reveal it.

Most mediators tell the parties up front that they will feel free to tell the other side anything that is said in caucus, UNLESS the party tells them not to. If instructed to keep the information confidential, they will do so, until the revealing party says it is all right to reveal the information. That is the easiest practice for the mediator, because they can communicate more freely during private caucuses.

This is the practice that I use, because I believe that full disclosure during a mediation is typically better.

However, it is important to respect the instructions from the revealing party. I mediated one employment case in which the employer had evidence that the employee had breached a company policy (though that wasn’t the reason the employee was fired), but the employer representative wouldn’t let me tell the employee and his attorney about that evidence. I thought this was wrong, because revealing the employer’s knowledge of the employee’s wrongdoing could well have motivated the employee to settle for less. But I followed the employer’s instruction and did not reveal what the employer told me.

I did push back in later caucuses with the employer, but the employer stood firm, so the information was not revealed to the employee during the mediation (which was successful anyway).

2. Second Approach: The mediator will not reveal anything said in caucus to the opposing party unless expressly authorized by the disclosing party to reveal it.

Sometimes mediators tell the parties they will not reveal anything said in caucus without having the express permission of the party revealing the information to disclose it. Some mediators adopt this practice because it is hard to remember what they’ve been instructed not to reveal, so they decide not to reveal anything unless disclosure has been expressly authorized.

Even if the mediator’s practice is not to reveal what the other party said, the mediator remains free to give his or her own interpretation of how the opposing caucus went. So, for example, if the mediator has not been authorized to tell the plaintif that the defendant said this was a final offer, the mediator might still say to the plaintiff that the mediator doesn’t think the defendant has much room to maneuver in reaching a settlement.

Parties should be prepared to explain to the mediator why they don’t want the information revealed. There doesn’t have to be a reason, but a good rationale (e.g., the information is a trade secret, harm to the company if it is revealed would be irreparable, and the opposing party has blabbed inappropriately in the past) might keep the mediator from pushing back in later caucuses with the revealing party, as I did in the employment case described above.

3. The practical result of these two approaches is not that different.

Whichever practice the mediator adopts, the practical result is often the same. Because one issue during the caucus is often deciding how the mediator should approach the next session with the other side—not only the amount of the next settlement proposal, but also the issues that the mediator should stress in making the case to support that offer. This requires a discussion about what should be revealed to the other side. Some mediators will role play how the information might be disclosed to the other side, and the disclosing party agrees with the mediator’s approach.

4. Attorneys and parties should be clear with the mediator about what they do not want communicated.

mediation_7Parties and attorneys who participate in mediations should always feel free to ask the mediator how he or she approaches disclosure of information to the other side.

When they reveal information to the mediator in caucus, if there is any question in a party’s or their attorney’s mind, these participants should raise the issue with the mediator. Ask the mediator what he or she intends to share with the other party. If the party/attorney doesn’t like the mediator’s approach, discuss it. Regardless what the mediator has said up front, the mediator and the disclosing party can and should agree on what will be revealed before each caucus ends.

Mediators are neutrals, which means at the least respecting each party’s desire for circumspection in revealing information to the other side. By discussing the issue openly during a caucus, parties should not later be surprised or upset by what the mediator tells the other side.

What experience do you have with mediators’ use of caucus information in a mediation?

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The Lonely Role of Human Resources Professionals

HR wordle“I don’t think I can ever join their book club,” an HR acquaintance of mine told me one time about a group of employees in her division who socialized together. “I know too much.”

I was also in Human Resources at the time, and I’d been a corporate attorney before that. I knew exactly what she meant. HR professionals—and employment attorneys also—sometimes learn too much about the people they work with to be comfortable socializing with other employees.

office 2 people Y01VDYAX63HR can be a lonely profession. You know who is on a performance improvement plan. You know whose jobs are about to be eliminated. You probably even know who is having an affair with whom. In all these situations, confidentiality is important. There are few people you can share information with—and typically, the fewer the better.

As social media options expand, the choices that HR professionals must make become even harder. Do you “friend” or “follow” others in your organization, knowing that you might see posts about their off-work activities that could have implications at work? What if they post racist or sexist comments? What if they post a photo of themselves lifting weights at the gym when they have lifting restrictions at work? (Don’t laugh—it’s happened.)

Some HR employees set firm policies for themselves that they will not follow anyone from their company on social media. Some won’t use social media themselves. And yet, our co-workers are often our best friends. By limiting our social media and other communications, we limit our social interactions.

book BCLRC8HNEOI am in a book club with a senior HR manager in the company I used to work for. While we gossip about common acquaintances, she is discreet about what she says. I am no longer privy to confidential information about these individuals, but she still is. I respect and admire her circumspection.

I remember being in her shoes and not having anyone to talk to about particularly thorny situations—such as when a senior corporate employee had been accused of sexual harassment, or a well-respected employee had serious medical issues. Those were difficult and lonely times.

When I was in a senior HR role, I was fortunate to have a couple of fellow HR professionals whom I respected and trusted. Sometimes I felt comfortable using them as sounding boards to talk through difficult cases. I could role play with them or talk through likely responses from the employee in question.

But twice that I can recall I was involved in negotiating a severance agreement with the individuals who managed my trusted peers. I could not bring them into the situation, and therefore had no one to review the situations with. On another occasion, I had to discipline one of my HR peers for violating corporate policy. Again, since the individual was not being fired, I couldn’t talk about the case at all.

The higher up you are in Human Resources, the lonelier it is. The more you know about the organization and its future plans, the more prominent people you work with, the less likely it is that there is anyone to discuss these matters with. In fact, CEOs typically use their chief HR officers as their sounding boards about any and all talent issues in the organization, from performance problems of corporate officers to succession planning to how to integrate or downsize a newly acquired unit. What can the HR VP do when he or she would like a sounding board to discuss the CEO?

The worst thing that can happen for an HR professional is to lose the trust of the people in the organization. As a matter of course, HR employees walk a line between being viewed as management shills and employee coddlers. HR has to keep the long-term good of the organization in mind, and not lean too far toward either management or employees. In fact, HR needs to knock down the walls between management and employees by building a strong employee relations culture.

Still, losing trust is easy to do. Any ethical lapse or revelation of confidential information, and HR loses its effectiveness. So loneliness is part of the job. Good HR professionals learn to live with it.

When have you faced loneliness on your job?

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Matrix Organizations: Advantages and Disadvantages

matrix-organizational-structureI’ve been thinking about matrix organizations recently—about the pros and cons of these complex structures and about my experience in one many years ago.

A matrix organization is one in which there are dual reporting structures. In the typical matrix, subject matter specialists—such as finance, human resources, or I/T specialists—report both to management in their specialty and also to management in the line area that they support. Matrix organizations vary in which of the two reporting relationships is direct and which is indirect.

For example, when I was a Human Resources director, I reported directly to the line area and indirectly to the Vice-President of Human Resources. But similar matrix organizations might well choose to have the direct reporting relationship be to the Vice-President of Human Resources, and the indirect reporting to the line area.

Obviously, a matrix reporting structure adds complexity to an organization. Sometimes it is higher cost as well. And employees in the matrix do sometimes get pulled in conflicting directions—when there were differences of opinion between my direct boss and the V-P of HR (who were peers), I and others in my same role in the organization had to exercise a fair amount of diplomacy to work our way through the situation.

So the benefits of the structure must outweigh these disadvantages. What are the benefits? Here are the main advantages I see:

1. Better service to the business

When HR and other corporate specialists are not aligned with the business units they support, they often develop a rigid silo mentality. Finance specialists do not consider what each division needs to measure for greatest productivity. I/T specialists develop systems in a vacuum. And HR specialists impose performance incentives that do not relate to the work being done.

The conflicts I experienced in the matrix organization where I worked were occurred when the HR division rolled out such initiatives as management training programs and compensation systems that did not work in the part of the corporation where I worked. The challenge I faced was in working with both HR and the line area to adapt the corporate system to what would work in my division. I think our division—and therefore the entire corporation—was better served because of this attention to what was needed and not needed in different work groups.

2. Expertise and flexibility of specialist functions

Although having a group of corporate specialists can develop programs that are extra work in some divisions, they are also able to make world-class expertise available across the corporation. This prevents specialists from becoming stale in what they can offer the company.

Had I been aligned solely with the business, I would not have had the opportunity to work with as many HR specialists and learn as much about my area of expertise. The matrix permitted our corporation to have more HR specialists who could develop more leading-edge programs that we could take across various divisions. Not every program worked everywhere (as explained in the preceding section), but we were still better off for having tried a variety of new things.

A recent Wall Street Journal article stated that improvements in military trauma care are limited in part because

“no single general is in charge of battlefield medicine. Combat commanders—infantrymen, artillery officers and others with no medical training—are in charge of medical personnel on the front lines.”

In other words, if there were a matrix organization giving a medical professional oversight of all battlefield medicine, in addition to the combat commanders, trauma care might improve.

3. Better development of specialists

I acquired better HR knowledge faster by working in a matrix organization than I would have working by myself in the line division. I gained a broader perspective on the organization from seeing how other HR specialists worked in their divisions, and I saw my particular division at a deeper level than I would have if I had worked only in HR.

I also learned better “managing-up” skills than I would have in a siloed organization. By having to serve two masters, I learned tact and persuasion. I also learned to find my allies and how to predict when I might face an exploding grenade. Sometimes I could even prevent the grenades from landing.


As one article stated, “Organization structure should always follow strategy.” Where integration across divisions is important for corporate strategy, then a matrix organization makes sense. Just be aware of the pros and cons when choosing this complexity.

Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that every organization is designed perfectly to get the result it gets. The reporting structures and matrix relationships will impact organizational results. According to Jay Galbraith, strategy, structure, processes, rewards, and people all need to be aligned to successfully implement a matrix organization.

For good information on matrix organizations, see

What is your experience with matrix organizations?


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Favorite Firing: When a Supervisor’s Actions Make a Termination Difficult to Defend

4th cirI am typically suspicious of lawsuits in which a plaintiff employee alleges every possible form of discrimination against his or her employer. It seems unlikely that an employer is motivated by many different forms of bias when deciding on a disciplinary action or termination—race and gender and age and pregnancy can’t all be the basis for the decision, can they?

And yet, when an employer and its supervisors screws up a case so badly with multiple derogatory statements over a lengthy period of time, and when they then fire the employee shortly after she complains about the harassing conduct, the case is likely to get heard on the merits and will cost the company a lot of money to defend.

Such a case, Guessous v. Fairview Property Investments, LLC, No. 15-1055 (4th Cir. July 6, 2016), recently came before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fourth Circuit reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendant, and now the employer must gear up for a trial.

The Facts: In Guessous v. Fairview Property Investments, LLC, Monica Guessous, a female Muslim-American bookkeeping assistant of Moroccan descent, sued her employer, a property management firm, after she was discharged. Her complaint contained multiple claims, including discrimination based on religion, national origin, and pregnancy, hostile work environment, and retaliation.

Shortly after she was hired by Fairview, Ms. Guessous began reporting to a new supervisor, Greg Washenko. She alleged that Mr. Washenko began making offensive remarks when they were first introduced, when he said he had previously worked with a “bunch of Middle Easterners and they are a bunch of crooks who will stop at nothing to screw you.”

As their work relationship continued, Mr. Washenko allegedly discussed Moroccans, Muslims, and Middle Easterners repeatedly in disparaging and offensive ways, and asked Ms. Guessous questions about Middle Easterners, about suicide bombers and other terrorist acts, and about Islam. When Ms. Guessous told Mr. Washenko that Muslims were not terrorists, Mr. Washenko responded, “Yeah, sure. Like my buddy says . . . not all Muslims are terrorists, but most are.”

The Fourth Circuit opinion goes on for pages about Mr. Washenko’s comments. According to the Fourth Circuit, Washenko consistently conflated Ms. Guessous’s identity as a Moroccan Muslim with other Middle Eastern identities, so that the court had difficulty determining whether his remarks related to race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion.

When Ms. Guessous became pregnant, Mr. Washenko didn’t want to grant her a three-month maternity leave, and she had to tell him she was legally entitled to a 12-week leave. When she returned from maternity leave, her work duties had been assigned to other staff. Two months later, she asked Mr. Washenko for her old duties back and complained about his past behavior. Just 75 minutes after this meeting, the company president asked Fairview affiliates if they had openings for Ms. Guessous, because Fairview did not have enough work for her.

Then Ms. Guessous was terminated in March 2013. She was told the company did not have work for her. Her responsibilities were transferred to an outside accountant and to Mr. Washenko.

The Moral: This case demonstrates several problems for employers.

First, of course, is the alleged behavior by Mr. Washenko. In summary judgment rulings, the facts must be considered in the light most favorable to the plaintiff—in this case, Ms. Guessous. It is possible that a judge or jury after a trial will find that Fairview did not discriminate against Ms. Guessous. But with the allegations described in the Fourth Circuit opinion, Fairview is facing an uphill battle on liability.

Second, the Fourth Circuit indicated that the fact that Fairview didn’t have work for Ms. Guessous was not sufficient rationale to defeat her claims of discrimination. The Fourth Circuit said that the lower court had granted summary judgment for Fairview solely because the company did not replace her after she was fired.

“The court offered no elaboration in its opinion, but its logic appears to have been that, because the work was absorbed by Fairview’s other employees, Guessous cannot show that there was enough work to justify keeping her on staff and she therefore cannot prevail. If that is, indeed, the court’s reasoning it is a fallacy: because Fairview has shown it could operate without Guessous does not mean that it would have done so absent the protected activity.”

Thus, once an employer or its supervisors have engaged in discriminatory or harassing behavior, a restructuring of duties to get rid of an employee is also discriminatory. It seems unlikely that an employer can show any evidence to defend itself in such a situation.

In this case, the facts were particularly egregious. As the Fourth Circuit said,

“A reasonable jury could easily conclude, however, that the termination decision was made only seventy-five minutes after Guessous’ complained to Washenko about past comments and treatment, and that it was therefore motivated by the complaint itself.”

Thus, the Fourth Circuit said that a reasonable jury could find that Fairview’s argument that it lacked work for Ms. Guessous was a pretext for discrimination.

The morals to this case, then, are that (1) employers, including all supervisors, should refrain from disparaging comments about employees’ national origin, religion, and other protected categories; (2) employers should provide employees with all mandated leaves and other benefits without question; and (3) employers should not respond to employee complaints by immediately doing away with the employee’s job.

More broadly, the moral of this case is that employers need to be sure that discussions in the workplace about political and newsworthy events remain civil and that no racial, ethnic, or other protected group is mentioned in disparaging ways. A good moral for us all to take to heart in the middle of this political season.

When have you encountered managers who behaved inappropriately?

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We Are Formed By Those We Serve

Servant-as-Leader-600-x-600-e1417632687696-mnm4xm6n1cq5sae1iq6ntpk08do5anyw3katv3xjaoAn acquaintance recently quoted something he’d been told in a leadership development program: “You will be formed by the people you serve.” The program was for leaders in non-profit institutions, and so the service element made particular sense. But I have been pondering that statement for its relevance in all leadership contexts—no matter what organization you are a part of, you serve someone, and you are in fact formed by the people you serve.

I’ve mentioned “servant leadership” before, a philosophy named by Robert K. Greenleaf.  My point in my earlier post was that leaders who engage in systematic neglect—who focus on what they think is important and ignore other issues—must accept the consequences of not doing what they neglect. This post examines the root of servant leadership.

In the introduction to The Servant as Leader, Mr. Greenleaf stated

“ A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.”

He describes the servant-leader as follows:

“The servant-leader is servant first . . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve — after leadership is established. . . .
“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?”

This is a high standard—to want to serve first, to meet others’ highest priority needs first, to help those served grow as persons. But think of what it means to one’s own development to aspire to this standard. If I aspire to serve, will I not in fact be formed by my attempts to serve?

If I seek to meet others’ needs, then I will become more discerning of what those needs are. If I seek to aid in others’ development, to make them healthier, wiser, and more autonomous, I will certainly become wiser myself and less autocratic. If I seek to benefit—or at least avoid depriving—the less fortunate, I must first become more humane and empathetic.

I think back on my own career. I admit freely that servant-leadership was often no more than an aspiration, and even more often not even on my radar screen. I fell far short of achieving any type of servant status.

Yet the people who reported to me formed me. Some brought substantive expertise to our department that I did not have, and they taught me. Some had far more emotional intelligence than I have, and they saw issues I glossed over. Some pushed at me when I didn’t want to be pushed, and made me a better and more articulate manager than I otherwise would have been.

Even before we are leaders in an organization, we serve. We have bosses. We have clients. These individuals form us also. So even before I was a manager, I was being formed by those individuals I served. Most of my bosses taught me both about our substantive areas of expertise and about corporate politics. Some of my bosses taught me positively by their examples, and others demonstrated behaviors I didn’t want to develop. My clients pushed me and pulled me to get their questions answered and their needs met. They shaped the expertise I developed.

In every case, I was formed by those I served.

When were you formed by who you served?

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