Who are you serving? An interview with leadership author James Strock

If I ran a university and offered a degree in leadership, Serve to Lead 2.0 would be THE MUST READ text book.

Like most of the university textbooks I’ve read, it’s reassuringly solid. Not one of those flimsy, flash-in-the-pan-could’ve-been-written-in-ten sentences leadership books that are doing the rounds at the moment.

Nope. This is the real deal.

Even Tom Peters, arguably the world’s foremost leadership expert, has waxed lyrical about this book, saying “Leadership as service is so obvious once one has pondered the idea and its application – and, alas, so rare in current practice. Serve to Lead is a superb book.”

But unlike my Economics 101 textbook (which could give Zopiclone a run for its money), this book is interesting as well as informative. I found myself excitedly highlighting ideas and exclaiming “Yes!” out loud so often that my husband looked at me sideways from the couch.

Serve to lead 2.0 stands out as a must read for both the emerging and seasoned leader.

James (an unbelievably nice author) sat down with The Leader’s Digest to talk about his latest book and all things leadership. Here’s what he had to say…

Q: Serve to Lead 2.0 is a revised and updated version. Why did you write it? Each of my books has been written for a most practical and personal reason: I had been unable to find a book that satisfied me on the subject… so I undertook to write it myself.

Q: What has been the toughest experience you have ever gone through (from a leadership perspective) and what did you learn from it? There have been a number of occasions where I simply stepped out into uncharted territory, where experts would have or did counsel against action. But I took action in the face of great uncertainty nonetheless, with faith I was doing the right thing. My takeaway: Audacity in service of a cause greater than oneself is recognized by fate.

Q: What’s your favourite part of the book? Mean question I know! That is a devilish question! I would have to say that I have particular affection for the final chapter. It attempts to pull the previous sections together in a way that readers can apply in transforming their own lives and work through a systematic dedication to serving others. Remember, the book is not my sharing views on leadership and life so much as it is my attempting to systematize and convey the wisdom of many others. As a result, I turn to it myself, just as I hope others will do.

Q: In the book, you ask many powerful questions, one of which is “Who are you serving?” This simple, yet potent question really made me think. It forced me to get clear in my own practice and that was helpful in so many ways. Why is it important for leaders to ask this question? When a reader looks back to the one sentence to summarize the take-away from Serve to Lead, I hope it’s this question. It’s a source of accountability for oneself and others. It can be helpful in disentangling ourselves from outdated notions, unexamined habits, or self-serving approaches. It’s a straightforward gateway to transcend ego.

Q: I love how you point out in the book that anyone can be a leader because anyone can serve. What is the first piece of advice you would give to someone who is not in a formal position of authority, but wants to develop their leadership skills and lead? If one can create value—from the point of view of those one is serving—one is on the path to effective leadership. At base, it’s as simple as that.

Q: And along those same lines… let’s say I’m a senior executive with positional power. What should I avoid when it comes to leadership and leading? What is my “watch out”? From the narratives handed down from what we now call classical times, all the way to our latest news and Twitter feeds, there’s an ever-present danger of hubris. This might be seen, in spiritual terms, as pride run riot. It’s invariably followed by nemesis. The higher one rises in positional terms, the more opportunities appear in which one may take action on one’s own that can have significant consequences for others. In such instances, character becomes destiny. A Serve to Lead orientation—or intervention—may ground decision-making at such moments of truth. A challenge is that individuals and organisations are understandably most apt to seek change when they’re confronting failure. Nonetheless, there’s no greater hazard than a long record of success, presenting foreseeable, recurring hazards.

Q: One of the things I love about your book is the practical worksheets and questions that accompany each section. How could a leader potentially use this book and those exercises with their own team? Thank you. The book lends itself to targeted use of specific sections for example training new managers in the expectations of their new role or specific skills needed at a given moment such as persuasive communication or casting a vision. I like nothing more than to work, either in an individual capacity or as part of a specially-assembled team, to help individuals and organisations achieve transformational change.

Q: Borrowing this one from one of my heroes, Tim Ferris from his book Tribe of Mentors, if you had a billboard for all the world to see, what would you say on it? WHO ARE YOU SERVING?

Q: Courage is one of the simplest yet most challenging tenets of great leadership present. What has been a moment in your professional life where you needed to show the most courage? All of us face challenges in various leadership roles. This not only pertains to high positional leadership. It’s also relevant in our decisions and actions in our families, neighbourhoods, and communities. My ideal is to strive for the high standards one can see every day in our midst. Police officers and fire fighters. Parents who do whatever they must in sacrificing to build lives for their children. People who remain kind and honourable despite the pressures of ever-changing markets in a globalised workplace. From this wider perspective, I would feel presumptuous in highlighting my personal experiences.

Q: What are you currently super curious about? What are you learning from getting curious about this topic? One of the key themes in Serve to Lead is that leadership roles are converging. Familiar boundaries between public and private and not-for-profit sectors, for example, are breaking down. I’m currently focused on how the principles of Serve to Lead may inform thinking about what it means to be an American citizen in the 21st century. I anticipate these issues may also have relevance in other democratic republics, including New Zealand and Australia.

FREE STUFF! If you’re excited to get a hold of James’ book, Serve to Lead 2.0, I’ll be giving away a copy next week! Just check out one of my social media pages (Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter) next Monday to find out how to win.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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