George Tenet on Servant Leadership

This morning, I watched a live webcast of the Workday Rising conference executive keynote.  At one point in the proceedings, co-CEO Dave Duffield interviewed Workday customer George Tenet, the former Director of the CIA and now a managing director at investment bank Allen and Company.  The interview was the high point of the keynote, surpassing anything said about Workday, or their plans for new products.  In a room filled with fans, colleagues, and customers of Dave Duffield, the audience hung on Mr. Tenet’s every word.

Mr. Tenet had agreed to deliver a workshop on leadership at the conference, and as a tease, he read a quote from “Gates of Fire.”  The book is a fictionalized account of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield, and apparently a favorite of Tenet, the son of Greek immigrants.  Told as a retrospective of the battle from the point of view of a dying Spartan, Xeones, the book goes into great detail about both the warrior training of the Spartans and their culture.  When pressed by the Persian King Xerxes why 300 Spartans fought so gallantly against a hundred thousand Persians, Xeones explains why they followed King Leonidas:

A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him.

Mr. Tenet suggests we replace the word “king” with “leader,” in order to make it relevant to today.  The result is an excellent depiction of servant leadership, which demonstrates just how old the idea really is.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.