What Do Leaders Owe?

“The first task of a leader is to define reality.  The last is to say ‘Thank You.’  In between he becomes a servant and a debtor.”  – Max DePree

I read that line in Leadership is an Art many years ago.  Since then, I’ve read thousands of pages in books and blogs on leadership, but that quote remains my all-time favorite. I love to ask young leaders, “What do you think it means?” This is how the discussion usually goes.

Define Reality? “Oh, that’s vision.” Check.

Servant?  “Oh, that’s Servant Leadership. I get that.” Check.

Thank You?  “Polite. Don’t be rude.”  Check.

Debtor?  “Debtor? Really?  Must be a trick question.”

Sometimes they will ask, “What’s the context?”

I reply, “It’s the first paragraph. That is the context.”

Puzzled consternation follows.

Eventually, to help thaw the brain freeze, I ask (as DePree did), “What do leaders owe?”

We often think about leadership as a position or a privilege. Sometimes we think about what leaders possess, such as charisma, wisdom, or drive. But, isn’t it true that leaders are debtors? Just as a new car starts to depreciate the moment we drive it off the parking lot, DePree suggested that the moment a person is placed in a position of leadership he/she is in debt. Why? What do leaders owe?

When we frame the question that way, people usually start by saying, “Leaders owe gratitude because they are dependent upon others to get the job done.”

That’s right. Keep going. What else?

What things would be on your list? Here are a few things that DePree said that leaders owe.

  1. Leaders owe maturity.
    When everything goes wrong, we may want to lose our composure and throw a fit, but we owe people a lot more than that.  In fact, it’s when a full-blown crisis breaks out that maturity is needed the most.  Leaders owe that.
  2. Leaders owe a certain rationality.
    Information is power, and leaders owe followers information so that when they try to understand “what” and “why”, the answer has a ring of rationality to it. Withholding information so that people have to follow because they don’t understand isn’t inspiring.  It’s demoralizing.
  3. Leaders owe followers the chance to do their best.
    Excellence inspires others. Mediocrity doesn’t. When leaders hold themselves accountable to perform at a high level, they model the way. Followers will not consistently rise above their leaders. As a leader, if you want your followers to excel, make sure that you are never the one holding them back.

That’s a partial answer to what leaders owe.  What else would you add to the list?

Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Director of Leadership Development, Strategic Government Resources

3 responses

  1. Leaders owe their followers bigger thinking. Leaders are to provide their followers with a greater understanding of their role in the organization, the community, their industry, and indeed the whole world. Leaders help set the context in which their followers operate, and owe them a more thorough understanding of it. They should empower their followers to excel by bringing clarity to a confusing world, and wisdom to information overload.

  2. All very true, Joseph. Thanks for the comment!

    1. Happy to provide. Thanks for the platform to provide it.

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