Next Level Servant Leadership: Arthur Brooks at TED 2016

February 18, 2016
Arthur C. Brooks

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I watched a great talk today by Arthur Brooks at TED 2016. Because I curate TEDxUniversityofNevada, and hosted earlier in the week TEDxUniversityofNevadaLive, I was able to watch his talk via livestream on my home computer. The talk might not be posted to for months, but when it is posted I highly recommend you take the time to watch it.

After his talk, before he left the stage, the host for that session asked him what I thought was an inappropriate political question, but his response was graceful and brilliant. He was asked about a political figure in this country, and he responded by sharing thoughts about servant leadership. I want to share with you a paraphrased excerpt of his comments because this exchange will likely not appear in the edited version of the video that gets posted at

“We in this country are facing a lack of visionary servant leadership. Any leader you can think of will say they are fighting for people, and this is a necessary but insufficient condition for being a leader, to fight for people that need you. But what we really need for real vision is level two and level three servant leadership. What’s level two servant leadership? It’s fighting for people that need you that you don’t need. Level three servant leadership is fighting for people who don’t like you. This is the problem, where we split into tribes where leaders only lead their followers.” Arthur Brooks, February 18, 2016, TED 2016, Vancouver, British Columbia

What Brooks says about political leadership certainly applies to organizational leadership. Actually, it applies to all the citizens of an organization, not just the leaders. Your organization would be better place if you assumed responsibility for fighting for people you don’t need, and for people that don’t like you. If you are not yet to the place where you can fight for those that don’t like you, practice trying to be more civil.

In August 2009 (my sixth month of blogging), I wrote the following in a post entitled “The Hardest Thing I Have To Do As A Leader

For me, it is to treat people in ways they don’t treat me.  To care about people that don’t care about me.  To be fair to people that are not fair to me. To give a second, third, and fourth chance to folks that would throw me under the bus if they had the chance.  To hold my tongue about people that disparage me.  To help those that I am quite sure will never return the favor.

This is especially difficult if you have even a little bit of position power.  Power can be intoxicating, and it does not take much power to cause good people to do bad things.

But all this comes with the territory.  If you are not willing to struggle every day to rise above it, you don’t deserve the privilege of leading others.

It is not a battle I win every day, but it is one I find worth fighting.

The key to this next level of leadership is you. You might not be able to change your entire organization, but you can accept responsibility for changing yourself. The opportunity to live a life of abundance will only be realized by purposefully empowered individuals that have the courage to continually transform themselves.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Related Posts:

Meaningful Work: The Role of Servant Leadership

Do You Work For A Servant Leader?

Evidence For Leading By Example


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Comments (6)

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  1. Aaron Brown says:


    Thank you for sharing these thought provoking and heart challenging words from Arthur Brooks.

    It is amazing that in our American political system, we are still waging campaigns from a “might makes right” position. If a majority will vote for me, then “we” will impose our vision of America on everyone else.

    But we do the same thing in our offices and leadership opportunities. Do we really take time to develop a shared vision with those we lead? Or are we simply using our positional power to achieve our “own” vision?

    Kathleen Patterson, notable for her work in servant-leadership, believes the need of the individual trumps the good of the organization. As leaders, such a philosophy of person-centric instead of goals or vision-centric is challenging for a leader! For a leader to give up the vision of an organization in the sake of changing the life of a follower, that seems insane!

    But if we take a step back and really consider Brooks words, who is it on my team that doesn’t want to be on my team? How do we win their heart? Covey said “You can buy someone’s hands and back, but you cannot buy their heart.” What would be the benefits of winning a talented person’s heart, who once won over, would give their 100% ability to the shared vision?

    Its not an easy road to hoe, but maybe its worthwhile to travel.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Aaron. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and adding additional insight and value to these concepts. Bret

  2. I was just talking about this at lunch yesterday with a group of co-workers! Wondering what you think it will take for this shift to actually happen? Looking forward to the TED talk, thanks for sharing.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I think there are people out there now leading like this, but it’s not valued. We prefer ruthless heroes. It was a good talk – several good ones in that session. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret

  3. Keith Graham says:

    Level 2 and Level 3 servant leadership is the way to fix the world. I am part of a cohort of cultural architects; perhaps you might be interested in joining with us. We had our first gathering this week I appreciate the work you do.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Keith! Bret