Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - LEADERSHIP: To lead is to serve.

LEADERSHIP: To lead is to serve.

LEADERSHIP: To lead is to serve.


As Election Day nears and in light of the recent experience of the Center for Social Development, my thoughts have been turning to issues of leadership, and I am haunted by and mourn the state of affairs.  A great vacuum exists in society with echoes of clanging dissonances and cacophonies from the ugliness, deceit, small-mindedness, power plays that abound.   We see and experience brute power where “might makes right”, devoid of wisdom, goodness, beauty and truth.

This state of affairs fosters a mentality of destruction where only the ego reigns and consumes everything in its way – with it reason.  The ego says if “I cannot have this position, then you cannot have it either…even if it means destroying the organization and its staff; even if it means destroying my reputation and self in the process, I will do it because it destroys you.”

This state of affairs cannot go on.  It cannot go on because it will destroy us all.

We, at CSD, are doing something about it.  If we believe a leader is a reflection of us or who we would like to be, then we will not tolerate violence; we will not tolerate injustice; we will not tolerate un-accountability and mismanagement.  Rather, we desire leaders who will pull us to a higher plane from the pit of violence, manipulation, small-mindedness, pettiness; we desire leaders with vision, who reflect what we aspire to be and not encourage our darker side, but with clarity and integrity, who enlarge our space to be the best persons we could be.

It has been and is currently said that we Khmers deserve the leaders we have.  Rather than react defensively, meditate on whatever degree of truth is in this statement and do something about it.

But as a colleague reminded me, maybe we are starting in the wrong place.  Maybe it is not “leadership” but “service” we should be focusing on, for genuine leadership is a call to serve.  Thus, to lead is to serve.  And everyone can and should serve.

The issue is really:  what kind of society do we want?  A society where leadership mistakenly means power, authority, force, coercion?  Or a society where leadership is service?

Another approach is to say what leadership is not.  It is not about winning at all costs; it is not the feeding of the ego.  Rather, as reminded by a colleague and history, the greatest leaders were/are ones whose finest hours are in failures, as grace and transformation triumph.

Of course, reading is only a reminder; to change habits and perspectives must take us from reading to meditating and the difficult job of implementing these virtues faithfully in our lives.  More than ever, we Khmers, are in need of transforming our minds to think of leadership as service and to believe that we can effect change, if we are to move from this society of hopelessness and violence to one of well-being and greatness.

So, as we go to the polls in a month’s time to elect our national leaders and as we go through life learning how to respect authority – in a healthy manner – let us be reminded of basic virtues of courage, integrity and vision that have been lost in the cacophony of violence and brute power, in the following excerpts by Dr. Mark Strom. 


I work with leaders to encourage them…to do two things – to lead with greater integrity of character, and to lead with greater rigor and clarity of thought… confidence with a hint of humility… Leadership is not the preserve of an elite… Leadership is influencing people to change themselves or the world. That’s all it is. And there is only one measure of leadership – the influence you have upon others.

You can lead for good, or you can lead for ill. You can lead as someone who regards all people as being of equal and high value. You can lead in a manner that reflects this value. Or you can lead as a tyrant. The choice is yours.

Never confuse leadership with your position in the food chain. Your leadership stands independently of your rank and status in the world…

What will it take for you to make a difference? There are many factors we could and should consider… I’m going to pin the difference you will make in the world on the question of the depth of your own character – on the priority and energy you give to the deepening of your character, to the nurturing of your soul, and to the getting of wisdom... I believe nothing compares to the leader’s personal depth…

Society seems more interested in personality than in character… Too rarely do we consider whether a person shows integrity, perseverance, kindness, or courage…

“Make your lives extraordinary”…It is what I want in my own life. It’s something I hope you can say unapologetically. In my own case it is colored by 16 years of chronic childhood sickness and my living sense of death being close at hand. That is partly why life is precious to me.

Imagine your funeral… I would hope that at least one person will say of me, “I’m glad he was here. He made a difference for me.” Great leadership begins at this level in one’s gut…

Knowledge is a crucial asset – far more than qualifications or even experience. But I put it to you that your character is your greatest asset. …We talk big about vision. But people do not buy a vision. They buy into the person who has the vision…

An ancient sage once wrote, “Wisdom is supreme; though it costs you all you have, get understanding.” Leadership is inseparable from responsibility. We tend to talk about rights, and we need to when so much abuse of natural rights endures. But the topic of leadership must take us beyond rights to responsibility. Our conversation…is not about asserting our personal rights to anything in the world, but about reminding ourselves of the responsibilities we accepted for the wellbeing of others when we took up the leader’s mantle… We are saying that a leader may know what others need. Many leaders have rationalized abuse in the name of knowing what people really need. But it is no answer to avoid leadership for fear of misusing it. Leadership is about responsibility, and the exercise of responsibility requires wisdom. How am I to discharge my responsibility? The greater the responsibility I carry, the greater my need for wisdom…

Wisdom is reading oneself, others and the world with insight and acting with integrity.

Wherever I read in the wisdom traditions, I find two emphases about wisdom: to possess the faculty to read life well and a character to match. A wise man or woman reads what’s going on around them insightfully. They are not easily taken in by appearances. They look beneath. They are not so easily tricked. They read life well. The flip side is the question of character. I may face a deal of some kind and everything in my gut is telling me to be cautious… You might say that I read it well, that I was clever even, but you will never call me wise if I acted in a way which was contrary to my values. Wisdom is both the capacity to read life well and then to act with integrity.

My framework begins with an ancient philosopher whose thinking both inspires and irritates me. Aristotle…his work titled The Politics…

What does “living well” look like? Like most of his peers he drew from the three great ideals of the classical world: truth, beauty and goodness. But there was also an ideal of being part of a purpose bigger than oneself…the ideal of unity…Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity… the intellectual, the aesthetic, the moral, and the spiritual. Not spiritual in the sense of religion or affiliation to an organization, but in the sense of being connected to a purpose larger than ourselves.

Can people live well if they can never be sure if they are being told the truth?  …Or what effect does it have to place people in ugly environments?  …Or think what life would be like if we had no social contract to preserve life. We cannot live well if we fear being harmed… Finally, what is it like to have no sense of purpose? When we feel there’s no point getting out of bed in the morning… But where there is truth, where there is beauty, where there is goodness, and where there is unity, we may live well.

If that is a reasonable and helpful picture of the ends towards we must aim as leaders, as people who create and sustain partnerships for living well, then what are the outcomes? What would I see if I did lead wisely?  …Has my influence upon other people led to greater Clarity, Elegance, Strength, and Heart for them?

If we lead well towards truth, if we lead wisely in the intellectual dimension of life, then we would expect to see people who are clearer about who they are and what they are doing. We would see much less of the vagary which bedevils organizational life – the nonsense of projects that meander along for weeks, months, even years where people wonder what it’s all about…

If we lead well towards beauty, if we lead wisely in the aesthetic dimension of life, then we would expect to see people bringing the very best of their talents to the making of great ideas, products, and solutions… I mean the elegance that arises even in mundane things from the artistry of people’s lives. As leaders we would assist people to create and sustain environments in which they can bring forth the very best of who they are… They can be proud of, and find delight in, the works of their hands and minds.

If we lead well towards goodness, if we lead wisely in the moral dimension of life, then we would expect to see people who are strong in character.

If we lead well towards unity, if we lead wisely in the spiritual dimension of life, then we would expect to see people who have heart for what they do…

Four dispositions of heart and mind help give shape to my thinking and behavior as a leader who wants to lead wisely and ensure a partnership for living well. My four frames are – Story, Design, Promise, and Grace. The three sets of words link up like this:

Truth → Clarity → Story

Beauty → Elegance → Design

Goodness →  Strength →  Promise

Unity →  Heart →  Grace

Stories connect us very deeply to who we are… We tell each other stories… That’s how relationships grow.

The great leaders of history, both those whose names are known, and those whose deeds remain obscure, have been story tellers. They connect deeply with people. They tell stories that touch the heart and the imagination. They paint a picture with words about the past and about the future…

A promise is when I speak in a way that you can justly base your expectations upon what I’ve said… I routinely find two symptoms in organizations:  dishonesty and immaturity…

The Chilean philosopher, Fernando Flores says,

“Most people speak without intention… We aren’t aware of the amount of self-deception that we collect in our personalities…People talk about changing their thinking, but they have no idea what that is, let alone how to do it. The key is to stop producing interpretations which have no power”…

Flores is right: we construct our realities in language. It does make a difference whether I say things which limit me. My speech plays a powerful role in either inhibiting or liberating me, and those whom I lead.

That puts an enormous emphasis on a leader’s speech. This is why every wisdom tradition places great emphasis upon the tongue and its power to give life or to destroy…

Grace is to extend kindness and dignity to another irrespective of their rank or merit or your own…to ignore one’s place in the great chain of being…to overthrow mindless bureaucracy and sophisticated pettiness with small acts of gentle dignity. Grace is meeting as equals and acting accordingly.

Grace is a radical idea. To show grace is to circumvent the system… To show grace is to ignore educational attainment, wealth, physical appearance and prowess, popularity, fame or success as marks of a person’s value… Leo Tolstoy once wrote:

“It is a mistake to think that there are times when you can safely address a person without love… It cannot be otherwise, because mutual love is the major law of our existence.”

Great leaders, known or unknown, leaders who engage the hearts and minds of people with integrity and imagination, exhibit two deep qualities in tandem: humility and nobility…There is no trade off between them. Strength and gentleness. Grace reframes strength… To endure the scorn of those of small minds, self-deceived and given to mean and measly speech. It takes a noble heart to carry a grand purpose with a dignified presence. It takes grace to refuse to erect a monument to one’s ego…

So how can you cultivate grace in your life? The process is practical not magical.

- Dr. Mark Strom.  13 July 2001. 

To read the complete address, please visit
www.csdcambodia.org “Voice of Justice Program: A Conversation about Character, Wisdom, and Being a Leader”.


What kind of society do we Khmer want?  We want a great society.  A society where everyone believes s/he can influence change, where leaders serve and where courage, integrity and grace abound.  This is a call to action.  To do nothing is to let our society rot and allow the destructive mentality to prevail.


Theary C. SENG

Executive Director


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