Servant Leaders & Dreaming

Greenleaf describes conceptualisation as the “prime leadership talent”.

He refers to the lives of three men, John Woolman, Thomas Jefferson and Nikolai Grundtvig, using their stories to illustrate what he means by conceptualisation and its transformational effect on the leader, the led and the world around them. Each of their stories is fascinating and inspiring. Woolman spent thirty years of his relatively short life persuading the Quaker movement to eradicate slavery amongst its followers which it did 100 years before the US civil war. Thomas Jefferson refused to take up various positions offered to him by both sides during the US War of Independence and gave himself to writing legislation that would later be enacted in the American Constitution he saw would be necessary to rebuild the nation. Grundtvig established what became known as the Danish Folk School system which empowered peasant farmers to become land owners and rise to positions of influence within the nation.

For the purpose of this post I’m going to think of conceptualisation as the ability to dream. According to Greenleaf servant leaders are dreamers who as well as dreaming themselves, know how to steward a culture around them that encourages those they lead to dream and pursue their dreams.

It strikes me that I should define what I mean by dreaming so you don’t confuse it with the effects of too much cheese. That’s not to deny the power or validity of sleepy dreams – when something grips you so passionately that it is the subject of your dreams then you are almost certainly connecting with the reason you are on the planet.

In the context of this post I’m thinking of my dreams as my hopes, my aspirations, my vision of the future, how I imagine my life would look if everything goes the way I hope it will. Some say our dreams reveal what we would do if we had no fear and loads of money as opposed to no money and loads of fear!

Dreaming is so important because it has the potential to shape our thoughts, plans and actions. I say potential because it is possible for various reasons for us and the environment around us to keep our dreams locked up in a future that never arrives.

So how does dreaming shape us?

Firstly, dreaming encourages us to build from the future. If you don’t dream then you’re starting point is always exclusively the here and now. The problem with that is sometimes the old adage “How do I get from here to there? I wouldn’t start from here!” applies. If your here and now is not a good starting point for you then ask yourself where you would like to be and when you would like to get there and use your there and then as a springboard for transforming your life.

Secondly, dreaming encourages us to think big. Very rarely does anyone dream small. Dreaming is synonymous with thinking big. The absence of a dream restricts us to what we believe is reasonable, affordable and practical. Someone once pointed out to me that our eyes can see far further than our hands can reach. Dreaming changes the question from What can you reach? to What can you see?

Thirdly, dreaming encourages us to think creatively. Creative thinking is commonly described as out of the box thinking. Dreaming takes the lid off our limited and linear thinking and invites us to explore options and possibilities that exist beyond the confines of our comfort and the culture which shapes our understanding of what is possible and permissible. In that sense dreaming is dangerous! Dreamers are often seen as illegal aliens.

Finally dreaming encourages us to think with a broader and longer term perspective. Dreamers can see way beyond the end of their noses and have exceptional peripheral vision which allows them to explore and cultivate their so-called left field. Because they can see what other people can’t see they can often be unpredictable and difficult to make sense of in the present.

Conscious I’m writing this post in the context of servant leadership I want to close out with some thoughts on leading in a so called dream culture. In my opening comments I suggested leaders are not just dreamers but those who know how to steward a culture which encourages those around them to dream. I have also said that dreamers can be unpredictable and difficult to make sense of – this can make them difficult to lead! By no means exhaustive here are some of my suggestions for leaders who want to lead dreamers and nurture and sustain a dream culture.

– Embrace the reality that every human being, man, woman, boy and girl is born to dream.

– Don’t just listen to people’s mouths listen to their hearts. Encourage those you lead to talk about their dreams. People often tuck their dreams so safely away in their hearts that they never make the 18 inch journey to their mouths.

– Share your heart with the people you lead. Help them to understand what your dreams are. If you want to captivate people’s hearts cast a vision. If you don’t cast a vision that captivates their hearts all you will do is create a vehicle that captures their bodies. 

– As a leader accept responsibility for helping those you lead to work out how their dream and the “corporate dream” flow together and complement each other. This takes work, it doesn’t happen by accident, it happens by design. 

– Accept that sometimes people need to be released to pursue their dreams somewhere else. Don’t see it as your job to keep them at any price. It hasn’t happened often but over the last twenty years of leading I have helped a number of people to move on to purse their career (dream) elsewhere.

I’ll finish with a famous dreamer of our age, Martin Luther King whose dream set in motion one of the most powerful waves of transformation the world has seen. If you haven’t heard his “I have a dream” speech I’d encourage you to listen to it and be inspired to dream and change your world, not just for your sake but for the sake of those who are following after you.

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.
Walt Disney
Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.
Anatole France
All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.
T. E. Lawrence
Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant