Everyone a Leader, Everyone a Follower


by Tom Terbush Key Note Speech, June 14, 2003 Peter Terbush Leadership Summit

First, before I get started, let me introduce myself to those of you I haven’t met yet. My name is Tom Terbush. You can call me Tom, or Tommy T. or if you’re my daughter, you affectionately call me fuzzhead. I am Jim Terbush’s younger brother and Peter Terbush’s uncle. As Jim was unable to come this year (and I know he wanted to be here), he asked me if I would come and share some servant-leader insights with you. So, here I am.

Now. . .initially, when Jim asked me if I would consider coming this evening to deliver the key-note speech on “servant leadership”, I wasn’t sure how to respond. In fact, I think I drove Matt crazy with my procrastination on making a decision on whether or not I would participate.

Sorry about that, Matt.

See, the topic of leadership has always been an interest of mine and I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about what makes a good leader. Why is it that certain individuals always seem to be in control and out in front when it comes to group activities? Why is it that some folks always lack direction and look to others to focus their own lives? Are people born with a genetic predisposition towards leadership or is leadership learned? Many an author has written volumes of pages on the subject and, from what I understand, you have all been tasked with reading some of those pages as part of your curriculum this week. I think that’s awesome!

But that brings me back to my indecision on what I would talk about tonight.

I’ve been part of corporate America for over 20 years and it seems like every 4 to 5 years or so the leadership “model” shifts direction. It’s difficult to stay current with the latest trend. Even different groups or situations seem to work better with different styles of leadership. Depending on the situation it might be better to use a military style instead of the “go with the flow and see what happens” style. But I believe both have their time and place.

So.. what makes a good leadership style? I’m not sure that there is a perfect answer – and hence my indecision on committing to this talk.

So – why am I standing here in front of you tonight? Because, even though leadership can be approached from many directions I feel strongly that you in this room already have a leg up on the subject and I hope that I can help turn on the light inside of you to see what I mean.

During the months leading up to tonight my brother has sent me various books on the subject of servant leadership. I’m sure they are great books, but to be honest with you I never looked at any of them. The reason is because I don’t believe you can give something away that you don’t already own. I don’t want to spend this time regurgitating someone else’s insights when you probably have the same books that I do. Don’t get me wrong. . . I think these authors have some tremendous keys to becoming a successful leader and I hope that you get the maximum from what they have to share. Tonight however, I DON’T want to share what they have, I want to give you what I have. There is a story in the Bible about David and Goliath (not the claymation tv show for kids – that’s Davey and Golliath. Have you seen the Mountain Dew commercial. . . we got hosed Tommy, we got hosed). Any way, David was a shepherd boy who knew how to use a sling to protect the sheep. He had killed a lion and a bear by himself in this way. Any how. . . David eventually finds himself on a battlefield where this huge giant, Goliath, is taunting the army of Israel to come and fight. Well, David is all over that and heads off to take him on. But, when the king of Israel finds out, he decides to fit David with his very own battle armor and sword. So David (remember he’s a shepherd boy) puts on the kings armor and finds that he can barely walk around, let alone fight a giant. In the end David takes off the armor and fights the giant his own way – with a sling. So that’s what I’m going to do tonight; I’m going to avoid putting on someone else’s insights and share about leadership from my perspective. Is that fair?

So what makes a good leader? And even more importantly, what the heck is a leader?

But, first of all – what ISN’T a leader.

As I was preparing this speech in a run down little dive of a hotel room in the middle of the God-forsaken panhandle of Oklahoma, the TV next to me was playing a show on the Czars of Russia. Aha – a great insight, I said to myself. A dictator in my opinion is the perfect example of a non-leader. A ruler, a tyrant, or a slave driver maybe, but not a real leader. If you force a person to do what you want then you aren’t truly doing what I consider “leading”. The movie Braveheart shows clearly the difference between the leadership of a man of passion vs. a man who dominates people and makes them perform out of fear.

So, if a dictator is not a true leader then what is? Webster’s dictionary says that a leader is a guide, a conductor, or a person with commanding authority or influence. My definition is even a little simpler than that. I think a leader is someone who has followers. What truly defines a leader is someone whose passion is so strong that it’s worth coming alongside and joining forces with. By connecting yourself with a person of extraordinary passion and drive you will actually share in the joy of accomplishment together. But, more on that later.

The traditional model of leadership in a business would be represented by a triangular or pyramid organizational structure where the top dog or the head cheese resides a the pinnacle of this hierarchy giving direction and getting feedback from the various layers of sub-leaders (or sub-cheese) that report to him. This works great in the military or where a single person wants to control everything that is done to his own personal specifications.

Most of us are used to this traditional model of leadership hierarchy. I’m sure we have all worked at jobs where this is the case. For most of us this is all we know, and when we find ourselves in a place where we are expected to lead we tend to fall back on this model. We even use this method to raise our children. We offer positive incentives to entice the subordinate to perform the function we want or we threaten a negative incentive if they don’t. “If you go poopie in the potty mommy will give you a cookie. Or, if you don’t pick up your dirty underwear off the floor of your room you’re gonna be grounded for a week”. If I interpret that into the workplace jargon it would sound more like, “if we achieve our company goals for project X there will be a hefty bonus check at the end of the year for each you.” Or “If you can’t seem to figure out how to make it to work on time, Mr. Anderson, you might want to start looking for a new job.”

So let’s twist the situation around a little bit and imagine that tomorrow you wake up and find yourself in the bosses chair. The first thing you realize is that in order to keep the business afloat you need to make a profit and in order to make a profit you need to achieve your company goals. Then there are the needs of your employees. Both, they and their families are depending on you for their paychecks in order to put milk in the bottles of their crying hungry naked little babies. It’s up to you to keep everything working – you can’t let them down. And not only them but think of yourself; you have that huge mortgage payment on your 2 homes. You need to pay off those 3 cars, your RV and the boat you just bought. The pressure of it all. The Responsibility! You have to rule with an iron fist. You can’t afford any mistakes. Failure is not an option!

So you put yourself on the top of the heap; making yourself the king of rats in the preverbal rat-race and you go off and find sub-rats to do your bidding.

Hey, it works. Entire countries depend on this type of leadership to keep their economies fluid and their borders safe.

BUT. . . is this truly leadership? Remember Webster’s definition – a leader is a guide or a conductor.

Servant-leadership is quite a bit different. The idea of “serving” your subordinates is pretty foreign to most of us. It seems backwards – especially to the “drop and give me twenty” type of leaders. However, many truths are found in paradoxes. For instance – “The first shall be last” or “The greatest must be the servant”. While these seem to suggest a formula for disaster they are in fact some of the greatest truths. The servant-leader model is similar to the traditional model, but better. It can be represented by that same pyramid; only inverted. The structure is the same but instead of layers of people jumping when the CEO snaps his fingers, the structure is to serve the layers of employees above them. This is empowerment vs. enslavement. Instead of dictating to the person reporting to me to go do such and such or else, I enlist them to function in their specific expertise and them give them the tools and authority to accomplish their goals. Instead of “how can you help me” it’s “How can I help you”. The beautiful thing about this is that by empowering the individual to succeed, I gain success as well. Everyone wins.

Another difference is not only in the structure but in the style of leadership. The structure is how the relationships are set up but the style is how a leader motivates.

The traditional model is based on the work to be performed. There is an end goal in order to achieve success and there are logical steps that must be accomplished along the way. In order to perform the tasks at hand you must have time, money, and people. When you smash these three things together and then wind it up it should perform what it supposed to. It’s just an equation. If it looks like you are not going to get there simply add more of one of the ingredients. Throw more money at it. Throw more time at it. Or, throw more people at it. Force it to work. Use what you have and make it work. And if you should fail, simply file for bankruptcy and start over. Ahhhhh – the American dream.

The servant-leadership model, however, is not based on the work to be performed but on the people performing the work. If I invest in the people then the people will find the best solution for success. It’s what I will call Pulling vs. Pushing. Pushing is forcing the work to be done, pulling is leading the way and the work being done will follow.

Remember, the definition of a leader is a guide or a conductor; two things that you should be very familiar with. A conductor is a person who leads a group of talented specialist musicians, and a guide is a person who leads a group of tired, ill equipped, city dwellers to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. But even with both of these examples, the servant-leader will boldly go where no one has gone before. Whereas a traditional leader will order others to go where they are unwilling or possibly unable to go themselves.

Review: 1) Empowerment vs. Enslavement, 2) Pulling vs. Pushing, and the 3rd important ingredient to being a servant leader is called “cleaning up messes”.

You’ve all seen the bumper sticker, “Messes Happen!” – maybe not worded quite the same, but you know which bumper sticker I’m talking about. O.K., so there is an interesting phenomenon that occurs when two or more people interact; one is that great stuff happens and the other is that “stuff” happens (messes). It’s natural and is to be expected.

There was a great discussion at the bottom of the route this morning about that very “natural” subject. Anyway. . . don’t be shocked when you discover that group dynamics produces some not so lovely by-products. Hey, it’s just part of life. What differentiates a servant leader is how they react when that stinky stuff shows up. What sort of a parent would discipline their child for creating a dirty diaper? That would be ridiculous maybe even considered abuse. Don’t get me wrong, if the child that’s poopin’ their pants is in their twenties, there’s a problem.

However, most leaders don’t want to clean up messes; even servant-leaders have a hard time with this – and to tell you the truth this is probably the hardest thing to do. It’s easier to point a finger or place blame than it is to clean up and instruct. But understand this principle – to empower someone means that there WILL be messes. Don’t expect to give a four year old the keys to the car without getting a few dings. That’s normal. The trick is to use what seems to be a problem and turn it into a great learning tool. Just remember this, when you take on the role of a servant leader, your fingers might get a little smelly.

Like it or not, most of us will choose to follow the traditional leader role over the servant leader? Why? Because the nature of man is selfish and in order to become a servant, and elevate others to their full potential, it requires that your pride and your selfishness must die. For most of us that is not normal or comfortable. Even the laws of human nature boils down to the fact that the basest instinct in man is self-preservation (simply looking out for number one). But, that’s not what you have been here to learn this week. You are here to become, “guides and conductors” – to become true leaders in a world full of self focused individuals, organizations, and businesses.

[Here is some free advice – take it or leave it: I believe that being a servant leader is so contrary to human nature that it leaves the realm of the natural and is really something supernatural. In other words – I think it’s a God-thing. I don’t think servant-leadership is so much taught as it is in being transformed into something completely different than what’s already inside of us. I believe that the very nature of God can be formed within us which makes us servant-leaders. OK, end of commercial – but, I challenge you to search that one out on your own.]

We are also here this week to honor a fallen hero, Peter Terbush. Peter is a great example of what I’m describing. He was an ordinary guy who did an extraordinary thing when the pressure was on. What I’m talking about is character. Character is an odd thing; it’s from the heart and it’s a difficult thing to judge. A person’s true character can be masked behind a façade of false smiles and righteous-looking actions when inside could be a heart full of deceit and treachery. The true test of character, however, is found when the heat is turned up. When you squeeze a person hard enough – what comes out is what’s on the inside. Peter wasn’t the top dog in his school, he wasn’t the outstanding role-model for young people, he wasn’t what we would call a mover and a shaker in society. He was just a really nice guy who would rather climb a good crag than keep a steady job. But, what we honor Peter for is what came out of him when his world came crashing down around him – his character. There was something there inside of him that he could draw from when he found himself exposed to the very things that could destroy him. Peter’s heart was that of a servant-leader and he was able to lay down his personal agenda’s, selfish motivations, and in the end, his life for the life of a friend. That is a rare thing. On Peter’s memorial there is written, “There is no greater gift than this; that a man lay down his life for a friend.” This quote is the essence of what servant-leadership is all about – and that’s what you’ve been her for this week.

Now let me take you a little deeper still. . .

The traditional leadership model works just fine and I believe it will continue to – there is definitely times when this is the best way to get things done. It has operated successfully for thousands of years and I don’t see it coming to a dramatic end in the near future. As long as there are people who are hungry for power and recognition this model will serve them well.

Then there is the servant-leader model which I think is a better model (in my opinion) and I believe that this style of leadership will gain momentum as the emphasis switches from being goal oriented at the expense of people to being people oriented and accomplishing goals.

But I still see a better way, and believe it or not, I think mountaineering and climbing are the perfect examples of how this is modeled. However, without understanding servant-leadership first, it will never work. Servant-leadership is at the very root of where I want to take you next and is a critical foundation which I want to build upon.

- - Servant-leader teams - -

So let’s take what we know about servant-leaders and talk about what that might look like in a team dynamic. After all, the concept of leadership implies that there is more than one person. What if I truly begin to acknowledge and value the other members of a group for their individual contribution to the whole. Maybe, if I’m truly honest, someone else in the group might be better at doing something than I am. Talk about having to loose some pride, especially if I’m the guy that put the group together. However, this very principle has been around forever. Some of the best leaders in the world will tell you that they look really good because they have a team of people under them that are the best at what they do. Most presidents do not write their own speeches because they probably suck at it. So they search the country for the best speech writers and they hire them to make them sound good when they’re behind a microphone.

Now let’s take this team thing to a theoretical “what if”.

What if the people I choose to be in my group are all servant leaders themselves. Hmmm, what would that look like? A group of selfless leaders who desire to serve the other leaders in the group and empower them to excel in their specific skill or expertise. One possible outcome might be that nothing gets done because nobody will take charge – everyone is too concerned about the others and their needs instead of functioning in their own skill. OR maybe outrageous goals could be achieved that were once perceived to be virtually impossible. I like to think the latter.

The key to this would have to be the ability to respect and submit yourself to the others – as well as the ability to humbly take the forefront when you are being looked to for guidance.

In a group of individuals who are submitted to one another, and are serving each other, everyone can be a leader and everyone is a follower. An individual with a certain strength, gift, or ability will naturally be the leader of that thing. The others will look to this individual to lead them in this specific area. Likewise, this same person will be looking to the others to lead in areas where they are not gifted, equipped or talented. One person can’t lead everything, especially in areas where they are not knowledgeable or gifted.

So how is this modeled in an organizational sense?

The traditional model of leadership is represented a pyramid, and the servant-leader model by an inverted pyramid. What I’m talking about now, however, can’t be modeled by using a triangle or sphere or any other geometric shape. The organization I want you to envision is organic. A living thing that changes and moves around as progress is being made. Depending on the circumstances the organization might be changing constantly. I guess it would be more of an organism than an organization.

So, would this theory work? I think it would, and I think that it does.

It’s you!

One of the coolest things about “lead” climbing is the ability to switch lead during a climb. There is no problem in seconding the route knowing that the responsibility of leading the next section is mine. In a multi-pitch climb I will have more than my share of leading. Some times even more than I really want. And then there’s those times when you seem to hit a hard section of the wall. Places where you, as the leader of that section don’t know how to get through it. The best solution, after flailing around a bit, is to get your partner up there to see if he can figure it out. At that point it becomes a team problem where both climbers are working together using both of their combines skills and knowledge to conquer the beast.

Now let’s take this concept to the next level – an expedition. Each member of the team is selected to participate because they have a unique skill that will be needed by the entire team. There are doctors, porters, rock climbers, cooks, altitude specialists, international liaisons, etc.. Each member has a specialty that the entire team will need to rely on as that specific need arises. Does everyone stand on the summit of the mountain? No. Does everyone share equally in the victory of accomplishing a goal? They should. The person standing on the summit couldn’t have done it without the rest of the team, and the entire team is responsible for the success and should share in its rewards.

Tenzing Norgay was recently interviewed and pointed out that the person who takes credit for summiting Everest without giving due honor to the Sherpas who dragged them up there were not only lying to the world but to themselves. The same can be said for music. I was watching the Willie Nelson all star birthday concert (in that same little dirt-bag hotel in Oklahoma) and was amazed at how good Willie and the others sounded when accompanied by some of the greatest musicians in the world. If you take away the support structure the greatness of the individual is average at best.

So (drum-roll please) here’s the deal: You have something that the world around you is looking for. Businesses, governments, and even your own family needs what you have. The key is you. YOU! Are you willing to lay down your pride and your own selfish ambitions? Are you willing to join forces with others of like passion? Are you willing to encourage, empower, and release others to excel in their talents and gifts? Are you willing to forge ahead at the front of the group and break new ground when everyone is depending on you? And are you willing to share the joy of achievement with your teammates as you stand upon the heights that you never thought imaginable?

It’s time. . . the world is watching.


As my nephew Peter would say, “Go for it!”

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