“Why are we here? What’s life all about? Is God really real, or is there some doubt? Well, tonight, we’re going to sort it all out, For, tonight, it’s ‘The Meaning of Life’“ (Monty Python)

Those were the opening lines of the first song in The Meaning of Life, a film made by the British comedy group Monty Python and released in 1983. Their first televised comedy hit show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, turned the six men into a phenomenon and led to touring stage shows, films, albums, books and a hit stage musical. The group’s influence on comedy, pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable at the time, has been compared to the Beatles’ influence on music. They made such a mark that the word “Pythonesque” now appears in the Oxford Dictionary to describe the kind of absurd, surreal and perhaps crude humour the group presented. When they arranged a reunion show at London’s O2 Arena in 2014 (their first in over thirty years), all the thousands of available seats were sold in 43.5 seconds and extra shows had to be staged. In The Meaning of Life, I am not sure that they managed to answer the question of why we are here, as the film was never meant to be taken as a serious answer to the question, but the question is certainly relevant in life and particularly so when directed towards leadership in business or government.

The word “selfishness” seems to characterise so many in leadership positions across the world – managers who are self-seeking, self-absorbed and greedy. They have moved some distance away from the job descriptions and roles for which they were originally employed and have somehow positioned themselves gradually into a place of manipulation (systems, processes, resources and people) where their lust for power and greed can be sated. For those in government, the thought of being a “public servant” is far from their minds and for those working in corporations, a rather sick drive for advancement propels devious behaviour and practices, often at the expense of their own employees.

The preamble of the MBA Oath echoes one common sentiment when it says: “My purpose as a manager is to serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can create alone”. The Oath applies to both business and government and assumes that the manager has the relevant skills to do the same and should be paid accordingly. So, the purpose of the manager, then, seems to include three possible tenets:

  • To accomplish what he/she was hired to do – for business (to assist the corporation in making a profit) and for government (to use available resources wisely to provide relevant services to citizens and develop the country)
  • To serve the greater good – a sustainable approach to resources (including people, communities and the environment)
  • Pursue his/her own career interests – ambition

The questions should be asked: “Can these three tenets exist together or are they mutually-exclusive? Can they all be right simultaneously? If and when they conflict, which should be taking priority?” I believe that the Oath suggests the inclusivity of the tenets by stating the mechanism to achieve value – that is, “by bringing people and resources together”. The manager, by effectively using and applying this mechanism, will achieve business results, engage with and develop employees, clients and the community and advance his/her career in a sustainable way. This is called “responsible leadership” or “leadership integrity” and demonstrates the inclusive nature and necessary relationship of the three possible tenets.

Servant leadership should characterise a management role – oversight, care, vision, risk-mitigation, alignment, measurement and so on. Greed, selfishness and a lust for power have no place in the concept of “servant leadership”.

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