James M. Strock: An interview by Bob Morris

Jim Strock

James M. Strock is a businessman, educator  and citizen servant based in Scottsdale, Arizona. His company, Serve to Lead® Inc., works in two areas: 21st Century Leadership Development, and Clean Tech Sustainability. He is a frequent speaker and has written three books: Serve to Lead: Your Transformational 21ts Century Leadership System, Reagan on Leadership, and Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership. In addition to extensive business experience, he also served as the founding Secretary for Environmental Protection for the state of California, as the chief law enforcement officer of the U.S. EPA, and other national service positions. Strock previously served in the USAR-JAGC in the 1990s.

Morris: Before discussing any of your books, a few general questions. First, other than a family member, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

Strock: I’ve benefited greatly from studying many effective people from history. Among those who’ve influenced me the most are Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. I’ve been privileged to be able to study them extensively in my formal and ongoing education. Each of the three altered history; each was self-created to a great extent; and each was a great student of history and leadership. I first learned about TR from children’s books. He held particular interest since I, too, was afflicted with childhood asthma. I became aware of Churchill as a child growing up in the decades immediately following the Second  World War. I recall well his funeral, a major television event in my early school years. Reagan is in a bit of a different category. I worked in several of his campaigns and in his administration. Therefore I have some sense of what it felt like at that time and place, serving as a young adult in enterprises led by President Reagan. 

Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the course in life that you continue to follow? Please explain?

Strock: At the time I attended law school, the progression into a career in corporate law was almost foreordained. I set about to craft a career reflective of my values. These included: public service, environmental protection, and leadership development. Trusting my instincts, following my heart, enabled me to create a calling that became a career.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education, especially your legal training, proven invaluable to your career thus farr? 

Strock: With every passing year I have increased appreciation for the value of a strong liberal arts grounding. If one studied history as well as quantitative models, one was much better situated during the Wall Street mayhem of the past two decades.  Amid the rapid rate of change today, and the breaking down of industrial categories and academic disciplines, the adaptive capacities nurtured and honed in the liberal arts are vital. Legal training has also been quite useful in developing critical thinking. Whether one attains it in mathematics, philosophy or law, an analytic grounding can add great value in defining and confronting complex problems, or laying out a path to implement a vision.

Morris: How about your military service? To what extent has that proven beneficial?

Strock:  My Army reserve service was in the 1990s. It was, more than anything else, an opportunity for me to express gratitude. My understanding of and admiration for the American armed forces is deeper, better informed as a result. I’m among those who believe that military or other citizen service should be an expected part of every American’s life. In a time when our nation is engaged in multiple, long-term wars, it’s  critical that “the military” not become an abstraction to the vast majority of Americans who are not participants.

Morris: To what extent do you view California as a microcosm of the federal government?

Strock: This is an interesting question. California is, in many respects, best understood as a nation-state. In the environmental-energy realm, California possesses far-reaching legal authorities that other states do not. California leads the nation in auto emissions standard-setting, for example. In recent years, the state’s political system has been hobbled by regrettable dysfunction. This is in evidence in its interminable budget crises. If California can rouse itself to take action on the most pressing public issues of our time, such as pension reform, it could again lead the nation. At the moment, that role is being assumed by other states. 

Morris: Of all the U.S. presidents, which do you consider the most over-rated? Why?

Strock:  Woodrow Wilson. Wilson is reported to have told a Princeton colleague, shortly after the 1912 election, “It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign problems, for all my preparation has been in domestic matters.” In the event, Wilson’s early months were marked by substantial domestic legislative accomplishment. Unfortunately, after Europe plunged into the Great War in August 1914, Wilson’s leadership was uncertain. The postwar settlement of Versailles, in which Wilson had such an important part, was deeply flawed. His administration ended in tragedy, with his insistence on governing following his disabling stroke. I suspect President Wilson is often graded on a special curve, because many academic historians identify with him as one of their own.

Morris: The most under-rated? Why?

Strock: William McKinley has surely been underrated—in no small part because he was succeeded by a memorable leader, Theodore Roosevelt. Curiously, while TR is among the most captivating of presidents in our time, his administration, too, is often underestimated. Roosevelt’s successes in domestic and international affairs are so wide-ranging as to appear obvious or inevitable in retrospect. So too, Dwight Eisenhower has been underestimated, which may relate to his advanced age in office, his somewhat uneven communications skills, and his failure to present a forward-looking vision on the rising issue of civil rights. One wonders if Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon’s administrations may come to be viewed, in the future, as having been underestimated in some respects.  To be sure, each ended in failure. Nonetheless, Johnson’s accomplishments in civil rights and immigration legislation, and Nixon’s in respect to relations with China, may loom larger with the passage of time.

Morris: What prompted you to write about leadership in the first instance?

Strock:  My books arose from my own experience, when I sought guidance in practical leadership in my career. In sum, I strive to write the kind of book that I would find valuable in my own life. I often encountered books by academics and others who had not actually done what they had written about. They tend to create artificial simplicity; their prose doesn’t have the vigor of “lived words.”  On the other hand, many practitioners lack the context or introspection to make their experiences and understandings transferable—and, in our time, many don’t actually write the books they “author.” My ideal is to unify theory and practice.

Morris: Speaking of presidents, now please shift your attention to Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership. When and why did you decide to write it about him?

Strock:  TR is a natural choice for leadership education. Along with many other observers, I believe he was among the greatest of leaders to serve as president. A handful of other administrations may be regarded as more consequential: Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt come to mind. Roosevelt nonetheless earned a place in that pantheon. TR is of singular interest, because he was, in many evident ways, a self-created figure. He transformed his life into performance art. He intended his life to be an example for others to learn from or even emulate. TR regarded leadership as his one gift, the area in which he might be considered to possess genius. He presented his views on leadership throughout his voluminous writings. He intended for future writers to study them with an eye toward action, as he himself had done of historic figures. Curiously, for all the outpourings of scholarship on TR, no one had written a book focused directly on his leadership approach, working in large part from his own letters and other writings. That opportunity was open, and I was privileged to step in.

Morris: During your research on Roosevelt, were there any head-snapping revelations?

Strock: Everyone knows that TR was able to wring so much life out of each day, every hour, every minute. And yet, when one is immersed in a detailed, retrospective review of his life, his intense living, his vigor di vita, is nonetheless breathtaking.

Morris: What are the most common misconceptions about Roosevelt? What, in fact, is true?

Strock: One of the greatest misconceptions about TR— in his time and ours— is that he was impetuous. Lewis Einstein, a contemporary, offers the acute observation: “Roosevelt was far more cautious than is commonly believed….[His] system of attack when it came into the open was so frontal that men forgot the wariness of his approach and the craft with which he prepared his assault.” A memorable—even tragic—exception, was his announcement, on election night 1904, that he would not seek reelection in 1908. By all accounts TR took this irrevocable step without consulting others. He later said he would rather lose his right arm than have made that pledge.

Morris: What were his unique qualifications to serve as president other than the fact that he was next-in-line when President William McKinley was shot and killed by Leon Czolgosz?

Strock: President-elect Kennedy said to Robert McNamara that there’s no school for presidents, or, for that matter, for secretaries of defense. Arguably there’s no school for any high position of leadership. That said, TR was remarkably well prepared for the presidency. He had held executive positions in the military, in local government, in the federal government (including as a member of McKinley’s sub-cabinet), and two years as governor of New York. Equally important, he had voraciously read and written extensively about leadership. Roosevelt was comfortable evaluating past and present leaders, including presidents. Because he was steeped in the theory and practice of leadership, every day afforded him learning opportunities. When his crowded hour came, he was prepared.

Morris: To what extent (if any) did Roosevelt then have to make any significant adjustments when he became president?

Strock: It’s clear from contemporaneous recollections that TR had to learn to modulate his public personality to conform to others’ expectations of a president. One suspects his exuberance could be disconcerting—all the more among those from the McKinley administration whose era was palpably drawing to a close. We take for granted that presidents have a large public presence. The presidents we admire most are those who embrace the office, drawing vitality and finding fulfillment in it.  In fact, that modern view is the result of Roosevelt’s example. The nation was taken with the phenomenon of a brilliant, blustery, moralistic, young politician, suddenly thrust by fate into the center of the arena. TR represented the end of  nearly half-a-century of stolid chief executives, those who generally “presided” while the congress governed. Roosevelt was a veritable hurricane of change.

Morris: Of all that he achieved as 26th president (1901-1909), what in your opinion had the greatest impact on the subsequent course of U.S. history? Why?

Strock: TR believed the Panama Canal would endure as his greatest legacy. It did have historic impact as America turned from what Secretary of State John Hay called “the Atlantic century” to “the Pacific century.” Of course, the 21st century is emerging as the Pacific century even more than the 20th. TR’s environmental accomplishments loom large, both in themselves, and in the example he set of a president leading without the spur of a universally acknowledged crisis. His use of federal government power to hold Wall Street to account, saving unbridled capitalism from itself, offers an example that is relevant today, if overlooked for the past two decades. So too, his foreign policy, a deft, sophisticated application of realistic means in service of idealistic goals, is again relevant. Perhaps most enduring, and widely applicable, is his leadership example. TR set a very high standard.

Morris: My own opinion is that of all the former presidents, Theodore Roosevelt would be the most effective if serving as president in 2011. What do you think?

Strock: I heartily agree! I often ask myself: “What would TR do?” One can never know, of course. The ultimate contribution of consequential leaders is often their capacity to reframe issues in novel ways. That said, TR’s leadership engaged, at a foundational level, whether the American “national character” would accept decline and mediocrity, or would go all-in for leadership and excellence. Amid the myriad of otherwise disconnected issues before us,  that choice is emerging yet again.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Serve to Lead. As you already know, I’m not convinced that anyone can lead but I do know that many people who could lead have absolutely no desire to do so. Highly-qualified women and men refuse to run for public office, for example. Why?

Strock: When Americans decry our politicians, we must remember that ultimately, politicians reflect us. When we demand more than mediocrity—and the passing comforts it bestows—we will certainly attain it. One hopes and prays it doesn’t take an historic crisis for us to demand and reward excellence in public service.

Morris: Jean Lipman-Blmen is among those who have much of value to say about “followership.” What does that term mean to you and what is its relevance (if any) to serving to lead?

Strock: If leadership is, fundamentally, about serving others, then any one person should be able to move between being a “leader” and a “follower.” In fact, in the fluid arrangements fostered in today’s Information Age, such adaptability is a competitive necessity in all types of adaptive organizations. Often, in a given project team or network, one sees leadership roles  shifting among various members at various times. Attempts to fit these into traditional views of “leader” and “follower” don’t quite work. It’s more like Twitter: the “leader” has “followers”—but the “followers” are empowered to alter the relationship unilaterally, and the “leader” must continually earn the consent of the “followers.”

Morris: Robert K. Greenleaf is generally credited with developing the term “servant leadership” that is the subject of a speech and then an article published in 1970. Here’s my question: Of all the servant leaders throughout history, which do you hold in highest regard? Why?

Strock:  Jesus Christ. His influence is extraordinary whether one views him as divine or a spiritual leader.

Morris: You identify and discuss what you characterize as “Ten Principles of Twenty-First Leadership.”  Which of the ten do most people seem to have the greatest difficulty following? Why?

Strock:  In my experience some people require some time to absorb the implications of  #10: “Character is becoming a Competitive Advantage.” Many people have a very hard time truly believing that doing the right thing by others, striving to serve them to the greatest extent, can actually be a competitive advantage. They are schooled in zero-sum, short-term thinking. They focus on the transaction at the historical moment when the value is shifting to the relationship. It’s not an accident that many of the most effective companies in our emerging economy build social responsibility and stakeholder engagement into their business models. Starbucks, Tom’s Shoes, Zappos and many, many other companies reflect this understanding. Wal-Mart, with its legendary focus on customer value in terms of price, is innovating in sustainability. Now, we’re beginning to see the mirror image, a convergence, as the not-for-profit sector is beginning to serve more effectively by applying private sector accountability and efficiencies to social needs. This reflects a rising recognition that to serve others best requires more than good intentions; it mandates a focus on real-world results. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are among the most conspicuous advocates and representatives of this transformation.

Morris: Which challenges do leaders now face that are unique to the 21st century?

Strock: The unprecedented transparency of our time is a making change by the day. The 20th century saw the ultimate in centralized information—in government, in business, throughout our lives. Our era, with transparency and the spread of information, is decentralizing authority and power at a breakneck pace. Those who understand this can break away. Those who attempt to hold back may well be trampled.

Morris: You insert dozens (hundreds?) of excellent quotations throughout the book. Which two or three are your personal favorites?

Strock: There are so many! If I had to pick one, I think I’d go with Epictetus: “First, say to yourself what you would be, then do what you have to do.”

Morris: In 1924, 3M’s then chairman and CEO, William L. McKnight, expressed one of my favorite quotations: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” In your opinion, can an organization without “fences” still have the order and structure it needs to thrive? Please explain.

Strock: What a beautiful quotation! It may point to the discussion of “leaderless organizations” in recent years. I think that’s a misnomer. Any gathering of people requires leadership to cohere, to achieve its potential contribution. What is not needed is a “boss” of yore, directing everyone else’s efforts toward “the one best way.”

Morris: What are the essentials of effective communication?

Strock:  The foundation is effectively serving your audience. So simple — yet so often overlooked in practice. Many people become self-conscious when they communicate. Whether it’s writing or speaking, they are consumed by anxiety. Self-consciousness is an impediment to what is required to serve an audience effectively. One’s goal must be to achieve audience consciousness. To put oneself in their place, to recognize that the value of any communication arises from how it is received by them, not by what it means to the author. Rather than learning a multiplicity of rules for speaking, for example, I would suggest that a focus on serving one’s audience will simplify and clarify everything.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a life that is “a masterpiece of service”? In your opinion, whose lives have come closest to being that? How so?

Strock: Theodore Roosevelt crafted a masterpiece of service. He served people in every aspect of his life. His legacy was transformational, encompassing his family, his nation and the world. So many of us excel in one arena or another, with great gaps. The stereotype of the respected leader who has chaos in their own household is familiar to everyone. If TR’s life represents almost an ideal in this respect, there are people all around us whose lives are masterpieces of service. One thinks of parents working two or three jobs to serve their families and community. So, too, many in the military or in nursing or teaching. As the needs are endless, so are the possibilities of service. Now, more than ever, empowered by the Internet, more of us can serve in more ways than ever before in history.

Morris: Here’s a hypothetical question. Someone has read and then re-read the book and sincerely wants to serve to lead. Where to begin? Any do’s and don’ts to keep in mind?

Strock: I would suggest two approaches to begin the leadership journey in earnest. First would be to ask oneself, in every interaction with others over the course of a single day: How can you best serve this person? Another approach would be to attempt, over the course of a single day, to reframe your declarative statements into questions. The thoughtful use of questions can be transformational. In my experience, most people find these exercises more challenging—and more rewarding—than they would have imagined.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Reagan on Leadership. What are some of the most common misconceptions about his leadership as governor of California and then as the 40th president of the United States? What, in fact, is true?

Strock:  It was a particular pleasure to examine President Reagan’s leadership. I experienced it first-hand, as a member of his administration in several capacities as well as his 1984 reelection campaign staff. The most common misconception is that Reagan was a bystander to his own career. Some critics have suggested that he succeeded in a series of careers, ultimately as a two-term president of the United States, by a series of  fortunate accidents. Such a criticism is not backed by the evidence. It is true, though, that Reagan’s approach to work and life was not conventional.

Morris: You seem to believe that Reagan was among our greatest presidents? Why?

Strock:  Presidential leadership is best evaluated not on the basis of one’s agreement with the policies, but on their effectiveness in using their powers to transform the nation and our understanding of ourselves. Thus I concur with the historian James MacGregor Burns, who urges that Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan stand as the two most consequential presidents of the past century. Like Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan’s vision continues to influence the public discourse decades after his presidency.

Morris: As you explain in the book, Reagan was a “man of paradox.” How so?

Strock: Numerous qualities that are routinely viewed as being at variance were improbably joined in President Reagan. He was a traditionalist—who purposefully, effectively unleashed innovation and change in himself, in the nation, and in the world. He was a “great communicator” who achieved memorable intimacy with the people everywhere—yet he was often disengaged from his own family. There are many others such unlikely conjunctions considered in Reagan on Leadership.

Morris: Several of his closest associates agree that “What you see is what you get.” My own opinion is that what people saw was only what Reagan allowed them to see. What do you think?

Strock: I think that phrase was intended to convey that Ronald Reagan was unusual in being an authentic personality. Unlike many professional actors—and politicians—he was much the same behind the curtain as in front. That said, there is a larger issue posed by your question. The renowned military historian Sir John Keegan examined heroic military leadership in his classic, The Mask of Command.  The legendary American journalist, William Allen White (an acolyte of Theodore Roosevelt), examined the leaders of his time in his landmark Masks in a Pageant. Effective leadership relationships at a high level include the insertion of a degree of distance from those being served. That may be part of what President Reagan referred to when he mused that he didn’t see how anyone could be president who wasn’t an actor.Effective leaders at a high level tend to be skilled actors. Franklin Roosevelt is said to have to quipped, on being introduced to Orson Welles, that they were the two greatest actors in America. The story may be apocryphal, but the message rings true.

Morris: Martin Anderson once said of Reagan that he was “warmly ruthless.” What does that mean?

Strock: I believe Anderson was referring to President Reagan’s unusual combination of an invincibly sunny personality with the capacity to make difficult decisions that would prompt disappointment, dissent and controversy. William Ewart Gladstone is credited with the credo that a prime minister must be a “good butcher.” The metaphor is apt insofar as the root of the word “decision” is “to cut.” Reagan was notably able to avoid having personal considerations dissuade him from taking decisive actions. This may have arisen in part from his career in motion pictures; it may be related to his being a bit of a loner; it may have related to his focus on those people and principles he sought to serve. What is clear is that this capacity enhanced his effectiveness. It was also a surprise to many people.

Morris: Based on your research for the book what was Reagan’s single greatest challenge as president and how did he respond to it?

Strock: One would have to say it was his efforts to respond to the threat posed by the Soviet Empire. He was determined to hasten what he believed would be its inevitable demise. The challenges he faced in so doing were wide ranging. They called upon all of his skills, from negotiation to communication to casting a vision, to managing the vast enterprise that is the American government. In some situations he found himself isolated, enduring politically virulent domestic and international opposition. Vivid examples include the widespread opposition to his determination to site intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and, later, the development of the national missile defense system. His ultimate negotiations, reducing nuclear armaments for the first time in history, were greeted with suspicion by many of his most valued political allies. All in all, one has to say this was an extraordinary performance.

Morris: What was his single greatest disappointment as president?

Strock:   In his farewell address, presented on January 11, 1989, President Reagan singled out the deficit as a regret. His arms buildup was a major source of increased government spending during his two terms. This result was telegraphed in  the 1980 campaign, when candidate Reagan made clear that the federal deficit would give way as a national priority to bolstering defense spending.

Morris: Other than his wife Nancy, on whom did Reagan most heavily rely for frank opinions, principled dissent, straight talk, sound advice, etc.?

Strock: All indications are that Nancy Reagan held a unique place in this regard. Even she acknowledged, “You can get just so far to Ronnie, and then something happens.” As Colin Powell and others observed, Ronald Reagan memorably combined intimacy with distance.

Morris: If you could ask one question of Ronald Reagan, what would it be? In your opinion, what would be his response?

Strock:  I would request permission to ask him two questions. First, I would ask him to discuss his relationship with his father, Jack. This was an important relationship that Ronald Reagan did not explore publicly. Second, I would ask when he first sensed he might be destined to serve as president of the United States. Reagan’s career was so unusual, so unprecedented, that this would be very interesting to learn, to gain understanding of his way of looking at the world.

In closing, thank you, Bob, for interviewing me. It’s an honor. I admire and learn a lot from your excellent work on business leadership and management.

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Jim Strock invites you to check out the resources at his website by clicking here.


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