People are People, Lead Anyway


It is not as though I believe that bad things don’t happen to good people. They do. Indeed, as Kent Keith writes in the last of his 10 “Paradoxical Commandments:” “Give the world the best you have and you will get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.” But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself.

Kent Keith was an unusual student at Harvard in the 1960s. He was a moderate – calling for change but within “the system!” He was also wise beyond his years, publishing and distributing 30,000 copies of a pamphlet about the aforementioned Paradoxical Commandments. The essence of his message was that the world is not especially kind to those who lead, but that leading is the way to create a life of meaning and purpose. To heck with what the others say! Lead anyway!

Well, fast-forward three decades. At his monthly Rotary club meeting, 50-something Kent bows his head to hear a poem attributed to Mother Teresa. His fellow Rotarian reads . . . you guessed it, Kent’s own Paradoxical Commandments. Kent tells the disbelieving fellow that he wrote those lines, asks where the gentleman found the quote, and heads to the library to find it in a book about Mother Teresa. Although a few times before in the preceding 35 years these commandments had found their way back to him, he was utterly blown away at the notion that his words had been placed on the wall of an orphanage by Mother Teresa, in India, a world away. He took it as a clear sign that he should re-publish his work. There are other unusual twists to this story; for example, someone else was about to publish the Commandments, not knowing that someone had written and copyrighted them 30 years ago. One might have imagined an 11th commandment: “If you write, others will steal your best ideas. Write anyway.” Kent did publish his book, a simple and wonderful read called Anyway: the Paradoxical Commandments: Finding Personal Meaning in a Crazy World”. His stories offer a context that could support anyone from a recent high school graduate to a sixty year old middle manager.

Kent was recently named the new CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Indianapolis. If you are familiar with Greenleaf — the man or the Institute named for him — you know that Kent Keith’s spirit of “leading anyway” fits perfectly. The Keith-Greenleaf focus is on doing good work, leading so that those around you grow in wisdom , trusting this will yield good results. Those results may not appear right away. It may take 30 some years before the world is ready for your work. And even still you may never see it, never know just how it mattered. But as Kent Keith would say, do it anyway. The good has a way of living in spite of us. So, though no one may appreciate it today,

Lead with your best self, anyway!


Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments

By: Kent M. Keith

Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments: Finding Personal Meaning in a Crazy World

buy now

  • Hi Dan,
    Just read your latest column. Excellent per usual. I was somewhat familiar with the Paradoxical Commandments by Kent Keith and have referenced them in several of my presentations. They parallel the somewhat cynical comment: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
    As a Rotarian I was surprised and pleased to learn that Keith was also a Rotarian. Thanks for that piece of info, as well as your well constructed messages.

  • I’m intrigued by the topic of today’s RFL. I recently have found myself wondering, “Why bother” when faced with what I’ve learned are affectionatly known as “Leadership Challanges.”

    When I see what President Bush has to put up with for his leadership decisions, or what the Gov. Granholm has to put up with for her leadership decisions, or what the LSJ editors have to put up with for their decisions, I question myself: Do I ever want to be in a leadership position where I make decisions that cause others to “kick me in the teeth”? What’s the driving force that makes me want to lead anyway?

    I know I want the world a better place. I know I want my work and home life a better place. I also know that I don’t to sacrifice my entire self to get there. How much should a leader give up to lead?

    I still find myself searching for this internal balance, and hope to find it soon (for my sake, as well as for my spouse and children). Until then, I’ll just grin my toothless grin and be happy. 😉

  • Once again, your message affirmed choices I’m making in my life. I appreciate that, especially at times that seem a little tricky.

    I recently was laid off from doing what I consider is good, and the “good” was put to an end. I decided to tell those who have partnered with me in doing the good (a skilled, golden-hearted, effective AmeriCorps team) that it didn’t matter we weren’t being valued by the decision makers in our agency; what was important was that we had done the good when we had the opportunity to it, and that we needed to continue to do good wherever we went after our time in national service.

    I plan to share your message along with a copy of all “The Paradoxical Commandments” at my final team meeting wtih them this month.

    Onward to more people…….

  • Keep in mind the comments by Mother Teresa are based upon her spirituality and deep faith in the gospel message of Jesus Christ. It might be arugued that Jesus Christ represents a pardox of leadership. A poor man from a tiny village, living a marginalized existence, recruits the most unlikely group of followers. No one in their right mind would have bet on this group. In three short years their leader is framed by the powers that be in the legal system. He dies a horrible death and the followers become leaders and change the world. All because they undestood the value of doing it anyway.

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