A Lesson for IT Leaders: Be of Service to Others

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Transforming IT from a Department of 'No' to a Business Enabler

If you’re an IT leader who aspires to achieve success and fulfillment in your career and in your personal life, here’s a tip: Rather than focusing on what’s in it for you, focus instead on how you can be of service to others.

That’s the message of Matt Tenney, a leadership consultant and author of the book, “Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.” That eye-catching title is a reference to the fact that from January 2001 to July 2006, Tenney was imprisoned after being convicted of attempting to embezzle government funds. For Tenney, the experience was nothing if not a transformative one.

I had the opportunity to speak with Tenney last week, and he said he spent the first three years of his confinement in the San Diego area, at the base brigs at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar; and the final two-and-a-half years in the Army Detention Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. It was a fascinating conversation, as Tenney explained how that experience shifted his perspective from selfishness to service.


“About a year into my time in confinement, I started learning about a practice called ‘mindfulness,’” he said. “As I’m sure you’re aware, being in the IT world, this is something that 10 years ago, nobody had heard of, but now companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter—basically, everybody in Silicon Valley—are training their people in mindfulness.”

Tenney said he learned about it from books that his mom had sent him, two of which had been written by monks.

“It made sense to me, as the principles were really logical, and it seemed like it would be effective in helping me to transform the prison experience into a positive instead of a negative,” Tenney said. “After about six months of practice, I noticed I was happier, right there in the prison with nothing, than I’d ever been in my entire life.”

Tenney said he decided to “go all the way,” and took the monastic vows.

“I kind of transformed the prison into my own personal monastery,” he said. “I spent my last three years in confinement living and training exactly as a monk would, just without the normal monastic community.”

Tenney said the core of the monastic training was the idea that the most meaningful life is one that’s devoted to serving others—devoting one’s life to helping other people to be free from suffering.

“That new purpose in my life transformed the prison experience,” Tenney said. “I was so excited about this idea that I could have a positive effect on the world, starting with just the people right around me, by helping them to be happier, and to suffer a little bit less. The more I let go of what I could do for me, the more I shifted in that direction, the happier I was, and the more success I’ve had in every area of life.”

I asked Tenney why he thinks it so often takes a very difficult, life-altering experience like that to bring about such a shift in human beings. He said his sense is that generally speaking, the human condition is to seek what’s comfortable, instead of seeking what’s really important.

“I think what happens when that comfort zone is completely demolished, it makes you really consider what matters in life,” Tenney said. When you contemplate it, I don’t think there’s anybody who would argue that a life well lived isn’t one that is devoted to being a good human being, and helping others.”

The problem, he said, is that when we’re relatively comfortable, we tend to seek even more comfort.

“And when you reflect on it, that stuff has no bearing on whether or not your life is going to be fulfilling,” he said. “In fact, it’s often a distraction from doing the things that really make life fulfilling.”

In his book, Tenney cited SAS Institute CEO Jim Goodnight as an example of a technology leader whose focus is on serving and caring for his team members. I asked him if he had any sense of whether IT leaders tend to be any more or less inclined than leaders in other disciplines to adopt a servant perspective.

“I haven’t seen research on it, but my guess is that people in the IT realm have the same aspirations, deep down, to be somebody who puts serving the people on the team as a higher priority than hitting the numbers,” Tenney said. But he said the relatively low level of emotional intelligence among a lot of people in IT can be an obstacle.

“I think generally, among people in that field—and of course, this doesn’t apply to everybody—there tends to be a lower level of capacity to actually do it,” he said. “Because the key elements of being of service almost all revolve around emotional intelligence, and the ability to really have empathy for others, and connect with them at a human level.”

The irony, Tenney said, is that emotional intelligence is the biggest predictor of success in the technology field. He cited the book, “Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace),” by Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan. Tenney said it was Tan who created the mindfulness-based emotional intelligence program at Google. In his book, Tenney said, Tan reported his findings that of the top seven competencies that have been shown to predict success in the tech space, five of them are emotional competencies.



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