A Boomer’s Guide for Millennials. The ABC’s of Leadership: “X” is for Xenodochial


“At the most basic level, we need to distinguish between dominance and leadership. This is the world of animal herds, of palace intrigue, authoritarianism, dictatorships, and malefic families. However, while these situations all make for great television, dominance isn’t leadership. Rather, over the years I’ve become more focused on the nature of leadership as a relationship - an honour that is bestowed upon a person by followers who are willing to place their trust in them.”

This shift in focus, as articulated in the above words of Jamil Zaki, underscores the nature of a xenodochial leader, one who is friendly and welcoming and especially kind to strangers and those foreign to them. As I will describe later, most people, as they rise in an organization, view those they lead as foreign.

In addition, despite the billions of dollars spent on diversity and inclusion over the last decade, most institutions are not xenodochial, in that boards of directors and CEO’s of these institutions are predominantly white straight males.

The Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica have embodied being xenodochial by adapting an attitude of general inclusiveness in their work by following one of the rules of Benedict - “we need to welcome the stranger and alien in our midst”. 

As leaders, we would do well by similarly adapting this hospitality to all in,
. creating a welcoming personally and institutionally,
. listening and responding sensitivity to all,
. extending warmth and acceptance to all,
. welcoming new ideas and being open to change.

In 1977 in his book ‘Servant Leadership’,Robert K. Greenleaf proposed a different paradigm of leadership which speaks directly to being a xenodochial leader; and this type of leadership ought to be a distinguishing characteristic of leadership. While this has captured the hearts and minds of people, organizations and society, few have adapted it.

A huge impact of xenodochial leadership is that it helps solve the loneliness epidemic we are experiencing. The CIGNA’s 2018 US Loneliness Index in a survey of 20 thousand Americans found that only 18 percent believe that there are people with whom they can communicate. Based on research I have done, I can assert that for most North American workers the only work-related face-to-face  interaction with their boss is the mutually dreaded annual performance review and when things go south.

In ‘A General Theory of Love’,Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon asserted,  “A good deal of modern American culture is an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most, which are the elements of love - hospitality, community, solidarity - the general feeling of belonging and appreciation coupled with the exercise of moral agency for the benefit of other people.”

The impact of this has been and continues to be profound.

There is now indisputable evidence that ties loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. The former United States Surgeon General has written that loneliness and social isolation are “associated with a reduction in life similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”

As leaders, we perhaps more than others should be able to relate to being lonely and isolated. Those who bemoan “It’s lonely at the top” should reflect on why this is.  In ‘Five Reasons Why It’s Lonely at The Top’, M. Ena Inesi and Adam D. Galinski of the Kellogg School of Management lists the five ways in which “power perverts, comforts and undermines a number of psychological processes that nurture close connections and form the foundation of healthy relationships.” They are:

“1. Power alters our beliefs about others’ generosity.
2. Power affects our responses to the kind acts of others.
3. Power reduces trust.
4. Power reduces commitment. 
5. Power damages relationships in the very moments when they have the greatest potential to develop.”

From the work I have done in organizational dynamics and emotional intelligence I assert that most in leadership and management positions have been perverted by power. When this happens, they become isolated and lonely. Subordinates avoid contact with them and what the number of instances of wrongdoings and inappropriate behaviours has more than validated, leadership is not hearing what they need to hear, even though what they needed to hear were open secrets for years and in some instances for decades.

Teddy Roosevelt is a wonderful example of a xenodochial leader who invited and welcomed input from others. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian, in ‘Leadership: In Turbulent Times’writes, “Imagine a leader who developed remarkably collegial relations with the press, those now termed the ‘enemy of the American people’. Roosevelt invited reporters in for meals, took questions during his midday shave, and most importantly, absorbed their criticism with grace. A celebrated journalist mercilessly lampooned Roosevelt’s memoir of the Spanish-American War by claiming Roosevelt should have called the book, ’Alone in Cuba’, since he placed himself at the centre of every action and every battle. Roosevelt replied with a winning capacity for self-depreciation: “I regret to state that my family and intimate friends are delighted with your review.””

So how does one become a xenodochial leader. Quite simply - don’t be corrupted by power and read or re-read Greenleaf’s ‘Servant Leadership’ it is as relevant today as it was in 1977.