in: Career & Wealth, Leadership, Podcast

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

The Art of Manliness Podcast Episode #29: Serve to Lead with James Strock

We will all serve in leadership roles at some time or another. It might be at our work, in our communities, or in our families. But what separates the great leaders from the merely good ones? Are great leaders born or made?

Our guest today is an authority on the topic of leadership and will answer those questions. His name is James Strock and his latest book is called Serve to Lead: Your Transformational 21st Century Leadership System. (I finished the book last week. One of the best books I’ve read on leadership. A Definite must read!)  James has also published two other books on leadership: Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership and Reagan on Leadership.

We talk about why service is integral to leadership in the 21st century, what leadership lessons we can take from Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, and what you can do today to become a better leader.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another episode of ‘The Art of Manliness’ podcast. As men we all lead at some point in our lives, we service leaders in our jobs, our communities or maybe in our families. What sets apart the truly great leaders from the merely good ones. Is leadership a skill you can develop or is it something you’re just born with.

Well, our guest today is a recognized authority on the subject of leadership and can answer those questions. His name is James Strock and he is the author of several books on leadership including ‘Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership’ and ‘Reagan on Leadership’. His latest book is called ‘Serve to Lead®: Your Transformational 21st Century Leadership System’. I just finished reading this book and it was fantastic and I encourage you all to go get it, in addition to writing on leadership, Mr. Strock travels the world, consulting and speaking to companies on the topic of leadership. James, welcome to the show.

James Strock: Well, thank you Brett, I’m delighted to be here and I just love the work you do, what a tremendous website and what terrific information and what great history you share with all of us, thank you.

Brett McKay: Well, thank you sir. So, James your new book ‘Serve to Lead’, you’ve written about leadership before, why did you decide to write this book ‘Serve to Lead’ now.

James Strock: Well, for a few reasons, one is that whenever I would be speaking to groups many people would try to say let’s get leadership down to one sentence, one word, what would it be, then I thought about it, struggled with it and it became quite clear to me that the service is the answer.

The second reason is that leadership really is changing before our eyes right now for a whole lot of reasons. We all recognize the tremendous leadership failures from Wall Street to Main Street, from Washington all the way to the Vatican, but there is also extraordinary things happening right now, and I think we could look back and see if this it’s not just the end of one era, but the beginning of golden age of leadership. I felt that really I had not seen a book that dealt straight on with these changes in a practical way that all of us could apply and that’s what the goal of this book is.

Brett McKay: Yes, it’s one of the things I enjoyed about it, it wasn’t just theory, but it was very practical, you know, things that you can use right away, and that’s what I really enjoyed about it.

James Strock: Thank you, it’s intended to be that way, it’s also intended to be particularly because it is built on the strengths the readers bring to it, to really become their own book, and it’s a book that anybody could hopefully apply at anytime of life.

Brett McKay: So, you mentioned that we’re kind of in a transformational stage in our society and governance, there are lot of things going on, lot of upheaval, what’s the difference between effective leadership today, how things are now compared to what effective leadership was 30-40 or even a 100 years ago.

James Strock: Well, one of the biggest difference is that we all see everyday it’s in the midst of the information revolution, it used to be that organizations for example, whether it’s the military or a company or perhaps a family would tend to have a person like a boss and the notion was that they knew best what to do and sort of used others to help them extend their reach. Today, that’s entirely unloaded and as you know what happens today is that in any organization there is clearly much greater useful knowledge and value at the so called bottom of the organization and there’s also always more useful knowledge and value outside of any organization than within it.

So, this is entirely changed what people in leadership roles have to do where it used to be about directions, now it’s about empowerment and that’s not just the worse speaking, it totally changes what leaders or people we think of as leaders do day-in day-out if they’re going to be effective.

Brett McKay: And so would it be fair to say some of the problems we’ve had is that people or leaders are applying this old way of leadership theory from a 100 years ago, what worked during the industrial revolution, they’re still trying to apply that to now, to the informational – the informational revolution.

James Strock: Exactly, I think it’s a terrific summary and what’s happened is I think you’ll see this in the book ‘Serve to Lead’ on the one hand some people they might feel a little bit at sea in that things that they’re quite different than it had been in recent decades, however, many of these changes and what they require of people if they’re going to be effective as leaders also open up the experience, knowledge, and history of people much further back in the mid 20th century. And that’s one of the very interesting things about working on this book and I would add by the way that’s one of the great things about you’re website because your constantly bringing in history in a very useful down-to-earth applicable way to let people know that some of the things they’ve seen in their own lives just don’t add up to be enough to work with.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and throughout your book, you refer to what you call the four questions. What are these questions and how do they help people become better leaders.

James Strock: Well, you know, one of the things that Peter Drucker, the great management theorist has been quoted as saying, surely before his death, is that in the future, meaning now, questions are increasingly more important than answers and that sort of thinking is the premise to the book, because it’s built on questions that can be applied in any leadership situation one faces, that also means that each person will come to their own answers and the people that do it best will bring all their unique characteristics and experiences together to come up with answers that serve others that no one else really got. So, with that mind, what the book does is offer four questions throughout as you pointed out.

The first is the key one, ‘who are you serving’. The second, ‘how can you best serve’ and that goes to any given circumstance and the next level up, ‘are you making your unique contribution’. And finally, ‘are you getting better every day’. And if you think as I hope you saw on the book about those questions and apply them, they can literally structure all of your thinking in actionable way.

Brett McKay: So, James, you talked about in the beginning there’s been kind of all the failure of leadership in lot of our – in lot of places in our society, are there any leaders right now who exemplify the ‘Serve to Lead’ philosophy.

James Strock: Yes, and I would only name two or two types. One is Nelson Mandela. And the other is there are a lot of people you’ve not heard about yet in public forums, but you maybe encountering whether it’s a Walmart either as customer or working there, whether it’s at a local church or the high school, I think they’re many people who’re not yet known in a public way, who’re beginning to apply these things and as they go, particularly young people, further in their careers you’ll see it in positional leadership as well reflecting these changes. But among renowned figures, the one that just flies out above all others who is today thankfully with us is Nelson Mandela.

Brett McKay: Now, James, you talked about how you like to try to go back to history and take lessons and practical lessons from that, and you’ve actually in your two previous books looked at two American Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan and try to extrapolate lessons from their political careers, what leadership lessons can a man take from Theodore Roosevelt, you know, we’re big fans of T.R. here at the ‘Art of Manliness’.

James Strock: T.R. is the best isn’t it. T.R. is – he’s been, well, called the most lovable Presidents and he is just a spectacular figure, I think because of history and the things you can’t predict, because we tend to measure presidential greatness by victory in a war particularly, some of his very successors that avoided war as president may have held him back a little, but even with that, he’s constantly regarded in this time period as among the handful of Best Presidents ever, and I think with really good reason.

Among his top lessons, the one that he would want everybody is to look at his life and take away is that character as the fundamental part of everything and it doesn’t matter so much what a person accomplices in a certain way of life, it matters what they are, that’s what the lessons are. He said that over and over and over again. He also believed very strongly that leaders are to the greatest extent self-created and that seems at first a little odd with him, because he came from such a privileged background, but from his point of view and also from the point of view of others who are around him that T.R. that became famous, that became President, that became the great leader was very much a self-created figure and he would want everybody, he used to say, boys, and I would say boys and girls to be able to look at that life and get to their own greatest contributions.

Brett McKay: So, leaders are made not born.

James Strock: That’s right, with this caveat, I mean I absolutely believe that leaders are made and I can see it my world, in my work, because you can have people make dramatic strives adjusting habits of thinking and habits of living and it’s measurable, you see it, people live it, they’re affected by it. At the same time, as in anything, there are obviously certain people who’re supremely gifted, their leadership, the nature of the gift may vary, how it’s valued in a given time to some extent. And I often think of like basketball, look with respect to you, I’m sure you’re a fine athlete, but I bet that if you had the best coaching in the world you still not going to be Michael Jordan.

Brett McKay: Probably not, definitely not.

James Strock: But you could be a hell of a lot better, you could become a star and that’s I think how leadership is as well.

Brett McKay: Was there a particular moment in Roosevelt’s career that, you know, you showcased as exceptional leadership ability.

James Strock: It’s interesting because as you know from reading ‘T.R. on Leadership’ and your own knowledge of Roosevelt that’s already very great, he had a number of rather spectacular leadership moments and so I think to me what’s the most interesting is the one that he valued most and that of course would be his service in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and you’ll recall that even after he left the presidency would he had his choice of honorifics, he would prefer to be called the Colonel not President Roosevelt.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that’s interesting, yeah. Edmund Morris is actually coming out with a new biography about his career after his presidency, it’s called the Colonel I believe or Colonel Roosevelt…

James Strock: Absolutely, I’m sure it’s going to be spectacular and like – I’m sure you’ve done, I will be one of the first to have that fly my way when it comes out this October.

Brett McKay: Exactly. So, what about Ronald Reagan, he’s pretty close to us in history, and we haven’t had – I guess we had some time to evaluate his impact as a leader, what lessons in leadership can men take from Ronald Reagan.

James Strock: Well first, I guess let’s talk about men then men and women, how’s that and I got to tell you…

Brett McKay: Sounds good.

James Strock: I don’t know how you think of it, I’ve noticed sometimes on your outstanding website some people take offence for say manliness or whatever or all the womanliness or something, well, number – I don’t take offence, I know and I think it’s great, but I also recognize that the number of things that traditionally might be called manly traits in the good sense, also woman can have in a similar or their own way…

Brett McKay: Certainly.

James Strock: I’m sure you don’t exclude them either.

Brett McKay: Definitely not, no.

James Strock: Reagan – when my book first came out a decade ago a lot of folks did not recognize it yet universally how consequential he was, and of course now everybody does from all political parties no matter whether you like his views or not or what he did, they recognize he is a very model of a consequential president and James MacGregor Burns one of the great historians who politically disagreed entirely Reagan said that he along with Franklin Roosevelt would stand as the two most consequential presidents of 20th century.

I think Reagan offers a number of lessons, of course, my book about Reagan is about them and it’s going to come out again with an update late this year for Reagan’s 100th anniversary centennial and its by the way I’ve got some very exciting new parts to it. I think perhaps the biggest lesson goes back to your prior point and that is that he was also to a very great extent self-created as a leader. He used to always say that he would try to make it look easy, but he wasn’t and Reagan made a study of leadership, a study of leaders, in fact there are several contemporaries of his who wrote about situations when they saw him observing leaders such as Eisenhower in public situations and that’s of course what actors do, they study very, very carefully in a way most people don’t, they listen better, they look more carefully, Reagan had a lot of that and it was Franklin Roosevelt was his ultimate idea of kind of how a leader did the job, not Roosevelt, obviously the Roosevelt as a leader, which in term you’ll recognize connects him in a sense to T.R. because T.R. was Franklin Roosevelt’s model.

Brett McKay: Yes, yeah, so what was Reagan’s defining leadership moment.

James Strock: You know it’s interesting that’s a really good question, if you ask most people they would point to his public address in October 1964 where he spoke on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s sinking presidential campaign, Goldwater and the campaign went through a record defeat, but Ronald Reagan went on television to raise money for the campaign right before the election made a huge impression and from that began to be lifted repeatedly in many people’s mind toward the political elective route that he had considered off and on for the prior 20 years, but it actually then would take within two years running for Governor of California, of course, he first ran for president, before he was governor within two years, people forget about that, 1968…

Brett McKay: Yeah, well, yeah, I’m sorry.

James Strock: But I think Reagan I would argue that what I find really hinged time of his life was at the immediate post World War II period, he had his marriage breakup to Jane Wyman and he – that was very much outside of his world view at that time and I needn’t add that time was also politically deadly so was thought, until he was elected in 1980 to be divorced. He also lost a baby girl shortly after her birth with Wyman before their divorce, he had health issues, his career was in bit of downstate. He began to be fighting communists in Hollywood and that was not just a little debating society thing you know people who threatened to disfigure his face with acid, he often had to carry a gun.

And my guess is it was that period in which a lot of the traits that became so important for him particularly his spectacular self-containment. If you look at key times in his presidency or in his life for example 1976 where he was losing every primary to President Ford almost in an embarrassing way, people all urged him to get out, but he just sat there literally in his sort of granite-like way, he just said no, we’re going to see it through and he came very closely in the end.

In the early 80s when the economic situation was grievous, the international situation was very tough, he was again very self-contained, able to withstand that and hold his views and work through it and likewise late in his term when you had a whole series of tough things happened, with the stock market crash, you had problems with his immediate staff, you had Iran-Contra Affair, all this in the 96-97 period loosening his party control to senate and his mother-in-law died, his wife got cancer, it was a tremendously difficult time, he got through all that and then had a last burst where he basically dis-batched the soviet empire completely and in so doing reconfigured a lot of that the political alignments because he wasn’t entirely supportive in that by his own side much less his political adversaries, so that’s a long way of saying I think that self-containment, that remarkable power to be in engaged in the world, but to maintain that kind of separation may have really been tempered in that immediate post World War II period.

Brett McKay: So, James, we’re coming to an end here and before we leave any parting advice to our listeners on how they can improve their leadership skills today.

James Strock: Well, you might have mentioned, I think the best possible way is to read ‘Serve to Lead’ and the reason I say that is again I think the focus if they could do one thing by getting this very moment after listening just to your outstanding podcast and always reading your great website, it would be to begin by asking that one question, who you’re serving and take a look at that every day, look at your life and that one question in the book can help you then really work it through how it plays out in real life, it can begin to change your whole world and make your world a better one, because you’re serving others.

Brett McKay: Excellent. Well, James, it’s been a pleasure.

James Strock: Well, many thanks Brett and again thanks for all you do, it’s just a terrific delight to be with you and I love all the work you do.

Brett McKay: Thank you sir. Our guest today was James Strock. James is the author of the book ‘Serve to Lead’ and you can purchase his book on and for information about James’ book check out

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at And until next time stay mainly.

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