I sniffed out a great read. Recently, while going through some leadership materials presented by Robert Greenleaf, I noticed his mention of a classic book, The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse. The book was written in 1954 and apparently is the first literary work featuring the topic of servant leadership.
The book is an allegory about a group (or league) that embarked on an expedition. The hero, only identified as H.H., describes in first-person poetic artistry the wonders of the sights beheld and mysteries encountered. There is much symbolism in the book and honestly, some pretty weird imagery. But I found the book engaging and entertaining.
“Leo” is a key character. He appears as a servant, a kind of Sherpa that aided the group as they traveled. He was an unassuming worker to whom few paid much attention. He provided directions, advice and carried the heavy loads. One day, Leo was no place to be found and it was discovered that he had left the journey. The travelers were dismayed at his lack of loyalty and experienced much confusion and discouragement with their expedition. Eventually, H.H. abandons his secret league and forgets about his commitment to the journey. It is only after years passed by that H.H. discovers the true identity of Leo and the true meaning of the journey.
I don’t want to give any more of the story away. But rest assured, there are extremely valuable lessons for modern readers and leaders to learn in The Journey to the East.
Below are some of my favorite quotes from the book:
“Words do not express thoughts very well; everything immediately becomes a little different, a little distorted, a little foolish.”
“He who travels far will often see things far removed from what he believed was Truth. When he talks about it in the fields at home, He is often accused of lying. For the obdurate people will not believe what they do not see and distinctly feel. Inexperience, I believe, will give little credence to my song.”
“He who wishes to live long must serve, but he who wishes to rule does not live long.” “Then why do so many strive to rule?” “Because they do not understand.”
“Faith is stronger than so-called reality.”
“Free yourself. Throw Leo overboard.”
“…everything else that I have considered good and fine, and for which I have made sacrifices, has only been my egoistic desires.”
“As soon as suffering becomes acute enough, one goes forward.”
“He must grow, I must disappear.”
I found a nice used copy of the book on Amazon for a couple of bucks, maybe you can, too, if you are inclined to do so.