Time and again, I discover how muddled the concept of leadership is
Posted May 24, 2013
Time and again, as I try to focus in this way, I discover how muddled the concept of leadership is, for so many people. Is leadership the same as power? Is leadership something given to us, or something we enter into, or something else? Is leadership only significant when it's formal, or can we usefully refer to certain acts of people without any formal authority as exemplifying leadership? Is leadership a function, an attitude, or a perception?
Each of these questions folds within it some other questions. For example, disentangling leadership from power includes attending to the tricky issue of whether having leaders is necessary or desirable. Of course, what we believe that leaders do or how they do it is intimately interlinked with whether or not we would want there to be some form of leadership, and what we could imagine alternatives would be
While all of this was swirling inside me, I decided to look up what others thought about this question. The dictionary definitions led me nowhere, defining the concept of leadership either by using a verb (lead), or by using another noun (leader). When I followed those leads (pun so very intended...), I still didn't find anything that provided a description of what it means to lead or to be a leader.
Leadership as Influence
And so I turned to some articles I found on the web. (I was not attempting to be exhaustive in my search. I read the Wikipedia entry, and two articles at LeadershipNow and Forbes). The references I found speak of leadership as influence, which helped me understand more fully some of the reluctance about leadership that I hear from so many people, and why so many groups are opting to explore functioning without leaders. The capacity to have influence itself can be seen as a form of power, which helps me understand how the deep-seated fear and mistrust about power that so many people have would prevent them from stepping into leadership in any form (yes, I know I haven't yet provided my own definition). When so many people shy away from leadership, only those who are comfortable with exerting power would occupy positions of leadership. This state of affairs is one of the features of our current human life that I am eager to transform. In the way that I see leadership, I would be so fantastically happy if everyone in the world stepped into leadership in one form or another. To understand what I mean by that, it may be necessary to conceive of leadership in a different way.
Leadership as Orientation to Holding the Whole
One of the definitions I found already has a hint of what I have in mind here. I cannot find the name of the author in this article that ends by stating: "Leadership is intentional influence." The hint I found here is the word "intentional." This definition leaves out the core question of the purpose of influencing others - towards what ends? At what cost? It also leaves me in some discomfort, because I can see so many acts that I would recognize as leadership that include no specific attempt to influence others.
Starting with purpose, I see leadership in an entirely different way. I see it as taking responsibility, in a most personal way, for the well-being and goals of the whole. The form of leadership that is about influencing others, the one most widely recognized, could then be re-written: leadership is intentional influence in support of the whole, or in support of a common goal. While it may seem like what I am speaking about is what is desirable leadership, I still see this as the essence of leadership. As hard as the example might be, I see Adolf Hitler as more of a leader than people who are in charge of large-scale organizations or even countries and do so for their own personal gain. As much horror as we have about Hitler's actions, there is no doubt in my mind that he was seeing himself as serving a larger whole, a big vision of the well-being of his people. (This example, and my knowledge, in addition, that Hitler was chosen by people and supported by them for a long time, is sobering for me. I want to grapple with it, so as to come up with methods for preventing such harm from arising again rather than simply seeing it as some sort of an aberration.) It is not the nature of the goal that makes something an act of leadership; it's only that it is done with the intention of being a service to a larger whole.
Of course, a major caveat is that things are rarely in neat, conceptual purity in the world. People would usually be somewhere on the spectrum, having some personal gain that they may or may not be aware is affecting their choices, alongside an intention to serve the whole. It's always a matter of interpretation, and outside perspective is notoriously skewed. If we like the outcome, we are more likely to attribute "noble" intention to the person in charge. If we don't, we are more likely to conceive of the person in power as doing things for their own personal gain, or to pathologize them in some form. Despite these considerations, I still believe that the distinction itself is helpful to understand our own behavior, if nothing else, and to help in choosing where we direct our attention.
If leadership is not just about "influencing others," then what actions count as exhibiting leadership? Speaking up, for example, when others are nervously noticing something going on and saying nothing, can be a form of leadership. It's not designed to influence anyone in any particular way, yet it's motivated by caring for the whole. Perhaps the key to understanding the difference is that if we are committed to the whole, we are fully open to being influenced, not only to influencing others. We act, when we take on a leadership stance, with the intention to serve the whole, and whatever that means, even if it means changing our own preferences or desired outcomes, is what we choose to do.
Stepping into Leadership
Having thought about leadership and trained people to become leaders for so many years, I see a particular move that anyone can practice internally which moves us into the perspective of leadership, from which we can then choose what we want to do. In the simplest terms, this entails shifting from making choices based on my own personal preferences to making choices based on what I see as benefiting the whole. An example can illustrate this, and I have a particularly dramatic one to offer.
I was sitting with a group of five executives in an organization, and supporting them in reaching a decision about an issue they were facing. At first I asked them to each state what they wanted to see as the outcome. That was when each of them were speaking from within their own position, and expressing their preferences. What they said couldn't have been more divergent. They looked at each other, partly helpless, partly amused. I could see this was not a first.
Then I asked them to take some time in silence to reflect on all the responses they had heard, and to come up with a proposal that would attend to the entirety of what they heard, in service of the entire group and the organization. I waited until they all were ready with an answer before hearing from any of them, so that they could truly form their own opinion of this new angle. Then I asked each of them to say what their current proposal was, and all of us were in awe of what happened. Within two minutes they settled the one remaining difference, and all agreed on the path forward.
What changed? They shifted from advocating for their own position to attending to the whole. Although they are all in positions of authority within their organization, they weren't doing it before I directed them to think in that way. It is this kind of thinking that invited them into leadership, and the results were stunning to them.
Leadership within Groups
Unless we make the conscious choice to think about the whole, we are habituated to live within our own perspective and preferences. Given that we all were raised in the world of either/or, how we habitually respond to differences in preferences, especially in the context of a group, rarely leads to outcomes that we are happy with.
Either/or thinking results in believing, usually implicitly and without reflection, that we can either give up on our preferences and adapt or push for our preferences at the expense of others. We either serve ourselves, even at the expense of others, or choose to be of service to others, often in a self-sacrificing way.
Having worked with many hundreds of groups, both those that form for the purpose of learning (short or long term), and those that form for the purpose of accomplishing specific tasks, I have seen this either/or habit result in one of several responses that I have seen repeat themselves time and again when people have preferences that they believe are at odds with others' preferences in the group. I want to list some of the common ones I have seen.
Giving up: this can take various forms, such as being silent despite discomfort or agreeing to decisions that don't really work for the person.
Calling Attention to Self: this often takes the form of persistence in speaking up for a position or an experience without evident awareness of the effect this has on others.
Leaving: this is often the result of a prolonged experience of either of the above. The inner experience of this, to the extent I have heard about it from people, is often summed up as "this is not the right group for me."
All of them have a common root: the belief that the group exists independently of the participation of a specific individual, and the lack of faith that it's possible to work it out in a way that supports everyone in some way.
Instead, I see a path - in precisely those moments when our preferences don't line up with what appear to be others' preferences - that allows us to care for the whole. When I work with groups over time, especially groups that are together for the purpose of learning about stepping into more leadership, I invite everyone, myself included, to consider the whole. If, for example, something is happening in a group that isn't working for any of us, what can be a way to hold the whole?
The answer is quite similar to what the executives did. If a group has adopted a policy, made an agreement, or engages in activities that I don't like, I can ask myself the same question as the one I posed to the executives: what proposal can I make to the group that will improve the outcome? This means that I search for a solution that attends to the needs the existing policy, agreement, or activity addresses as well as to the things that matter to me and which are not addressed by the current way things are done. This is stepping outside either/or thinking into what Mary Parker Follett referred to as "integration."
This internal move is what I see as the core practice we can engage in to bring us more and more into a place of leadership.
Leadership and Power
Intuitively, I believe that so much of the definition of leadership revolves around influence because the people who write about leadership are immersed in the organizational world, which is mostly organized with one person on top leading the rest, mostly in the form of making all or most of the decisions that affect the whole.
I don't have any faith that this model is going to take us into a future that works. I am committed to doing all I can, taking my own form of leadership, in support of the possibility of a livable, vibrant future. I see the way forward to be many more of us taking on the active, empowered, stance of leading, wherever we are, and whatever our official position may be.
While power can be assigned to someone, especially within an organization or some other kind of social grouping, leadership cannot. People in positions of power sometimes act as leaders and sometimes not; are sometimes perceived as leaders and sometimes not. In fact, part of the danger of the model that currently exists is that it is so vulnerable to the possibility of people using their structural power to further their own preferences without regard for their effect or for the whole.
In a similar manner, it is possible to inhabit an intentionality of leadership without having power. The famous Dutch story about the boy who put his finger in the dike and saved the entire country is, to me, an example of leadership. There is no question this was not this boy's personal preference of how to pass his time that day. It was him taking responsibility for the whole.
Leadership, while not synonymous with power or influence, does create both. Without any guarantees, it is still the case that the choice to step into leadership is often noticed by others, and provides an invitation to others to join, to participate.
Leadership from a position of power interacts with leadership from a position without power. An empowered person who holds the whole would more likely follow someone in power only to the extent that the person in power is exhibiting leadership.
In short, people who feel empowered know they are agents, not pawns. When people take on an orientation of leadership, it becomes near impossible to oppress them. Stepping into leadership, by all of us, then, can become an inoculation against submission and passivity, paving the way for a collaborative future.
Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call: Tuesday May 28, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. This is a way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog. We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing.