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Director’s Corner: The Essence of Leadership

By January 10, 2019One Comment

“Leaders have a significant role in creating the state of mind that is the society.  They can serve as symbols of the moral unity of the society. They can express the values that hold the society together.  Most important, they can conceive and articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations, carry them above the conflicts that tear a society apart, and unite them in pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts.

 ~ John W. Gardner, No Easy Victories

John Gardner’s description of what real leaders do strikes me as an indictment of what appears in the guise of leadership on the world stage today.  A failure of leadership is the big reason why we face so many social, economic, and ecological crises.  If ever there was a time we need great leaders it is now.

This problem has existed for decades.  In the 1960s and ‘70s Robert K. Greenleaf wrote about the “crisis in leadership” he saw all around him: “Rarely does conceptual and inspired leadership come from government.  Although we wish for it, we have learned not to expect it.”  While Greenleaf cited and described examples of great leadership in his writings, he bemoaned the rarity of inspired leadership he found in all sectors of society.

In 1985, leadership expert Warren Bennis wrote: “A chronic crisis of governance…is now an overwhelming factor worldwide….  If there was ever a moment in history when a comprehensive strategic view of leadership was needed, not just by a few leaders in high office but by large numbers of leaders in every job…this is certainly it.”

I think we are in this situation because of a lack of understanding and appreciation for what leadership is and what leaders do.

The frustrating thing is, there is no reason for this.  The essence of leadership is no mystery.   It is an open secret.  Great leadership has been defined and described in action. The “comprehensive strategic view of leadership” Warren Bennis called for exists, and he helped create it through his teaching, consulting for presidents and chief executives, and in his more than 30 books on the subject.

It has been defined and described in a mosaic of work by the likes of Greenleaf, Bennis, Daniel Goleman, Peter Senge, Peter Block, Margaret Wheatley, John Kotter, Jim Collins, Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith, Gordon MacKenzie, Ray Anderson, and many others.  They write eloquently and with authority using their own words and frameworks, yet their works all align with and amplify each other. In so many ways they are all saying the same things, which I find tremendously heartening.

What are they saying?   Uh-oh, I knew you’d ask. It is impossible to distill it all down to one or two concepts, but here is a smattering of part of the picture.

In his seminal book Servant Leadership, Greenleaf writes that “The servant-leader is servant first.” I like Steven Covey’s succinct description of a servant leader: “…one who seeks to draw out, inspire, and develop the best and highest within people from the inside out,”

Warren Bennis (Leaders; On Becoming a Leader) and Peter Block (The Answer to How is Yes) write, in part, that leaders must be social architects, creating physical, mental, and emotional environments where people can thrive.  Bennis writes, “we’re less concerned about structure than about what leaders do to motivate and create a culture of respect, caring, and trust.”

Daniel Goleman writes about the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) to leaders in the book Primal Leadership.  Research shows EQ to be a far more powerful determinant of success than IQ.  EQ is about our capacity for self-awareness and managing our emotions constructively, and our capacity for awareness of the social environment around us and our ability to constructively manage relationships in the context of that social environment.  “The fundamental task of leaders… is to prime good feeling in those they lead.  That occurs when a leader creates resonance – a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people.”

In The End of Management and the Rise of Organizational Democracy, Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith argue that for too long management has been mistaken for leadership, with people and performance suffering as a result.  “Organizations of all kinds can dramatically improve by empowering those who work inside them to manage themselves and take responsibility for their own development and performance.”

Do you sense a theme?  Leaders have faith in people and cultivate the best in them.  Greenleaf: “It is part of the enigma of human nature that the ‘typical’ person…is capable of great dedication and heroism if wisely led….  The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be.”

Of course, these authors write about other aspects of leaders and leadership. Among them are the essential personal attributes of leaders: character, integrity, trustworthiness, empathy, humor, passion, compassion, humility, courage, and vision.

Leaders set standards and expectations of excellence and establish mutual accountability for achieving the group’s objectives. In the research conducted for writing Good to Great, and the subsequent monograph Good to Great for the Social Sector, Jim Collins discovered that great leaders have both personal humility and unshakable professional will to achieve organizational goals, creating conditions where people are aligned and committed around a common cause and have freedom and responsibility within a framework of discipline.

I have to mention one more book, which gets at another important attribute of leaders: their openness to new learning.  Openness is necessary if one hopes to embrace the lessons of Margaret Wheatley’s mind-blowing book, Leadership and the New Science.  I think it is one of the most important leadership books ever written, a work of unimaginable insight and originality.  She argues that in spite of the discoveries of 20th century physics, we remain stuck in a 17th century, mechanistic view of the world, including the way we design, operate, and lead our organizations: “…each of us lives and works in organizations designed from Newtonian images of the universe,” which explains why most organizations are dysfunctional and less successful than they could be.  “[W]e need the courage to let go of the old world, to relinquish most of what we have cherished, to abandon our interpretations about what does and doesn’t work.  We must learn to see the world anew.” If our organizations were designed, operated, and led according to our best understanding of the way the universe – including life on Earth – actually works, we would transform our organizations and societies.

Because of the great need for genuine leadership, we can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines and be what Greenleaf calls mere “critics and experts.”  As Warren Bennis makes clear in On Becoming a Leader, leaders are made, not born.

Many of us have the capacity within us to be great leaders if we will cultivate our inherent talents and apply them, serving a cause greater than ourselves.  That is how we will create true leaders, leaders like those John W. Gardner describes.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • jon moriarty says:

    very nice Mike, as a coach I have learned that” what was,” is not necessarily,” what is best”… I hope all is well and look forward to having Finn help us find better ways to be….

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