Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership


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Refocus your energy!


downloadOne of the themes that emerging from my client conversations lately is the need to refocus. What do you do when you or your organization experiences gridlock and a lack of energy? Or when increased activities just don’t result in the desired ends? Being gridlocked shows up in three ways: (1) an unending treadmill of trying harder, (2) looking for answers rather than re-framing questions, and (3) either/and or thinking that creates false dichotomies.
Sometimes a leader just needs to stop and refocus. The pressures of the daily grind and challenges that constantly jump in the way of progress have a tendency of dulling clarity and shifting actions to activities that have no direct impact on results. Take several steps to refocus your efforts and the work of your team.
First, identify the questions that are nagging at the back of your head. This requires some honest reflection – identify the “self-talk” that develops just behind your conscious mind. One client paused for a moment and said, “Oh, I get it.” Then he began to list his nagging questions,”Am I making a difference? Is this really worth it? Is this what I really want to do? Why have I failed in every major endeavor?” He paused, “This is tiring, I’m exhausted just saying these things.”
I sat on the phone quietly for a moment then responded, “Didn’t you start this conversation by saying you were exhausted and lacked energy?”
“Yes,” he said.
He had been working harder, looking for solutions and all he really accomplished was reducing his field of vision to false dichotomies e.g., his team was either loyal or disloyal, customers were either about to leave or diminish their orders, his spouse was either supportive or undermining his success. He identified the nagging questions, now he was ready for the next step. “Let’s re-frame the questions,” I said.
Second, re-frame the questions that had been nagging you at the back of your mind. The client above re-framed each of his questions in the following way: “In what ways do I make a difference? In what ways is this worth the effort or in what ways can my efforts be better directed? In what ways does the present contribute to my ultimate contribution in life?” (He had done the work previously of identifying what he wanted his ultimate contribution to be.) “In what ways have past failures positioned me for success in the present?”
As he re-framed the questions the cadence of his speech increased, his tone sounded more optimistic, and his thoughts became more prolific – less ponderous. The more he worked to re-frame the questions the more energy came over the phone and the more creative his brainstorming became.
Third, go back to your personal mission statement. If you don’t have a personal mission statement its a good idea to build one. It helps to focus attention on activity that contributes to the right end rather than getting caught in the treadmill of activity seeking to convince yourself that you are legitimate. When I suggested this my client just sighed. “I think,” he said, “I lost track of my purpose somewhere in the midst of this year’s challenges.” He restated his purpose and immediately determined to drop three initiatives that had no bearing on what he really wanted to accomplish.
Each of these steps can help pull a leader out of gridlock and back into being a contributor to a measurable purpose.
Use the same steps to turn your team around. Brainstorm with them to identify the questions nagging their performance and identity. Re-frame those questions together and watch new alternatives and new ideas begin to accelerate. Return to the mission of the organization and review the activities people are engaged in – stop and redirect activities that have no bearing on producing the value associated with your organizational mission.
Everyone loses focus at some point. Don’t let the nagging questions become the pimp of your talent selling your best energy to actions that have no return and no promise. One of my students in Kenya responded to these principles in a lecture by saying, “You metaphorically ask me to eat and elephant. Do you know how to eat an elephant Dr. Wheeler?” he paused with a twinkle in his eye. Then after the appropriate pregnant hesitation, he continued, “One bite at a time!”  So, go ahead face your elephant and start eating!
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Discussing Social Issues as a Follower of Christ


conflict-in-recruitment“So you strain the Scriptures and mislead your reader.”  The frustration and antagonism in the writer’s voice was palpable. He wanted me to unequivocally condemn another writer for his view. I wanted the respondents to engage each other in honest communication about their biases, commitments, and background reasoning to their social commitments. I failed to draw anyone into that kind of discussion. Some were encouraged, some were enraged, some were disappointed, and some were ruthless in their proclamation of what I should have said.
The conflict among my group of friends rapidly jumped from disagreement to an ugly display of religious proclamation, fixed attitudes, hardened identities and closed hearts.
I generated an argument between people who found it easier to throw ideological stones from the safety of a fenced off belief system than engage a dialogue with real people.
One observer shared his candid observation of the discussion with me off-line. He said, “I also observe that the tone and content of some people’s words are not one of work or inner turmoil, but rather of hatred and of aggression. I believe the absence of passion in the moderator [myself] of a discussion can be a critical tool in advancing the discourse. However, the absence of passion (or decisive marginalization) in the face of persistent, willful, hateful rhetoric is, in my view, corrosive to the soul; yours, and the other participants in the discussion.”
I couldn’t disagree with that assessment. Where did I drop the ball? More importantly, am I clear about my own convictions and statement of logical starting points? In this blog, I outline ways to manage conflict with comments about how well I did or didn’t deal with the conflict I generated and make my own assumptions clear for those who wish to engage me in the future.
First, how is conflict approached?  Mark Gerzon identified three common responses to conflict: demagoguery, management, and mediation with the later being the most effective.
The demagogue addresses conflict through fear, threats, and intimidation turns opponents into scapegoats. The demagogue dehumanizes others and resorts to violence to dominate and destroy the other. I had one especially insistent demogogue in the argument. I felt like turning into a demagogue myself in the face of mounting stress. However, throwing back the same kind of rant I was being served would not do a thing.
The manager faces conflict on the basis of an exclusive or limited definition of “us”. He/she defines purpose in terms of the self-interest of his or her group and cannot or will not deal with issues, decisions, or conflicts that cross boundaries. Managers are very effective in directing and controlling resources and the activities of other people for the benefit of a particular group. Gerzon points out that this approach is limited.
I recognized a wide variety of people who served as the audience to the argument. I knew that every intransigent statement, every belief hurled in anger, every example offered as a proof text would only exacerbate the argument. I attempted to pull back the participants – to get them to listen to each other. They were not ready and I failed to provide them a bridge to get there.  Each wanted me to side with them or absolutely disagree with them. I failed to state my starting point clearly and as a result, I failed to bring the appropriate people together.
In contrast, Gerzon states that the mediator approaches conflict by striving to act on behalf of the whole (cf. John 3:16 as a definition of the church’s scope of concern).  Mediators have the capacity to discover the whole and to act in the best interest of the whole. Mediators work on the collaborative principle which Gerzon defines as:
 
If you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with reliable information, they will create authentic vision and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organization or community.
The mediator thinks systemically and is committed to ongoing learning.  The mediator builds trust by building bridges across dividing lines and seeks innovation and opportunity in order to transform conflict. I wanted to go here, I did not arrive.
In hindsight, I failed in the ability to ask questions that unlock essential information about the conflict that is vital to understanding how to transform conflict so that it becomes an opportunity. I failed to communicate that the point of inquiry is not the loss of conviction or strong beliefs but the realization that one’s views are discovered and renewed through inquiry. Mediators of conflict naturally want to learn more; “What else can I learn about this situation?” “Is there some useful, perhaps vital, information that I lack?” “Do I truly understand the way others see the situation?” “Should I consult with others before I intervene?”The rule of thumb in facing any conflict is: inquiry must precede any form of advocacy.
My other conclusion is that social media used as a discussion point requires a highly structured set of rules for engaging a discussion that participants must agree to before entering and that must be enforced aggressively to create an environment where listening to clarify positions is the goal. Clear convictions can be communicated without expressing hatred. But when participants are dehumanized and made into moral positions only, it’s easier to just shoot at them.
Will I engage another such discussion again on social media?  Yes. Why? It allows an audience who deeply wrestles with difficult questions to work through their thinking by listening to others.  I will encourage concise statements of conviction, and then encourage inquiry to dissenting views. To what end? Understanding and respect. Can my goal be achieved with every person? Here I have to agree with Machiavelli, no. Why? Because there are evil people whose only goal is the destruction of others. Additionally, there fundamentalist individuals who disallow any dissenting opinion from their own.
Religious convictions require another a short discussion about why the founding fathers of the United States wanted to limit the establishment of religion by the state? They saw in their own history the evil unleashed when political power is mixed with religious absolutism. My friends who want to legislate their Christian beliefs to the exclusion of other systems in civil society would only succeed in reducing civil society to the tyranny of their enforced moral codes. History consistently demonstrates the failure of this. Instead, civil society acknowledges the diversity of core moral conviction and allows for its influence in a discussion involving every participant. Hence it is, in my view, equally dangerous to prohibit the discussion of religion or religious convictions.
The American experiment used the foundation of compromise to create a form of government that allows for religious freedom and offers representation to a diverse populace.  I prefer this form of government over others I have seen even with its flaws and limitations. Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as “the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both” from compromise as “the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to minimize the contrast of their convictions to a perceived norm or power.” As a result, fundamentalists consistently press for an oligarchy composed of religiously acceptable candidates who state religiously acceptable convictions.  The hypocrisy and tyranny of such a system are constantly illustrated in the despotism that always results.
Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as “the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both” from compromise as “the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to blend into the perceived norm or power.”
Second, in light of what others in the argument describe as my own fuzzy commitment, I thought it a good exercise to state my own commitments as clearly as possible. I am one who follows Jesus the Christ. I have an unapologetic and inquisitive faith that informs the assumptions I begin with when it comes to moral and social issues. But, I am not fundamentalist in my perspectives. By fundamentalist I mean a religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts, especially within American Protestantism and Islam. I hold to the centrality of the Christian Scriptures and recognize that given their diverse literary forms (i.e., poetry, prose, law/statutory, prophetic, historical narrative, parable, and proverbial/wisdom) that a “literal” interpretation does a disservice to a proper interpretation of the text.
In full disclosure, I also understand Jesus made an exclusive claim when he said, “I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11)  Does this reduce me to a mindless automaton closed to learning and assuming full and complete knowledge of all that is spiritual?  No, it makes me a disciple i.e., literally one who is learning. And as one who is learning, I recognize that I live in a diverse and pluralistic society from whom I can also learn.  Has faith answered every question? No, it answered the main question e.g., about purpose and meaning and it opens new questions that I still ponder.
So, I reject fundamentalism as inherently flawed both historically and reasonably. I see a different model in the Bible particularly evident in the growth of the first-century church from a sect of Judaism to a multi-cultural entity. The rapid expansion of the church in the first century moved the faith community of the church from the comfort of a modified theocracy (often more an oligarchy of socially or religiously powerful and corrupt leaders) experienced in the history of Israel to existence as a unique community and social force in a culturally and religiously pluralistic world. Paul, the apostle most influential in teaching the fledgling church to live in a pluralistic world wrote this advice,
“Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom is due; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:7-10)
So, if you hang out with me I will demonstrate this commitment to loving my neighbor. I also demonstrate a commitment to faith in Jesus Christ. I am open talking about my relationship with Jesus Christ in a way that is neither in-the-face of my neighbor nor hidden from my neighbor. I understand that in loving my neighbor I fulfill the law and in fact, make its provisions clear as well as the promise inherent in the grace of God demonstrated through Jesus Christ. I practice listening skills and invite those with whom I strongly disagreed to talk while I listen. We engage a discussion rather than a diatribe.
Are you looking for a way to love your neighbor? Do you want to be heard about your faith? Start by listening especially in a day when religiously induced hatred and hostility is passed off as indicative of Christianity. Listening skills may be tested by conducting a simple exercise.  Invite someone with whom you have strongly disagreed to talk with you while you listen – take the following steps.
  • Find a good space. Choose a place to talk without distractions.
  • Take the time. Let the other person tell their story.
  • Respond (versus react). Choose your body language, tone, and intention.
  • Show interest. Make eye contact; focus on the person speaking; don’t answer your phone or look at your BlackBerry.
  • Be patient. It’s not easy for people to talk about important things.
  • Listen for content and emotion. Both carry the meaning at hand.  It’s OK sometimes to ask, “How are you doing with all this?”
  • Learn. Listen for their perspective, their view. Listen for their experience.  Discover or learn a new way of seeing something.
  • Follow their lead. See where they want to go. Ask what is important to them (rather than deciding where their story must go or how it must end).
  • Be kind. Listen with the heart as well as with the mind.
After doing this notice what difference this makes in you feel about your relationship with the other person.  Pay attention to how your act of listening often (though not always and rarely immediately) opens others’ hearts and mind to ask about your faith. The act of listening not only brings clarity for both people in the conversation it often brings items to light that have never been considered before.  One conversation does not have to resolve all issues, however; a good act of listening goes a long way in bridging seemingly unbridgeable differences.  Listening is a good step in demonstrating the love God has for the world about you.
Want to know more about faith in Jesus Christ? Contact me directly. My contact information is listed on the “About Me” tab of this blog.
Want to know more about conflict?  Read Mark Gerzon (2006).Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities.  Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. 273 pages.
Want to know more about where I attend church? See http://madeforfellowship.com/.


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An Attorney Called


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The pattern of client requests this year paints a compelling picture of the reason why coaching is so powerful.

The last two years have started in the same way – a call from an attorney.

“Is this Dr. Ray Wheeler?” the voice on the other end of the phone began the conversation.
“Yes, I am Ray, how may I assist you?” I asked.
“I am Sam Smith (pseudonym) attorney at law and one of my clients has a challenge I would like your help with. My client is a privately owned business run by three brothers. They have been in business for 30 years but have recently been unable to agree on anything. They need someone to facilitate their board meetings and help them work through their conflict. Do you do this?”
And so the year began. As I have reflected on the year, I realized that the diversity of client requests I have had this year paints a compelling picture of the reason coaching is so powerful. The following is a list of client engagements in descending order of intensity as determined by the size of the engagement.
Executive team building – engaging the strengths and perspectives of executive teams when key members have changed or when the team has hit a stalemate in disagreement (this is more often rooted in interpersonal tension than in strategic direction). In one case the executive team was caught in a pattern of behavior that grew out of working around the dysfunctions of their former CEO. They realized that their behavior toward the new CEO was stuck in the same patterns and that as a team they were not making decisions or moving forward.
Organizational health – refocusing the organization’s vision and communication. When the owner of one company called, the urgency of his voice nearly pushed me against the wall. “I need help,” he began, “I recently bought a new agency and developed a new partnership – I have three different cultures and ways of looking at the market that will undermine everything we meant to accomplish by the mergers. Can you help with this?” We talked about the steps we could take together in coaching to work with his employees and key influencers to shape an organizational culture that supported the strategic direction of the new agency.
Executive coaching – with a focus on developing people skills, purpose, and communication skills. These CEOs felt the need to develop themselves to face new challenges in their organizations. They took the initiative to find a coach.
Board facilitation – like executive team building this board was caught in interpersonal conflicts that played the same disagreements over and over with varying levels of intensity and undermining. This engagement facilitated their meetings and engaged each member in executive coaching.
Coaching for change – with a focus on perspective in the face of rapidly changing market dynamics. These owners/executives simply needed a voice to help them go the balcony and identify the opportunity in the chaos of change.  These leaders understand that without someone to help them think through their situation they would either remain stuck in the rut of their past thinking/analysis or caught in the bog of panic. It isn’t that they lacked analytics or business acumen. Rather, they simply needed a nudge, the right questions, to analyze their situation and the data from a different perspective.
Remedial coaching – this client had managers who were stuck in their development and needed to see themselves and the impact of their behavior from a different perspective.  The reality is that in many organizations mid-level managers and supervisors are promoted into wider responsibility without the benefit of coaching to help them redefine their people skills or the self-understanding to know the impact of their behaviors. Coaching raises their self-awareness and helps them define their strengths in constructive ways.
What impresses me most about the diversity of these requests is that more companies have made a commitment to (a) develop their team members and (b) face and work through conflict because they understand both the cost of conflict and the high cost of losing/replacing talent.  It is an interesting year. How does your organization manage the need for coaching?


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Five qualities of leaders who produce superior results


men and women mentor“Get it done.” These words ended the instructions I received from the CEO. He outlined in general terms where he wanted to see the company go and it was up to me as the operations director to translate his strategic concepts into action. What does it take to turn an idea into action that produces superior results?  In my experience, there are five essential qualities.
1. Vision
This word is beat to death in leadership literature. However, without vision i.e., without the ability to frame a reality that is distinctively different from what is presently experienced, leadership doesn’t exist. In the absence of vision, those with the responsibility to lead are reduced to platitudes about change and resort to displays of manipulation, coercion, or force. Where does vision come from? Its genesis may be extreme dissatisfaction with the present that wrestles with how things could be different. Or, it may emerge in a moment of transcendent insight. In my experience, the most powerful visions are birthed rather than hatched. They require the rigor and pain of wrestling through a new way of seeing.
2. Drive
 
Leaders who produce results are driven but that is not to say they are abusive. Rather, by driven I mean they possess an irrepressible and indefatigable impulse to bring their vision into reality. This drive sustains them through setbacks, failures, rejection, and success. Drive of this depth is not like a fire hose, it is more like a gentle stream that persistently erodes barriers in an almost unnoticeable gentle way. Drive is not like a bull in a china shop as much as it is the way a stream reshapes the terrain through which it flows. The leaders I know who possess the deepest sense of drive are a strange combination of patience and insistence.
3. Relevant capital
 
Leaders who produce superior results have learned to leverage their sense of self (meeting challenges, enduring hardships, leveraging capabilities, recognizing weaknesses) to continuously develop. But self-development is only part of the capital needed. Successful leaders also appreciate the need to develop and sustain a wide array of relationships up to and beyond the organizational level. It is from these relationships they acquire insight, connections to other resources (talent, monetary, facility, assets). These leaders know how to pull from their capital sources to provide support and momentum to their vision.
4. Habitus
 
Habitus is a general constitution and disposition that is structured in practice usually toward practical functions. It is that sense of presence that exudes from leaders who have been tested and proven in the mundane, intense, routine, and extraordinary situations that arise in everyday experience. The focus here is practice. The mere acquisition of experience i.e., time on the job, does not produce a powerful habitus. A dynamic sense of presence is the result of practiced discipline in making good choices, exercising character, deliberate learning, and openness to feedback. Habitus commands attention and it is what gives gravity to what a leader says and intends to communicate. Without this kind of habitus “leaders” are simply dismissed as lightweights who are following the latest fad and who can be ignored because next month’s fad will replace this month’s.
5. Bridging strategy
 
A bridging strategy outlines the discrete steps that must be taken to get from where the organization is today to where it needs to be tomorrow. A bridging strategy exercises the disciplined thought needed to confront the brutal facts of the present and the dogged persistence needed to move forward in change. It recognizes the accelerators and hindrances that any move to a new future encompasses. It is specific and deliberate but not so rigid that it can’t adjust to the unexpected twists and turns of change.
High capacity leaders, leaders who simultaneously leverage each of the qualities above, live and work in a way that integrates concrete and abstract worlds. They know how to inspire new ways of seeing reality because they spend time thinking about how to think and how to perceive reality around them. In other words, they live by faith, faith that sees a different reality and the potential of moving toward it.


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Beware your ascension to power


hand-fist-power1Motivations are sometimes difficult to isolate. The variety of experiences one gleans through a career of interactions with those in power has a significant shaping effect on how power is perceived. I have observed a sometimes benign and other times toxic reaction to bad leadership that sets the stage for amplified emotional impact at work.  I call this reaction, “backdoor leadership lessons.”

Backdoor leadership lessons are those insights one gains by watching leaders act in a way that contradicts constructive leadership action. Leaders who fail to manage their stress resort to manipulation, frustration, insults, or rage to force things through the system. Because they have power they have initial success as people comply out of fear. However, over time, the success are fewer and farther between as people feign compliance with a head nod, avoidance, and passive impertinence.

The benign and even constructive backdoor leadership lessons emerge from observation and an internal commitment to be a different kind of leader. If one could listen to the self-talk inside the emerging leader’s head they might hear thoughts like, “I will never treat my team like that. I will never cut innovative people off out of frustration. I will never be that headstrong.” These backdoor lessons often lead to constructive self-awareness and the development of emotional intelligence and skill. Stepping into benign or constructive backdoor leadership lessons requires the exercise of forgiveness and the rigor of critical reflection on both the actions of a toxic leader and oneself. Without forgiveness and critical reflection, a toxic backdoor lesson emerges in the life of the leader.

Toxic backdoor leadership lessons also emerge from observation but take a subtly different road when it comes to internal commitment. Instead of rendering a commitment to be a different kind of leader toxic lessons result in a commitment to expunge the influence and legacy of the toxic leader. Rather than forgiveness and self-reflection, smug self-confidence emerges that sees the eradication of a prior leader’s influence and legacy as a primary objective to the acquisition of power.  The self-talk that occurs in this emerging leader yields thoughts like, “I will destroy his/her toxicity.  I will redirect this organization to a more profitable or more effective strategy. I will pull this ship back into its rightful competitive position.”  Both forgiveness and critical self-reflection are absent in this response which yields hubris more than insight.

Hence, I state, beware your ascension to power. If you think the acquisition of power is the solution to the bad decisions, poor interpersonal skills, inadequate strategy, or abusive arrogance you are on the trajectory to be a step worse as a leader than the individual you react to. Why? Because that leader becomes the model of your leadership by an inability to step away to a different focus. I ran across this observation the first time in a heavy equipment operator in my first congregation. Jim (not his real name) was a man’s man kind of guy. He didn’t speak much but when he did he often had great insights I benefited from. I didn’t know the trauma that made up his personal life – that is until the day he dropped by my office.

Jim collapsed into one of the chairs in front of my desk and broke into sobs, the kind of sobs that men cry when they can no longer hold in the pain of their experience. “I hate my dad,” he blurted out between heaving agonizing howls of emotional pain. “And I have become him.”  Jim identified a connection that seems to me to be unyielding – the person you hate the most is the person you become because they are the target of your attention and affection.

In the words of one of my early mentors, “Ray, you will hit what you aim at.”

Beware your ascension to power. Strategy and vindictiveness are not the same. I have watched men step into roles of power with the only objective of erasing the memory and work of their predecessor. They present themselves as innovators and prophets of a new day. They tirelessly work on change. However, they don’t bring strategy, they bring destruction. They amplify the worst characteristics of their predecessors because they hit what they aim at.

Experience can teach leaders a tremendous amount of powerful lessons. But leaders gain little without the discipline of self-reflection and the exercise of forgiveness. Look in the mirror. What do you see? Do you see the dad, the boss, the mother, or the teacher that you hate?  Have you come to the revelation Jim came to?  Step back, consider your own behavior. Find a mentor or therapist who can help you walk back through the years of pain, bitterness, and the quest for revenge to get to the healing work of forgiveness. Don’t confuse vindictiveness for strategy.

If you talk with Jim today, you see a different man entirely. He emanates a grace, a wisdom, and life insight that is almost under spoken but has the effect of causing others to reflect on their own trajectory in life. He is no longer trying to not be his dad. He is discovering what it means to be himself. His ascension to power nearly broke him. Now, his ascension to power has become a source of dynamic innovation and healing. Those around him no longer give him head nods of passive impertinence. Instead, they engage each challenge with vigor, courage, and initiative – all of which they have learned from Jim. What are you aiming at?


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Thank you to my readers: 2015 in review


You used my blog for educational insights, shared insights with your team, and personal coaching. Look for more to come in 2016 as I continue to write on the nuances of leadership. Also, watch for my new book that will compile some of my best blog articles and if you haven’t read my current book, Change the Paradigm, pick it up at Amazon.com. Following are the specifics that the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared regarding 2015.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,100 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


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The Vulgarization of Leadership


There are times in history when the character of leadership takes on a vulgar quality. The vulgarization of leadership is not new. Plato, for example, rightly indicated that leaders armed with only with an untrained mind that naively accepts perception as real, whether that is the confused and contradictory messages of the senses or the equally inconsistent popular notions of morality are not ready for leadership. Yet, there is a sense in which the political and popular rhetoric evident in many discussions today fail to rise above this level of reasoning – Plato’s lowest level of cognition.[i]

Abraham Lincoln’s behavior in the face of the greatest threat to the union we have faced until now stands in stark contrast to the virulent monologs that characterize much of today’s political and social discussion. Lincoln made it clear that vengeance or spite could not function as the foundation of leadership. Lincoln wrote regarding Louisiana’s readmission to the union, “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.”[ii] Listening to today’s politicians on the threat of terrorism it appears we may have lost that lesson.

By the vulgarization of leadership, I mean that quality that is incapable of ascending above the ostentatious, showy, gaudy, and distasteful behaviors of the lowest common denominators of society. Such men or women become so enamored by the ability to exercise raw power in the manipulation of others that they mistake inciting the frustrations and fears of people as a vision for the future. Inciting rather than leading a trap described in part by James MacGregor Burns who warned: “Divorced from ethics, leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique.” Incitement does not have the will to investigate the ethical implications of its claims and furies. Incitement languishes in fuzzy half truths and an accusatory tone that fails to either credit other’s good ideas or work toward a mutually beneficial public policy.

Examples of the vulgarization of leadership abound. Hillary Clinton rightly observed,

I really deplore the tone of his campaign, the inflammatory rhetoric that he is using to divide people and his going after groups of people with hateful, incendiary rhetoric,” she said after a campaign event in Fairfield Tuesday. “Nothing really surprises me anymore. I don’t know that he has any boundaries at all. His bigotry, his bluster, his bullying have become his campaign. And he has to keep sort of upping the stakes and going even further.[iii]

Yet, Clinton is not above using the inflammatory rhetoric of her own to incite popular support. This is perhaps most notably evidenced in her assertion that ISIS is “going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”[iv]

Donald Trump is a virtual cornucopia of examples of the vulgarization of leadership. Trump’s speeches have rendered so many examples that I prefer to avoid repeating them here. To find examples of Trump’s vulgarization of leadership simply Google “Trump” on any subject to find ample material to make the case.

Rubio and Cruz are also guilty of half-truths and falsifications all used in an attempt to strengthen their position in the eyes of voters. A quick check of www.politifact.com provides numerous illustrations.

So, what exactly is the problem? I venture that there is no leader who hasn’t stretched the truth in their presentation of themselves or their data. If the exercise of falsification is so common what makes it warrant my derisive title, the vulgarization of leadership?  In short the question is a postulate of my position. If vulgarization is behavior that meets the standard of the lowest common denominator then its commonality is the verification of my title and its consequences make my point. The vulgarization of leadership does not summon people to a higher vision that works for change but to a coarse vision that seeks to ensconce prejudice, fear, and isolationism as the core values of our society.

The vulgarization of leadership calls out the worst in people rather than the best in people. It calcifies ideologies rather than exploring ideas with a critical eye. It contributes to reactionary regulation rather than negotiated policy. The vulgarization of leadership is, as Burns insists, a reduction of leadership to mere management and technique – it looks only at the zero sum game of political brinkmanship and hence loses a sense of the common good in its periphery.

Like other critical periods in human experience, we need leaders today who are capable of instilling a commitment to change that mobilizes and focuses the energy of a diverse populace, who call people to responsibility in the formation of a different future. We need leaders capable of explaining their moral foundation clearly and who are then ready to rigorously explore how to work with those who hold different perspectives.

At its birth, the United States attempted to make assumed moral assumptions explicit,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness[v].

The Declaration of Independence assumed: (1) a transcendent moral foundation versus a utilitarian one (i.e., endowed by their Creator); (2) unalienable rights, which we have attempted to define within the kaleidoscope of culture and social difference ever since; and (3) the responsibility of people to design and sustain a form of governance that worked in harmony with this moral foundation and unalienable rights of every person. The United States has never gotten this perfect, the exclusion of women or the exclusion of slaves, or the exclusion of those who did not own property under its colonial beginning illustrate this. The biases against the Irish or the internment of Americans of Japanese decent are well-documented failures that illustrate our ongoing struggle.  But struggling to align behavior to the ideal is not a failure unless we learn nothing in the process. A failure to learn is a failure to exercise metanoia i.e., a shift of mind. As Senge asserts, “To grasp the meaning of ‘metanoia’ is to grasp the deeper meaning of ‘learning,’ for learning also involves a fundamental shift or movement of the mind.”[vi]

So what is the escape from the pattern of vulgarized leadership I see in today’s political and social dialogue? First, it is a movement toward metanoia, some of our perspectives are wrong; we are stuck in the cave of Plato’s allegory blindfolded by biases and prejudices we can’t see to admit. Without this first step of change, we will only run deeper into the cave. Leaders must be open about admitting their lack of knowledge or miscalculations or faulty information. Fact checks should not be an afterthought but part of the process of learning especially for politicians.

Second, it is a movement of engagement that addresses difficult and complex issues of the day with the courage to admit our core convictions and moral foundations. Zero progress is possible without this kind of vulnerability and admission of our differences. No one has a corner on truth; even those who may claim perception of the truth have to admit they only “see through a glass darkly” rather than with clarity and comprehension.[vii] Every leader must start with a clear description of their core commitments and follow that up with a clear understanding of the core commitments of their opponents. This calls for true debates that remained disciplined enough to get at the positions without degenerating to school yard name calling and insults.

Third, it is an effort to create a culture of critique rather than cynicism, of investigation rather than accusation, of the will to act in the common good rather than pacing one’s step along the path of the latest poll. Encourage dialogue. Let people disagree but back their disagreement with reasons based on their own commitments. Then engage the conversation with awareness and vulnerability.

What kind of conversation do you contribute to the issues?  Are you caught up in the vulgarization of leadership or will you stand boldly out from the cacophony of noise to raise the questions and clarify the values that we need to wrestle with together? Let’s have the conversations that we need to engage.

[i] Plato. Republic 7.514

[ii] Donald T. Phillips. Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1992, 58.

[iii] Hillary Clinton. Source: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/hillary-clinton-responds-to-donald-trumps-schld-insult; Accessed 23 December 2015.

[iv] Source: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/dec/19/hillary-clinton/fact-checking-hillary-clintons-claim-isis-using-vi/; Accessed 28 December 2015.

[v] Source: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.htmll Accessed 28 December 2015.

[vi] Peter M. Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990, 13.

[vii] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13.

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