When exploring the uniqueness of a particular job or assignment, HR professionals often break it down into the knowledge, skills and attitudes thought necessary to fulfill it. In a recent article based on a paper I gave at the at the World Conference for Corporate Governance and Sustainability held in Dubai in May, I called for a change in the way in which we perceive ‘leadership’. I argued that we should stop seeing it as a quality possessed by an elite in power, and instead as one that can be demonstrated by anyone and everyone. I said that I felt, that we need to challenge those assumptions, structures and approaches that inhibit change, and instead instil values that lead towards a common goal of social improvement.
A US-based coach, Marena Drlik, invited me to expand a bit about the sources that had inspired me to feel this way. It felt an appropriate question, so here’s my response. But what about YOU? Why not share your story too?
My earliest exposure to the alternatives of leadership was as a young boy of 3 or 4 on the knees of my grandfather. He loved to watch ‘professional wrestling’ and I would sit on his lap and try to grapple with him. Of course, like all archetypal grandfathers he was a strong man and I could never be expected to over-power him, but in those childhood moments he taught me some crucial lessons.
- Firstly, no-one is more powerful than a body of people (if that’s what it takes) united by a set of common humanistic values.
- You do not win over anyone – you win them over.
- This may be through humour, rhetoric, or by practical demonstration
- Finally, force of will never works as it merely provokes an opposite reaction.
This was the early 60s, and my grandfather was shaped by his experience of the two world wars. He lost his beloved older brother in the first and served as a leadership role model (as the most junior of the non-commissioned ranks) in the second (significantly, I believe, as a non-combatant but not an objector – he was right at the top end of the age range to be called up and spent much of his time training craftsmen and engaged in maintenance – perfectly suited to his personality). From family anecdotes he was obviously an inspiration to a generation of young men and women. Back in civilian life, he returned to being a postal worker and was a staunch union member (US = organised labor) but always brought people to the negotiating table through humour, practical demonstration, or gentle persuasion.
When he retired he was awarded a civil honour (a special medal for Crown servants normally presented by the Queen). Rather than attend Buckingham Palace, he asked if this could be presented to him at his Post Office sorting office in the company of his peers. The Queen has formal ceremonial representatives in each county, known as the Lord Lieutenant, and one of these was duly despatched with the medal to make the presentation – such a thing is barely dreamt of these days and was probably as much an honour as the medal itself.
The egalitarian principle clearly emerged soon in my adolescence and adulthood and I migrated towards a career in organisation development, which to me is best defined as creating workplaces that are exceptional places to work. The nature of leadership in such environments naively festered in me until I began to become involved in the development of leadership traits among those management teams that we were trying to radically empower their employees. It was during this time that I was inspired by many of the examples offered by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin in “Passion for Excellence”. Looking for others who were exploring the same concepts, I discovered Robert Greenleaf and the Servant Leadership model. From there, I became interested in the essence of human nature – what drives us and how we distort it to be the entities that we each are. I trained as a psychotherapist and among the key theoretical influences have been Robert Bly and James Hillman.
I don’t believe that you can study these dimensions without needing to explore Man’s relation to the spiritual. The relationship between leadership and the spiritual is so widely recognised among ‘thinkers’ (whether it’s approached from psychology, philosophy, sociology or through the direct experience of individuals – past and present). Writers as diverse as Jung, St Exupery, Carnegie, Gandhi, Frankl and many others have reflected on this association. In the 90s, but less so in the 00s, there was a growth in mainstream interest in the relation between spirituality and work which extended to organisational leadership. Despite this, few business schools, are prepared to treat it as anything other than a short-elective and generally present it in a detached quasi-scientific manner. I don’t dispute the value of a more rigorous approach to it, and have written before about my concern that simplistic models are often promoted by individuals who have had a positive personal experience and want to force it on others. A comprehensive and more detached review (though perhaps a little too conservative in some of its definitions for my liking) was produced by Howard and Welbourn in 2005.
So, after early scramblings among the psycho-spiritual literature, I decided to train as an interfaith minister (which to me, at least, is about one’s own (and supporting others in their) internal spiritual journey and most definitely not a religious one – especially not one of organised religion)!
Whenever powerful emotions are stirred by external events, whether it is the global ecological and environmental transformation that we witness, politically-led atrocities, natural disasters, or man-made ones such as those in finance and banking, the very fact that such emotions are experienced suggests to me that a profound conflict is being encountered by the individual – generally in the unconscious. This is beyond the rational and, to me, needs a spiritual perspective to adequately recognise it. For the safety of society, I think we need the tools to distinguish between positive and negative aspects of this behaviour. The first of these, though, is personal discernment, which is why I feel an appreciation of them is so fundamental to any training in leadership.
Starting, as they do, with this understanding of self before seeking to impact others, I have enjoyed the inputs of Arny and Amy Mindell and their concept of “world-work” and that of Judi Neal and her “edge walking”.
Last month, I was asked to co-facilitate a three week programme for emergent leaders in climate adaptation and development work. My ‘strand’ was on leadership. Several of them were from Africa and so the concepts of strong maternal leadership (indeed, ‘earth mothering’) were not unfamiliar to them, but to me this gender split is not helpful in working with male leaders. Instead, I find that the Jungian language of anima and animus is more readily accepted and, even quite ‘macho’ leaders can embrace the idea that they too have a gentle giant within and that they may have tended to ignore it in the past. Equally, women, I generally find, feel empowered by the idea that they have within them a fiery competitor who can be just as legitimately Machiavellian as that of their male peers – without it needing to conflict with their softer instincts. Both offer tools that can be drawn upon when we seek to achieve a common goal of a better world in which to live.