We seem to have lost our way with leadership. “Leader” seems to have come to mean somebody who gets me what I want, or at least tells me what I want to hear. Or, it's someone who gets away with whatever they want to as long as they get their constituency what they want or at least tell them what they want to hear. This election year we get to rethink what leadership means.
In my work with leaders over the last 35 years, I have discovered that the most functional organizations are the ones where everybody knows they have the opportunity and the responsibility to lead. Other words for this are accountability, ownership, and intentionality. Organizations composed of people who take this approach to their work run very differently. There is very little dysfunctionality to waste time and energy on, and the work provides much more than a living, it provides meaning.
Our thinking mind works in dichotomies, so the word leadership evokes another word – followership, which we don’t hear talked about much. But if there are no followers, then there are no leaders! In my experience, people usually need to work on one or the other. We usually need to learn to speak up or shut up. Express our intention, our view, make our contribution, or listen, appreciate and help. Many of us need to work on both.
Where Leadership Begins
Work on leadership begins with “me”. In my experience, what we need to learn most to do is lead ourselves. By this I mean, get our own inner life in order. If you don’t know that you have a conflicting cast of characters that take over the show periodically, then you are probably part of some problem in your workplace or family or neighborhood. If, however there is some part of you that aspires to get your inner characters, your psychological features, or sub-personalities in order, then you have begun the work of real leadership development. And I have come to the conclusion that putting anyone in a position of power who is not doing this work is extremely dangerous. Abraham Lincoln observed: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power”.
There was an international study of leadership years ago that identified the key elements of leadership as:
Compellingly communicating the vision
Sacrificing for the vision
Max Dupree in his classic book “the Art of Leadership” said: “The job of the artful leader is to define reality and say thank you. And in between becomes a servant and a debtor”. Leadership begins with vision and defining reality. This is a step that is often skipped over, underappreciated and misunderstood. Leading with vision has often come to mean crafting a well worded description of a future state. In my experience it means something far different.
John Bennett, who studied human potential and organizations observed that people who do the work of getting their inner house in order may gain the capacity to see the pattern of what is unfolding around them. This makes it possible to make decisions and take actions that make it possible for the person to be successful in fulfilling their intention. He observed that Napoleon had that ability, which accounted for much of his success as a strategist. Bennett also observed that Napoleon lost that ability when he began to believe he was the doer, making things happen.
This observation introduces the idea that our acts of leadership can come from different parts of our self, or out of different attitudes in us, and the consequences are significant. If there is a part of us that is capable of deeper understanding and insight into the pattern of a changing reality, then it is clear that this is somehow essential to effective leadership. And in this view the world “vision” looks very different. Here, vision, real Seeing, is a higher human capacity that makes it possible to make better decisions, to grasp and actualize possibilities, to avert potential disasters.
The example of Napoleon also points up the danger of taking action out of the ego mind, that wants to believe it is calling the shots, that it is the boss, even that it is God. It is that part of us that makes very misguided selfish decisions. And the mechanism that the ego mind uses to think, which we hear talking endlessly in our heads, is not really very bright. It gets stuck in duality, it is very slow, and it only sees things from its limited point of view. Sri Aurobindo said “What you call ‘thinking’ I do not do. I either know, or I do not know”. Aurobindo is referring to this other way of seeing and knowing.
Vision in leadership is about true seeing: seeing the actuality of the moment, and the potentiality within the moment. It is not possible to lead with vision without understanding the game you are playing. Yet this is what many people try to do. They underestimate the degree to which they don’t understand their game, they refuse insights from other people who try to teach them things about the game they don’t want to learn, and inflate their ego large enough to believe they have some magical ability to fix things they have no understanding of. The result is disastrous.
I see many organizations struggling with accountability. How do we get people engaged and to take ownership of their work? It begins with taking ownership of our own lives. Do we have a vision for our lives? Do we see an aim, a guiding purpose and pattern in our life? Or are we just following the urges of our inner characters pushing us this way and that. How do we know if we are getting pushed around by one of these characters? Here is a diagnostic model to help find out. You might think of these characters as playing different games. Robert De Ropp introduced some of these games in his book, The Master Game.
There is the “Hog in Trough Game”. The players of these games are driven by the animal urges, want to push our snouts deep down in the trough and get as much as we can. Typically, this is food, sleep, and sex. Our western culture is designed to provide a regular delivery system for these needs and forms the foundation of our economy and culture. Usually the majority of employees in an organization are driven primarily by fulfilling these basic needs. Maslow laid this out in his “Hierarchy of Needs”. When our safety, security, belonging needs are met, we then seek respect and self-esteem. Very often the workplace is so poorly designed and managed that this majority of people find their needs for respect and self-esteem outside of work, which is a great waste. People playing this game will give over control to a leader who promises to keep them safe and get them what they want. This part of us tends to be pretty gullible, because underneath it all, it is lazy, and wants above all comfort and pleasure.
And then there is the “Cock on the Dunghill Game”. This is the one where our ego wants to be on the highest perch, making the most noise, even if what they are standing on is a dunghill. What the cock wants is everybody’s attention. All the time. Many people take up leadership roles motivated by this part. It wants to do all the talking. It is not very bright and it only cares about itself.
And then there is the “Predator”. The predator wants what other people have. It wants the most, and it never has enough. Power, money, control, possessions, credit, respect, being feared. We find the predators in the corporate game, they are the entrepreneurs, the deal makers, the maneuverer’s, they are overt and covert criminals. It is difficult to survive the corporate climb or the political process without a strong predator inside. In a healthy individual, the predator is disciplined into becoming an instrument of healthy competition. It can push us toward excellence, especially if we learn that who we are really competing against is our self. I am not saying there is anything intrinsically wrong with the hog in the trough, or the cock on the dunghill, or even the predator inside. They all have a job to do, and a function in life. But they are functions. They should be servants, and not the master of our house.
This brings us to particularly nasty inner player. This one has been called the psychopath; in Islamic cultures they call this the shaitan. That’s right. Satan. In western culture we tend to externalize the devil, but actually he is inside us. Some call him the “whisperer”. It’s another one of those little voices within. This part of us delights in hurting other people. It lies, manipulates, undermines, distorts, sets people up, betrays them, and enjoys it all. The problem begins when we believe we don’t have this creature in us. It is worth taking a careful inner inventory to see if this creature isn’t lurking around inside you. It's like prejudices. Are you aware of the parts of you that are prejudiced? Have you heard their voices? Have you ever found yourself acting out of this mean-spirited part?
I am sometimes suspicious of people who believe they do not have these features. They are either fully evolved saints or blissfully unaware of what is driving their behavior. And it seems that, if we are unaware of our inner dark features, we tend not to see them in some people who tell us what we want to hear, and we project those dark features on those disagree with. This makes it much easier to accept leadership from someone who is a psychopath as long as that person compellingly tells them what they want to hear. I have come to believe that it is actually easier to rise to the top of corporate/political bodies if you are a psychopath, because there is no conscience to pull you back from atrocities in service of your own agenda.
Fortunately, there are exceptions, there are people who are sincerely in leadership to be of service. Robert Greenleaf described these as “servant leaders”. These are people who lead out of the sincere desire to help others become and be better. It’s great when you find one of these to follow. Better yet, work to become one of these.
For this, there is another game. This game De Ropp called the Master Game. This game is about becoming fully aware of what we really are as human beings, where we come from, where we are going, and why we are here. This game begins with self-examination to get to know the inner cast of characters and put our house in order so we can have a good life and be useful to others.
It is important to understand out darker side, because, under stress, it is this other side that takes us over. We see this, when under stress a person may suddenly shift their behavior, and it is as if someone else is running the show. Because leadership roles are intrinsically stressful, it is particularly important, if one wants to undertake a leadership role at whatever level, to come to understand one’s unique inner dynamics under stress. People in leadership roles are perfectly positioned, under times of stress to make work conditions for others significantly better, or significantly worse. It all depends on whether one can lead oneself.
What I mean by all this is, leadership begins with leading ourselves. It means finding the part in us that is willing to step up and get our house in order. This part has a lot of work to do, because as human beings we are created with strengths and weaknesses. We tend to overdo our strengths and be unaware of our weaknesses. To take up leadership means to become balanced and whole enough to function as an effective human being that is grounded in current reality, able to live out of deep, authentic feeling, think clearly, and be guided by intuitive vision.
The thing about organizations is, they amplify human energies and qualities. That is why we make them, to get a synergistic benefit. The problem is organizations amplify negative energy more efficiently than positive energy for some reason. And the energies they amplify the most are the qualities of the people in key leadership positions. So, if you put a person who is not a leader of his or her own house in a key leadership position, then the result will be chaos.
The Roles of Leadership
Often, we lump a number of roles together, all called leadership. There is the performer, the front-line supervisor, team lead the middle manager, the general manager, and the chief executive. All of these are very different roles, suited to different kinds of people, requiring different temperaments and native abilities. We typically make the mistake of creating a linear progression our of these roles. We make the performer a lead and then supervisor and then…. And the only way, usually to progress in prestige and pay is to move up the ladder.
The performer leads by setting an example, sometimes called the “pace setter. But people who good performers are not necessarily good leads, or supervisors. Many people make the mistake of seeking promotion up the ladder away from what they really love to do, which is to perform. To perform themselves, not help others perform. Some people just get their joy out of their own independent action and their own performance.
There is nothing wrong with this. We need lots of excellent performers, people who engage directly with the physical world and with people and execute. They get out and do, they build troubleshoot, analyze, make, invent, discover, heal, and sell, with vigor and rigor. So, then we put them in management and wonder why they don’t; meet with their team and can’t get the paperwork done. This is the Myers Briggs “SP” (sensing -perceiving) Dionysian temperament type. They need to be free to act. Given clear goals and boundaries and set loose to perform. SP, pace setter leaders can be very successful in the startup, entrepreneurial environment.
The first question to ask if someone is considering supervision or management is: “Do you get joy out of working hard to help others succeed? Or do you get your joy from your own performance?” Success and fulfillment in most other leadership roles requires this sacrifice of direct, personal performance. Successful leaders share the credit and take the blame. Is that for you?
The Front-Line Supervisor
The job of the front-line supervisor is to make sure the job gets done right and that performers learn to be their best. This is where coaching comes in as a key competency. One of the most flawed practices in modern organizations is performance feedback. There is a saying that “acknowledgment is the psychological equivalent of air”. And feedback is absolutely essential to learning and development and experiencing flow at work. What human resources functions have done is to try to develop a machine (performance evaluation systems) that take the place of a coach. And they don’t work, unless the people who directly deliver the evaluation are good at coaching. In which case they probably don’t need the forms and the system. To be a good front line supervisor, you have to get joy out of helping other people learn and develop and succeed. And it is not easy. It is a difficult and demanding role, so you better enjoy it, or it is not worth it.
Cultivating an effective team is a challenge of an entirely different level, and necessary in other roles of leadership. Team leadership relies heavily on the affiliative style of leadership, which is all about creating a harmonious working relationship between people who are interdependent to achieve a have a common purpose. The significance of this form of leadership must not be underestimated, as the team is the fundamental unit of organization that enables collaboration. Effective team leads are passionate about their team members and derive deep satisfaction from seeing their team members and team evolve to higher levels of performance.
One way to tell if a manager is really doing their job is, they are often suffering. Management is a very difficult job, keeping a wide range of people working together in an effective way requires teamwork, refined processes, constant problem solving, and continuous improvement. It seems there are people who understand process and many others who are “process blind”.
Effective middle management tends to be process management, managing the flow of many people in a team and or many teams. Survival as a middle manager requires a high degree of patience and composure and persistence. There is no end to the flow of the operation, no end to the pressures from above and below that must be reconciled in practice over and over again, every day.
One of the most complex of all leadership roles is general management which is overseeing the operations of an entire enterprise. This role relies heavily on the democratic style of leadership through which a range of input is solicited, consensus achieved, and decisions executed. General management requires the capacity to integrate the efforts of a wide range of disciplines and types of people. It usually involves managing people who are more expert at their function than the general manager is. And general management requires one of the rarest of human competencies, which is an attunement to system dynamics, understanding how an action in one part of the system impacts another.
There are many ways to be a CEO, if possible, integrating the competencies described above in an individually authentic way. The leadership style that is essential is visionary. As stated above this does not mean making up a pretty vision that sounds good. It is about seeing the pattern of what is emerging in one’s business, making strategic decisions based on that vision, compellingly communicating that vision and strategy over and over in every interaction, thereby “defining reality” as Maxx DuPree suggests. This is the work of the CEO to define realty, to make sure everyone understands the game they are playing, and inspiring people to play at their best. The last element of leadership to discuss here is sacrificing for the vision. Many people dream of being the CEO believing it to be the place where you get to do what you want.
In my experience, nothing could be farther from the truth for a real CEO. At the top, your life is no longer your own. Every problem that no one else can solve has your name on it. Every mistake that is made is yours to own, and every risk you have to decide to take on is on your head. It is a lonely place to be. There may be nobody you can trust to share what you are really thinking and feeling, and everything everybody says to you is at least unconsciously calculated to please you.
Truly effective CEO’s set themselves up to be uncomfortable. They populate their leadership team with people who are better at their craft than the CEO is, and they encourage people to tell them the truth that they don’t want to hear. There are of course significant benefits of the job. There is the compensation and the perks, but the real benefit is seeing the emerging pattern and positioning one’s organization in a way that benefits from emerging conditions and provides a significant value to those it serves.
Functions and Roles
Carl Jung taught that we have four primary functions: Sensing, Feeling, Thinking and Intuiting. We all have all these functions, but we prefer, and focus on some more than others. He described this sequence of functional preferences as:
In my experience, people develop the first stage of their career based on their dominant and auxiliary functions. We seek work that allows us to use our preferred functions. If we encounter a situation that requires a function other than our dominant and auxiliary functions, we then have a choice as to whether to intentionally use that function. The western business management machine has tended to be built on those who prefer the thinking and sensing functions. Then, as change began to accelerate, the interest in intuition began to grow. There is still no consensus on what intuition is, but those who can demonstrate successful intuitive innovation and change are highly valued. And, as it became increasingly necessary to create organizations that cultivate employees who can think on their own and work together harmoniously, the valuation of the feeling function began to grow as the concept of emotional intelligence became more common. There is now the understanding that, to be an effective leader one cannot be out of touch with their own feelings or discount the feelings of others.
There is a tendency for particular types to more easily fit certain leadership roles. For example:
MBTI “SP” (sensing and perceiving, Dionysian Temperament) type tends toward the performer role because of a love of uninhibited action to produce concrete outcomes.
I have observed that MBTI “SJ” (sensing and judging, Epimethean Temperament) types whose temperament is guided by a sense of duty, and to make sure the right thing is done, are particularly well suited to supervisory and management roles. They get tremendous satisfaction out of perfecting and fine tuning an existing system.
Leadership roles that involve change tend to appeal to the MBTI “NT” (Promethean Temperament) types who have an uncanny ability to see possibilities and to apprehend the unfolding pattern in their field of interest.
The MBTI “NF” (Apollonian Temperament) type gain satisfaction from activities that nurture the wellbeing and development of human beings, and as such tend to be effective teachers, counselors, coaches and communicators.
This does not mean that any leadership role is not suited for a particular individual. It does mean that one must consider the requirements of the role and determine how one must work on oneself to undertake the role, and if it is worth the effort.
To be successful fulfilled in management roles, Dionysian SP’s tend to need to develop a satisfaction with helping others succeed and an appreciation for the structure required for an organization to function. Otherwise, SP’s tend to avoid devoting the time and attention required in management to coaching others and managing the systems and processes that make up management practice.
Whereas Epimethean SJ’s succeed well at executing structured management tasks, they tend to be good at managing and refining the system as it is. It is when there is a need to lead change that SJ’s must work on developing and trusting their intuition and loosening up their need for structure to make it possible for change to proceed.
Promethean NT’s take naturally to change, enjoying and trusting their intuition and logic to bring about a new order. Their challenge comes in working with other people to see the change through, because NT’s are often out of touch with their feelings and are uncomfortable dealing with the feelings of others. Developing emotional intelligence is essential if NT’s are to do more than plan a change. If they want to lead people to change, they must become adept in the feeling domain.
In the past, prior to the advent of emotional intelligence work, it was said that Apollonian NF’s were “burned as witches” in Western organizations. NF’s have the capacity to understand people from the inside, applying feeling and intuitive functions to understand how people will react, and how to motivate them. I am an NF, sometimes accused of my clients as being excessively idealistic. In working with leadership teams, it is very common that I am the only NF in the room. This means my clients are contracting for the NF function. To be effective in the world of organization, NF’s often need to become more grounded and realistic about the realities of the workplace and of business.
Who is in Charge?
There is that classic scene where the alien visitor asks to be “taken to your leader”. Imagine an alien visitor showed up in your inner cast of characters and asked that question. Who would step forward? My guess is it would be ego mind. This is that part that blathers at you from the time you get up in the morning to the time you finally go to sleep. It is the constant narrator of your life, full of opinions and preferences and judgments and complaints, and lists of things to do, and rationalizations why failures were somebody else’s fault and why successes were all its idea.
And the sad thing is, quite often that part of us is the boss. And this part has a purpose, and important function. It serves as a locus of identity, a point of focus, but it is only one function of many. It can be an essential partner to get the inner house in order, but it needs to know it is not the boss. So, who should be the boss of your inner life? There are many philosophical and religious answers to this question that are not pertinent to this discussion. What is important here is direct experience. A few questions to consider:
Have you had the experience of some deeper knowing, some deeper understanding that was compelling and felt trustworthy?
Are you able to dis-identify from the voice in your head, and observe what it is saying?
Is it possible for you to observe the behavior of your ego, its preferences, opinions, sensitivities, and habits?
If the answers to these questions are “yes”, then you are in contact with something that is more capable of being an effective boss in your inner life than the ego. It is the inner observer. Getting our inner house in order begins with self-observation, borne out of the realization that we are not as we should be. This inner observer becomes a level of identity beyond the ego, which is connected with the will and, ultimately, conscience.
Here we come to the most important issue in finding leadership. The question is who is in charge inside the leader. There are people who are driven by animal urges: gluttony, lust, laziness, and there are those driven by the ego mind gone wild, the predator, and those driven by the very worst in us, are driven by something that takes delight in hurting others.
There is no doubt that a world driven by the ego has produced a tremendous of amount of what we have called “progress’. Human beings have proliferated on the planet. Remarkable technologies have been developed. Abundance has been created for many. But we are now seeing the results of the ego gone rampant. The ego does not care about other people. It has no empathy. We have turned over the leadership of our corporations and our governments to the ego and worse. It is actually built into our laws. Corporate boards are responsible only to turn a profit for shareholders and not be caught running afoul of the law.
There was an interesting study of the relationship between power distance in corporations and empathy. The finding was that, in general, the higher you go up the corporate ladder, the less empathy you find. It is not clear whether senior leadership positions select for people with little empathy, or, perhaps one has to learn to tune out one’s empathy to survive the job. There is no question that people in senior positions must do things for the benefit of the greater good that cause suffering to some. The question is, do they suffer when they have to do it. I remember one CEO client, who was faced with terminating an employee. He was suffering with it and said, “When firing a person no longer causes suffering, it is time to get out of this job.”
The predator ego mind is very capable of doing whatever it takes to get its outcome, and if it is unrestrained by conscience, it can be very successful in getting those short term results that stockholders want. It can ignore the impact on employees, it can ignore the impact on the environment, it can ignore the impact on the community. It makes for simple problem solving and execution – in the short term. But now the time has come when the long-term impacts are showing up in the short term in very lethal form.
In my experience, most people in organizations Have not lost touch with their conscience. It is in there somewhere and makes itself known at critical times. Something in us knows what is right in the moment, but we may be so distracted by other inner characters that we don’t hear, or we are driven to ignore the knowing. Probably the most powerful influence on what part of us governs our inner life is the people we surround ourselves with. Consider who you choose to engage with, to listen to, to agree with. What inner part governs these people? What are they interested in? What do they believe? What drives their action?
Are they driven by consumption? By sex? By intoxication? By seeking power and control? Or are they driven by the desire to become a better human being, to do something meaningful in life, to be of service? This is where we have the opportunity to make an oasis of the place we work, or our family, our community. This work is most important at the senior leadership level, because the group at the top sets the tone for the rest of the organization.
Often, however, the situation I encounter is quite different. Often, senior managers have difficulty even having authentic dialog with each other. Where there should be the trust that enables honest communication and real problem solving, there is pseudo-community: superficial relationship or worse. There is often quiet détente, or covert, sometimes overt warfare across feudal domains. In an age where collaboration may be the key to solving the problems that threaten our lives and culture, this retreat into silos simply will not work.
The root of the problem is the desire to control in service of one’s personal goals, and an unwillingness to sacrifice for a greater good. In my experience, this is the norm in organizations. This is how we are, unless someone takes the lead and insists on a higher order goal.
Its best if this person is the CEO, as he or she can have the most impact. But this is not something that can be accomplished through speeches. Certainly, as we have said, the leader must have real vision, and must be able to compellingly communicate the vision, but there is also sacrificing for the vision. And this is where the test of character that Lincoln mentioned is encountered.
The seat of the CEO is not a comfortable place. It is where all the dichotomous forces come to be reconciled, where all the varying opinion and positions and vested interests must be resolved and transformed into a direction and a decision. Don’t forget it takes a powerful ego to get to the CEO seat. That ego really believes it knows best. To surround oneself with people who are better than you are at their craft and who may have differing views of the world, who may disagree with you, and argue their points forcefully, is a sacrifice. This is hard work. True leaders make this sacrifice.
But many leaders don’t. The surround themselves with people who will agree, banish those who do not, allow gatekeepers to limit access to them, and so they go about creating their own little preferred private world. Empathy, compassion, conscience is not a part of this leader’s world. And from this point on, terrible things are possible.
This point was brought memorably home to me when I had been working with a number of different municipal departments. My clients, who were the directors of those departments approached me as a group at one point asking if I would be willing to conduct a team building process with the Mayor’s cabinet. The directors had become very disaffected with the Mayor and his right- and left-hand henchmen. Their actions were becoming a significant impediment to the proper operation of the City. This disaffection had become critical as the Mayor was preparing a run for Governor, and his cabinet was in such disarray that it was unlikely he could mount a successful campaign. I said I would conduct the retreat on one condition. I wanted 15 minutes alone with the Mayor. I needed to know if the Mayor had any intention of changing the behavior that was troubling to his cabinet.
I was granted the interview. There I sat in the Mayor’s outer office, waiting for my time. As the minute hand approached the appointed hour, henchman #1 burst through the door, somewhat disheveled and sweaty. He sat heavily beside me and said, “I almost didn’t make it!”. At that moment, I knew the job was off. The Mayor appeared in the door, invited us in. Henchman #1 sat on my left. We were facing the Mayor across his desk. He said, “ I understand you wanted to talk about the cabinet retreat.” I said, “ I just have one question “What do we do if it turns out your right- and left-hand men are the problem?” The Mayor immediately turned bright red and became speechless. Henchman number one immediately began blathering, taking up the rest of my time. The Mayor rose, still bright red and said, “We’re done”. And the retreat was off, and before very long the Mayor was done too!
It seems that leadership has become lost. When I engage in succession planning conversations, I discover large groups of middle age and younger people who should be the future leaders who don’t see leadership roles as a good choice. I suspect this is because we have turned it into a pretty lousy job, and leadership as a role has become dishonored by national and corporate leaders. There is a saying in this organization development business: “Never waste a good crisis”. And now we have one, probably just the opening act of a very protracted crisis. Here we have the opportunity to change the game, and to find leadership. Like many things, the search begins at home, where we have been sent. Its like kids, you put them in time out until they come to their senses. We need to wake up!