Updated: Apr 29, 2020
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.
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. For the rest of this article more on the "how" of finding leadership, go to: https://www.kimpayton.com/finding-leadership