We have a dream, an ideal of leadership that it should be an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. Of course this idea is that we all see ourselves as leaders, that we all operate with unspoken understanding and unity derived from the best parts of who we are as people. Would it surprise you, then, to know that this definition is at least eight centuries old — with only one slight exception? It comes from a twelfth-century volume, The Book of Twenty-Four Philosophers, but the book is not about leading at all; it is about defining God.
I am not attempting to make a point about religion. This is simply a coincidence, a trick of language perhaps that leads the mind — my mind anyway — in at least two directions. One is toward a dark thread, one that rebels against how over-wrought our worship of leadership concepts is, rebels against the distortions we play out in real behavior, the competitive narcissism some call leading, and the way some unconsciously turn themselves into little Gods in the name of leadership. I feel the anger and sense of helplessness rise in me, making me want to tear down the walls of this worship completely, get rid of the word, start from scratch. What comes to mind are times in my career when I’ve watched powerful people who have made mistakes act out their frustration by blaming everyone around them, where everyone else is cowed and remains silent in order to escape further repercussions. And I think of some who, puffed up in their authority and stature, think they know the best route to success and so, patronizingly, “teach others.” In either case there’s always talk in the hall later — because we are so very far away from the ideal that it has become, if not plainly painful then surely ludicrous.
But there is also another direction this trick of language takes me, too, back to the dream, where we can look more carefully, and keep looking into an authentic mystery: the inspiring, energetic field that we also call leadership, especially when it emerges spontaneously among people. There really is a kind of beauty to it, and I see that beauty most frequently in those who have a boundless appetite for learning about themselves and their impacts; in those who see themselves very much involved in the problems they are trying to solve; in human beings who bring their love for others and their respect and nurturance to the many invisible everyday exchanges that make up their jobs, conversations rich in trust, interest in others, vulnerability and collaboration. It doesn’t matter what rung of the ladder — there is that goodness of heart, that sense of responsibility, that desire to listen and tell the truth, and to make an honest contribution. And these people together do create the field. It’s very exciting to participate in that, and it absolutely heals the narcissism that is so traditional.
When I think of these good people, the word that most comes to mind is “decency.” They exemplify decency, and I would say, yes, they are the real leaders. But I’m not sure we need to create any label for them so much as simply help recognize their worth and the worth of the field they create around them. For in truth, they genuinely hold a center that is everywhere and in each one of us and create a circumference of personal influence that can never fully be known. They are the inspiring “intelligible sphere” of our own humanity, something recognized from within, and without regard to any other name we might give them.
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