“Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance.”

–--D.T. Suzuki

The Master Blows It Out

Leading is more or less drenched in the assumptions of individualism.

At least in United States culture, the traditional belief is that leading others depends on having a strong, clear sense of self, one that is more or less unassailable by circumstances or the arbitrary perceptions of others. Even when there is an awareness — awareness that learning is going on constantly; awareness that the sense of self itself is evolving all the time — still there is the baseline expectation that the leader is strong enough to pull people together, align them, and serve as a guide.

And this is just as true for “servant leaders,” who also are supposed to have a firm sense of the unselfish self. Even there it’s about being somebody, a who, a defined individual who shows up in his or her personal clarity and power, along with stature and a title — even if the purpose of all that is to give that power away. Without that sense of persona, the leader may well have to sustain criticism that their leadership isn’t clear or purposeful enough. Leaders are expected to “step up” or step in, call important shots, move others to break log jams via personal presence or clever solutions and the knowledge that leaders are, generally speaking, expected to possess.

Sometimes I’ve heard people in my profession say that modern leading is not so much about a particular person as about certain behaviors, such as presenting a clear vision, bringing forward a positive vibe, or resolving a big dilemma, but even there, in asserting the idea that “we can all be leaders,” the focus is still on individuals and the roles in the moment they choose to play.

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Hence, when we discuss leadership development it’s all about the refinement of the self. In a way this is probably inevitable. We cannot easily escape our heritage. We talk about “self-actualization.” We practice emotional intelligence and agility. And in this process we intend to “live our best lives,” a process of gradual but constant self-improvement. Organizationally, we reinforce this self-perfecting through personally oriented performance appraisals and a continuing emphasis on the importance of individual feedback for growth. As a leadership consultant, I am guilty of all of this.

And yet I also want to ask if this goal of perfecting the individual actually gets us what we want? Or is there an error in the system?

I am not suggesting that the alternative is some kind of “collectivism,” meaning an emphasis on groups. Groups, just like individuals (and we have seen many examples of this lately) are just as prone to delusions, often called “group-think.” Groups can be self-serving, subversive and self-protective, too.

In fact, I would say that the current culture of the United States, apparently focused on individualism, has become especially open to group delusion. Each of us wants — needs — a home base from which to measure the agency of our lives and this can make us particularly susceptible to following formulas for self-acceptance that are manipulable, especially by authority figures. The more other people seem to agree on the correctness of a formula the more we may tie our “individuality” to that norm, whatever it might be. This kind of individualism is really just conformity in sheep’s clothing. We fit in by adopting a false ethic of a commonly accepted kind of selfhood. Could there be a stronger or more delusional (but comforting) form of conformity than the illusion of individualism, especially when it becomes a de facto loyalty test?

The other day, for example, I read an article by a professor who wanted to encourage people to “think for themselves.” What he transparently meant, however, was that people should adopt conservative standpoints and values. It wouldn’t have mattered if his advocacy were meant to encourage adopting liberal ones. The point is that for him thinking for yourself was a political act within the context of the current cultural polarization. He was really saying: “Don’t think for yourself; call it that but think like us, be one of us.”

The idea of the self is what I am talking about here, and the temptation to make it something solid when as a purely political and sociological (or even spiritual) fabrication it is not that solid at all. I am not saying ego is an unnatural thing — quite the contrary, it is as natural as wings are to a bird. But is there anything beyond this polarity of selfish and unselfish leadership? That loves the self but sees it in the context of a greater universe that surpasses human cognizance and attempts to control? That frames our interdependence — with each other, with our world, with nature — more effectively?

So you see, I am wondering if there is a field any more drenched in this notion of individualism, of becoming and being someone, than leadership. Why else would there be so many books and podcasts and YouTube videos on leadership? Why else this search for a perfected selfhood brought forward in countless posts with three or five or however many steps or points? If only we absorb them and live their wisdom, the promise goes, our suffering will be done, our problems with self and others will be done. Even if the style of these recipes ultimately adds up to a humanistic perspective and aims to bring many voices together toward common values and action, are we not still left with an illusion, beautiful as that may be?

Suppose we simply say that all these images, heuristic over-simplifications, logical formulas and treatises, each superseding the next and supposed to galvanize our growth, never do form any ultimate answer — the fact of who we are always escapes.

Suppose we say simply that we must be careful about the self we choose to chase. Real individuality is a deeper river, a bigger question, perhaps, than we shall ever know. We have glimpses of it in various arts, in a painting or poem, a piece of music, in the transience of autumn leaves blowing by, driven by the wind.

There is a simple and beautiful Zen story about a monk and master. It gets late in the evening and the master suggests the monk retire. The monk gets up to leave, opens the screen to go out and says, “It is very dark outside.” The master offers the monk a lighted candle to find his way, but just as the monk receives it the master blows it out.

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