The Unfolding That Cannot Be Contained

Before I move on to a post about the Third Practice (Self-Care), I want to explore a question that has been simmering for a couple days in conversations with my great friend and colleague, Jay Howell. Our topic has been what we see happening to the word, “leader.” I have found it fascinating that searching the web discloses so many references to lack of leadership as the cause of many problems and yet it is also filled with frequent references to people who are called leaders — from politicians, to technological innovators, to heads of organizations, to managers and supervisors, to sports and religious figures, to generals in the military, movers and shakers of all kinds, even facilitators of meetings, and right down to old fashioned warlords — you name it. My sense is we throw around the term, leader, to describe almost anybody who happens to be in a position of power or influence — from whatever source.

For example, I might call you a leader because you have formal powers of an important position — say President of the United States — but I may not really believe you are one. So which is it? Are you or are you not a leader? And how is this judgment to be made? Well, this might just be a push-pull around “power-base” versus “qualities of the person.” But it can be more than confusing. Peter Block, some years ago, called for wholesale disposal of the term in favor of “steward”. And surely there are whole groups of people who dislike the word, leader, because culturally its traditional shadow meanings include arrogance, mistreatment of others, control, prejudice and exclusion.

Instead of immediately reaching for a hard and fast definition of what the word means — tempting as that personally might be — I want to offer a simple distinction: Leaders to me are a subset of people considered to have power. And when people complain about lack of leadership from their leaders, what they are saying is that their image and expectation of how leaders ought to behave is not at parity with the level of authority and influence these people actually possess. It’s easy to confuse someone who has power for a leader.

And this can really cause some pain.

But perhaps this can be valuable pain if it actually helps us turn to one another, and internally turn to ourselves, and ask the questions. What is leadership beyond power? If you take power out — formal or informal — personal or organization — political or religious — what is left that the word still stands for?

What we don’t actually have is a word for someone who has power but is not operating as a leader — except for very pejorative terms (“dictator,” “suck-up,” “sell-out,” “hack,” etc.) Some of that may be justified, but it also belies the fact there are many fine people who have acquired power but who don’t, when they act, actually lead. They may act to manage or coordinate or organize or administer, or follow what their “Board of Directors” or social group or political constituency wants them to do — and they may be very good at that in a certain sense. They may be pleasing as colleagues and know how to make others feel pretty good. They may have a strong moral sense but not be particularly righteous about it. They have a contribution to make and are making it. But they do not have much consciousness of leadership, what another great writer, Peter Koestenbaum, calls “leadership mind” and we don’t typically regard them as possessing classic leadership qualities such as “inspiration.” Because of their level of power, the term “follower” also does not fit well, although to me these folks often seem to be employees of somebody, good employees and sometimes very highly placed. Some of them run large organizations with skill and are judged to be successful. And frankly, I think it is unfortunate that sometimes they don’t get the credit they deserve for what they do — for what they are bringing, rather than what they lack.

All of this can push us back to trying to figure out what the real, core traits of personal leadership are and it drives us to use terms like risk-taking, creativity, integrity, and having a vision. But I sense it goes so much deeper than that.

Leadership to me is a kind of revolution of the soul. An incessant revolt that favors knowing at the deepest levels who I am and who we are (Self, not just self), what the tasks in this lifetime are, what the potentials for contribution are, and how we can touch, connect, and serve in whatever small ways a positive evolution of the world and of consciousness itself. An unfolding of spirit that simply cannot be contained. From this standpoint, my own simple definition of a leader is anybody who wants to use their potentials to make a conscious and positive difference — but with a lot of emphasis placed on that word, “conscious.”

And I do believe that everyone holds the seeds of that consciousness — some closer to the surface perhaps, some buried farther down. But they are there for any of us — if you can let yourself grow — and even if you are the President of the United States.



  • Hello Dan,

    I’ve been following the trail of recomendations leading to your writings, and it’s a delight to be here. I really like your post and personal definition of a leader, and I’m inclined to join some of your other words to it. I think that beyond just “anybody who wants to use their potentials to make a conscious and positive difference”, a leaderer does so by “touching, connecting, and serving.” To me, it becomes obvious when Power and Leadership are being confused by looking at those that are supposedly being “lead”. Is the “leader” touching them, connecting with them, serving them? Do the “followers” feel connected, touched and served by their leader… are they being lead by the Leader or are they given orders and are simply following the orders?

    Recently I wrote about my own definition of Leadership… here’s a part i enjoy, “For me, leadership is greatly about following and listening. My way of leading involves a deep awareness of my surroundings, accepting what is, and guiding and companioning others in action and movement. Staying in contact with and connected to Self-Other-Spirit…Surrendering to power that moves through and honoring the power in all (as a means of transcending the myth of control and power-over).”

    Thanks for the forum to share these thoughts.


  • ashley

    Thank you for leaving this beautiful comment. Your words are profound. “Surrendering to power that moves through and honoring the power in all…” is especially moving to me. It’s wonderful to make the connection.

  • Mornin’ Dan

    A colleague just sent me a link to your site, thinking I might be interested. She was right. I am. Your reflections on leadership in some ways mirror mine. As the leader of a local organization devoted to leadership development (LIOS-Leadership Institute of Seattle) I seem to have been dancing with the question of leadership for a long time.

    I used to think that it was fundamentally about the “Who”, the person in the role/function. If that person could become conscious enough, and disciplined enough, they would then have the capacities needed to effectively address the challenges they faced, and in so doing encourage others to follow. I still think that is true, and I just believe it is no longer enough.

    Given what I know now I think it’s more a dance which involves a living system’s felt need to change and the members of that system being conscious enough to be aware of the need, curious enough to explore other ways, courageous enough to take actions in service of the change, and compassionate enough for other to follow. Each member of the system has the capacity and responsibility to both lead and follow in this dance in service of the system’s need.

    Those that we currently title leaders I think are, for the most part, managers. Their task being more about maintaining what is rather than transforming.

    Moving from a single point of accountability to a “dance” is a big leap (of faith?) and I think we as a species are somewhere along that path. The result is that I think we are tending to look for individuals who can do both, a combination John/Jane Wayne and The Dali Lama. Luckily I think those folks are hard to find. If they were more prevalent it would be a lot easier for me sit back and let them “be on point” rather than taking my turn.

    Of course, a dance metaphor raises questions regarding the steps and the style and the music, but that’s for another time.

    Be Well,
    Dan Leahy

  • Dan

    Thank you so much for stopping by! I love your insight that it is not just the individual anymore that we look to, but the whole system, as well. Again and again over the years of my work I have been confronted by a dual reality: people holding an ideal for the system and needed changes and wanting and wishing to participate, and all of that counter-balanced by a restricting sense of “them” and “us;” the them usually being those with formal power and position. I believe WE, all of us, are evolving to new ground where this dynamic will yield to a much more refined sense of community and the mutual leadership that is really in our grasp. Again, thanks so much, and please return when you can.

  • Anonymous wrote:

    Jay’s Leadership Ramble #1

    Hi Dan, what great work you are doing here in your blog! Thanks for putting so much of your soul into thinking about these ideas around leadership.

    As I reflect on “The Unfolding That Cannot Be Contained” and the comments you have received about it from Ashley and Dan L, I wanted to add some more of my thoughts in the form of a “ramble”.

    As we have been talking about leadership recently, we have been trying to understand what people are saying when we hear a comment like, “what we need is more leadership” or “what’s lacking in our company is leadership”. Organizations everywhere have CEOs, presidents, VPs, managers. But the general sense is – not enough leadership. So what is this damn thing – leadership? And if we can define it, will it help us understand this sense of lack of leadership in organizations today?

    I go back to my early experience of work. Like most of us, I had some jobs that were just mindless affairs – you go in, someone tells you what to do – you do it – you get paid. But early on in my work life, I began to discern that work was (or could be) the activities of a community of people who had focused their energy on accomplishing some specific task, goal, whatever. A community of people focused on accomplishing a task or goal – or a life long dream. Yeah, I like the sound of that.

    It makes me think – when was the last time any of us experienced a real sense of community at work? I see glimpses of it now and then, but it’s mostly lost in the noise and the rush to make the monthly targets, etc. (We could go into a whole thing here about “ego centric” versus “network centric” organizations – but, no. Another time.) What I hear and feel in organizations today is a longing – a longing for a community of people dedicated to the same goal or to some unarticulated sense of purpose. And if you reach into that longing a bit more, I think you find people longing to find meaning for their lives through the work they do. And I don’t just mean people who do important work like saving lives – I mean people finding meaning for their lives by doing a good job as a grocery clerk, a flight attendant, an accountant, a state worker serving their customers, a teacher, a sales person, etc.

    Robert Bly used to talk about his observation that a lot of men he met exhibited what he called “father hunger”. He saw men who he thought were hungry to connect with their distant fathers. Well, I think people today have “community hunger”. They long to be with others whom they can trust to support them, work with them, give them honest feedback, be their friends, help them realize their dreams – as they strive together to accomplish their something they call “work”.

    If you can follow this ramble, you probably know what‘s coming next. Is it really possible to create “community” in a workplace? Come on, Jay. Be realistic. That’s great theory, but we are talking real world here – real world business, real world results, real world risks, real world winners and losers.

    Realistic or not, I sense that many people want to feel a part of something. They don’t just want to go to work and be part of a meaningless company in which they are imprisoned to turn out some mindless work. They want to connect their work, their aspiration with their longing to make sense (meaning) of those efforts. I believe this in a deep place within myself. It’s true for me. I want to be part of a corpus – a community.

    This, of course, takes me to something that David Whyte said in The Heart Aroused: “The whole of western cultural tradition is based on a primary interior struggle: the essential aloneness of the individual, coupled with a wish to be part of some larger corporate body – literally a corpus, a corporation – to achieve things that would be impossible alone.” At Boeing, there is a great phrase about this. They say, “No body can build a 747 by themselves”.

    David Whyte calls this a “primary interior struggle”. Yeah, I think so. That’s how important it feels to me – it’s really important that I be a part of something so that I can give the gift I brought to this world. Then, David adds: “Bridging two impossible worlds, personal destiny and impersonal organization, we find ourselves standing in a half-dark, twilight land between them both.” I know that half-dark, twilight land he is talking about. You can find it in any gleaming corporate skyscraper or “campus” you go to.

    But there is more. What does this longing for community have to do with “the bottom line”? Suppose I can find a wonderful community to work in. Can such a place make a profit? Can it be successful?

    Well, let me tell you a quick story. One night I heard this guy talk, a former accountant, who was on fire about how it’s not about accounting – it’s about bringing people together in communities. His name is H Thomas Johnson. He teaches at Portland State University. He’s written several books including Profit Beyond Measure: Extraordinary Results through Attention to Work and People. Check him out. When you Google him, make sure you put in “H. Thomas Johnson”. There are a lot of Thomas Johnson’s.

    Tom told of his long time study of Toyota and the comparison to the American car manufacturers. An example – Ford has a Bumper factory 500 miles from their truck manufacturing plant. They ship bumpers to their assembly plant for “economies of scale”. Toyota makes individualized bumpers for each truck in the same plant. Why? The Toyota plant wants the bumper makers to be able to talk to the folks who assemble the trucks. They want their community in one building – not 500 miles away. (Tom Johnson can explain this better than I can.) And is Toyota profitable? It takes Toyota two thirds the time to build the same truck as Ford. Accountants, get your calculators out.

    So the question leads me back to “leadership”. I’m with Dan Leahy. Leadership is about being conscious of the “dance of the living system” and helping it (the community) become successful.

    What is a leader in this context? A leader is a community builder. She is someone who sees the possibilities of an organization and helps the working community come together around that vision. He is someone who listens to the members of the community and helps link the community together so they can build the network that can make the vision real. She helps the community make the vision real so that the members of the community can give their gift to the world.

    Enough rambling – back to work. Thanks, Dan, for letting me talk about this in your blog.


  • I’m finding so much that I read here interesting and helpful, but it is all swirling around in the primordial soup of my consciousness. Some of the impact comes in a power struggle I am having with my staff, who want me to define their tasks for them. I have countered with…that’s not the model for working here…I need you to help me be organized as we work toward agreed goals. Don’t put the monkey on my back; don’t make me do all the work. That process is moving forward in a very satisfactory way.

    In other settings, I am beginning to feel less like the new kid and feel I can start adding some structure to various discussions, that structure’s goal being to support open dialog and solicit contributions from the whole group. It feels awkward to me that I have these group and project management skills that others in the group do not have, yet I have no standing as “leader.” Yet, as long as I don’t push too fast, group members seem grateful to have some tools provided. I guess in those settings, I am uncomfortable describing myself as a “leader,” although I am bringing organization to a process.

    At the same time, the vocabulary of “community building” has pitfalls, too. In my office, yes, I am building community in that I am soliciting the best contributions from my team, including ideas on direction, but I retain the ultimate say. Did I mention I have two ten-hour-a-week employees who have been there six months? If they were there more time during the week, or as time goes on, I would accept more input from them as to goals and objectives, but since I am solely responsible to the board, I’m not there yet. So it’s community, but not completely democratic.

    In the other groups in which I am working, the power structure is completely democratic, and I am simply bringing some organizational skills to the table. Is that community development or leadership?

    Finally, as I look across the broad spectrum of people I work with, there is a philosophical and political emphasis that eventually trumps the discussion. Are we among those who believe in more government, creating structures that spread around resources, protecting the weakest in our society. Or do we believe in less government, accepting that dislocations occur, believing in each person’s ability and right to do what is right on his own–the little-r republicans? As you might imagine, working for a republican (little r) group in Vermont (a hotbed of regulation, resource reallocation and protecting the weakest) this issue comes up frequently. I am not trying to introduce a big politics capital-R Republican versus capital-D Democrat, red state-blue state element into the conversation, merely to comment that there is a philosophical difference here that informs how we describe a leader.

    I guess I am having some vocabulary difficulties.

  • Like what you have to say. Your blog makes good since to me.

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