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.