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.
RSS and email subscription, monthly Unfolding Leadership newsletter, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of the front page.
Pinterest users, you can pin pictures from this weblog via this Board.
I love you Dan! In the most innocent and best sense and expression of it. (Yet if we need a definitive qualifier, the Greeks used the term ‘phileo’ to describe ‘brotherly love’)
I’m with you and has been part of my own struggle and at times, message, when it comes to the topic of leadership.
I’m interesting in the topic because it has to do with the very real position and titles that have a huge impact on family, business, organizations, nations, and the world. And simultaneously, I resist the concept, knowing I really can’t divorce myself from it altogether.
And what I mean by that can best be summed up in one of my favorite quotes by Albert Camus:
‘Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.’
Even within myself though, the DESIRE for the above is there and yet the current state of our own place along the journey, and the state of the collective at this point in time can make that desire fleeting when it comes to it’s lived expression in our day to day lives.
I can more aptly say that I LONG for the kind of relationships with my elders where it isn’t about ‘lording it over anyone’, it’s a relationship that imparts knowledge, wisdom, and experience simply as the way to equip the other person for life. Whether that is on the job or to carry on as the next generation long after we are gone.
It is to long for that inner knowing that underneath the labels we call ‘leadership’, we are all teachers and learners of each other, regardless of age, position, title, gender, race, religions or creed.
I am happy to have found at least a sense of that in my connection with you. Someone that walks along side me as my friend. However distant that may be.
Thank you for that…and thank you for yet another lovely, wisdom-filled post my friend.
You inspire, encourage, and coach me as you always do Dan!
Today is the 10th birthday of Managing with Aloha, can you believe it? So I am celebrating by visiting friends who have made so many generous deposits into my manaâ€˜o and Aloha Spirit â€” and you are certainly one of them!
I needed to read this today, as I ask myself about what might be next, and I am so thankful: Knowing you, and learning from you has made me better.
You don’t just bring a dish or two — you bring a feast! So the “phileo” is surely returned. Indeed, you have been a good and constant friend, Samantha, to me as I experience the joy and burdens of this writing! I very much share in the way Camus states it — the older I get it seems the more truth there is in his simple phrases. We don’t need to be lone wolves lost in the mountains, neither ahead nor behind of someone else.
All the best
How lovely that you have stopped by on such an important day. My own ten year anniversary — the start of my blogging — comes up the middle of next month, so we can really celebrate these years of mutual learning together. Indeed, we have coached each other, haven’t we? What a pleasure to celebrate this great process of exploration, facilitated by social media, but always attached to the well-springs of experience, feeling, and the best thinking we can come up with. What a great pleasure to have met you, Rosa, and shared with you across the years.
I pass along wonderful congratulations to you as one of the best of my teachers.
[…] Definitions of leadership are traditionally narcissistic — but there’s another way to look at things. […]
Great short article. Two things come to mind — Jesus did mention that we are gods, hence the connotations in writing, secondly is that leadership is energy that spans the four pillars of our Being — spiritual, emotional, physical and mental. How we use this energy denotes our leadership.
Thank you for stopping by. I’m guessing my referencing “little Gods” was done in a very different way than what Jesus was talking about. And I’m totally with you that leadership is all about integration of spiritual, emotional, physical and mental being. Right on.
All the best~
Enjoyed this one, especially the sharing of our simplification.
Oh how I have learned over the past four years, to reach out, give back, love oneself, and pay if forward.
I am grateful for all of the friendships and family relationships that have come my way in the last decade.
Letting go, and enjoying day by day, whatever the day brings, each day is an inspiration to me.
I am glad I have found your page.
Look forward to more inspiring writings.
Best to you Dan.