"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.


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.



  • Byron murray wrote:

    Dan. I would like to share this with a group I am now involved with if I have your per­mis­sion. One of the oth­er aspects of lead­er­ship I have noticed over the years is lead­ing from behind or lead­ing from the mid­dle. These are basi­cal­ly those indi­vid­u­als and events that cre­ate a vac­u­um that call for lead­er­ship where the “appoint­ed lead­ers” don’t respond. But response is nec­es­sary and some­one form the mid­dle or behind step into the vac­u­um and fill the lead­er­ship need.

  • Of course, you have my per­mis­sion, Byron — not that you need it by now! And yes, any of us may be called to step up. Lead­er­ship is always out­side the bounds a lit­tle — not to far “to be con­fused with the ene­my;” not so close as to be exact­ly part of the same sys­tem of dis­tress peo­ple are experiencing.

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