Category Archives: Empathy

KAFKA TRAPS and How to Avoid Them

An increasing number of people are being trained to believe that rituals of shame, confession and psychological breakdown sessions are effective tools for rooting out the secret evils of this or that “sin”, “ism” or “phobia” that are said to be in our hearts and minds. Religious cults use this technique and so do political cults.

In such an atmosphere, one is always subject to the ever-watchful eye of those who hunt feverishly for your secret immoral thoughts. And when you look inside and find nothing of the kind, you are accused of “projecting”, of “being defensive” or of having sinful thoughts or biases and hatreds that are “unconscious” to you, but claimed to be fully on display to the “clairvoyant” ever watchful eye of the probing inquisitioners.

Regardless of your level of personal development and wisdom, the good you have done in your life without an audience, or the self-awareness that has evolved in your consciousness, the mind reader who studies you, the workshop facilitator who shames you, and the educator who grades you… the ever watchful eye who beholds you… knows who you REALLY are.

Except, they don’t.

This assault on your dignity, and invasion of your sense of self is a form of emotional abuse. Because the nature of this kind of probing is a kind of non-consensual  mind rape, it will be difficult for you to resist, especially if the probing inquisitor has authority over you in some way. But resistance is necessary for your well-being. When people try to tell you that you hate when you know deeply in your heart that you do not hate, they are imposing a non-consensual belief system onto you, and you have the right to resist.

When people tell you that your resistance or intellectual arguments are a smokescreen to hide your “discomfort” with hearing the truth about your supposed “sin”, you are the target of what is called a Kafka trap, a game of psychological “capture the flag” that can be resisted if you know what to do.

As in Kafka’s book “The Trial”, the Kafka Trap is a game that is played by power-seekers (or in the best of circumstances just a True Believer who blindly follows a dogmatic moral paradigm) where you are always “guilty” of some crime or sin that you cannot locate but that others who stand to gain moral power over you insist are inside you. And the more you deny it, the more it is “proven” that you are guilty.

Let me repeat that. The more you deny your hatred, your desire to protect some form of status or privilege, or the belief that others have the right to put their thoughts into you, you are “proving” that you are guilty by the very act of your resisting.

The Kafka Trap and similar rituals are the primary weapons used by religious cults that want to control adherents by shaming them for their selfish drives or sexual feelings.

More insidiously because of the difficulty in detecting it, this trap is also used followers various anti-oppression ideologies who believe they can solve racism and other forms of bigotry with blanket accusations, categorization schemes, rankism, cult mind control tactics and emotional abuse.

It is not necessary to take on this stuff to make the world a more fair and equitable place. There are other ways to promote love and fairness that do not rely on mental beatings, head games and power plays, so it’s important to resist this recruitment style ghost-hunting technique to avoid getting pulled into world views that create hardened categories of “us” and “them”, force us to think thoughts we didn’t think before, and distract us from doing real work.

When this happens, the best way to handle it is to name it.

Because of the cult-like style of the attack, the best mode to use in your communication is the leveling mode. In the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work, linguist Dr. Suzette Elgin suggests leveler mode when you are in a mentally abusive situation. Level with your abuser by straight out saying, “this is emotional abuse, and you’re not going to succeed in putting thoughts in my head.”

If the person persists, just say, “you repeating that you think I [fill in the blank] doesn’t make it true and is just a manipulative power play to win moral superiority over a ghost that isn’t there. I’m not standing for it, so let’s move on to another topic.”

There are other gentler methods, and these sentences can be altered to suit your style and unique situation. But, the key is to deliver the following three messages:

1) You are engaging in emotional abuse

2) It is a play for moral power over others based on nothing real, and

3) I won’t stand for it.

Stay true to your path towards wholeness, practice the life of compassion and fairness, and do what you can to protect yourself from individuals and groups who try to brainwash you into believing that your nature or essence is intrinsically evil in some way and that you do not have the capacity to treat others with respect and love.

You know who you are.

Peacemaking Is Not Cool Anymore. It Needs to Be.

We live in a troubling time where racial strife and polarization between social movements and identity groups are combined with a belief among many of these groups that permanent anger and hatred against a one-dimensional enemy is the only authentic response available to us.

One need only log onto Facebook for ten minutes to learn that peace and love just aren’t cool any more.

In recent years the phrase “peacemaking” and the practice of nonviolence have become distorted in many circles -including social justice activist communities- to mean the acceptance of injustice and an attitude of wanting to stay comfortable and look the other way when people are getting hurt.

When defined in this way, most decent people would agree that peace is not a defensible aim.

Some believe that engaging with the enemy is giving the enemy legitimacy and power. They consider this engagement to be a form of “coddling” or a kind of appeasement of the sort that British Prime Minister Lord Neville Chamberlain is said to have pursued when he signed an agreement with Hitler allowing Nazi Germany to annex other lands. 

Others insist that we be more militant and refer us to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” where he expressed disappointment in “white moderates” who were more interested in being comfortable and supporting the status quo than they were in pursuing social change at a pace that King felt was desperately needed.

These two historic examples and many more are frequently cited to justify the reigning culture of malice that we have come to see in both the discourse and protest tactics of the hard left and in the sociopathic cruelty of the hard right.

But, King was no Lord Chamberlain. When he spoke of militancy in that letter from his jail cell, he reminded us that when militancy becomes the only strategy left to us, it must still be grounded in love.  In the words below that King spoke in another context,  he makes this point very clear:

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Power, love and justice are all connected and cannot be morally or logically separated from one another.

If any one of these elements are missing in our struggle, we are lost.

Bettering in Our Own Time

*NOTE: My friend gave me permission to re-post something  he wrote onto my own social media page. At the time of this posting, I have not yet gotten his permission to post it here. But, I love this and it speaks for me, so I want to share it.

Our country was founded on the radical proposition that everyone is born equal, and should receive equal treatment under the law. Even from the very beginning we did not live up to that ideal in practice and actual governance, but our history has been one of slow, stepwise, painful movement toward it.

Too slow, and too many moments of backsliding, for far too many people who deserve better. But we cannot give up, unless we want to give up on what being America really means.

Certainly the founders had many notions of the limits of equality and citizenship that no longer apply, nor should they. They lived, as we all do, in a particular moment in time, and could no more escape history than a fish can escape the ocean. And the effects of those mental and political blinders were very, very real for the people left out of their limited concept of what equality should mean.

But there was, I think, an entelechy to the ideas worked out in the Constitution and other founding documents, that goes beyond that moment in time and its limitations. It was an idea too radical for a bunch of white, male, very well-to-do property owners, whose only model of governance was the divine rule of kings, and whose implicit idea of society was deeply hierarchical in nature, to bring to full fruition. But they wrote something down, and whatever it meant to them, it continued to resonate down through the generations and inspire not only the powerful but also the rest of us to do better.

(Equality is still a radical idea: each time we expand the circle of equality and fairness, we realize there is another circle beyond that. Our grandchildren will probably have difficulty understanding our own mental and societal limits on true equality.)

So, I understand [people’s] objection [to having pride in American heritage], and I think it’s well worth raising. I won’t try to convince [them that they’re] wrong and I’m right. I’ll just say that I believe it’s possible to be both critical of the history of our nation and at the same time see it as something worthy of inheriting and bettering in our own time.

 

A Breeze of a Thought For a Departed Friend

I was just browsing in a second hand store looking through antique photos and feeling a little contemplative about the passing of time, people, and all phenomena.
 
A breeze of a thought came to me as this lovely older gender non-conforming brilliantly loop-earringed white-haired man was carefully wrapping up the picture frames I bought. Here is that breeze of a thought….
 
“Hello, dear friend who recently exited my life, our lives, and this world. I think I have to admit that my life has become anemic and sometimes spirit-less without your nuanced intelligence and appreciation for precious objects and the care-taking of uniqueness …. You, the archiver of all things, the curator of a great collection of beautiful minds, and a fearless investigator into all realms of knowledge and experience. It was an honor to know you.”
 
And here I am, practicing patience, setting aside my time to make room for this lovely gender-non conforming, brilliantly white haired, loop-earringed man to carefully wrap picture frames I would just as easily have thrown into a bag to be on my gloomy way. I desired for him to enjoy the pleasure of investing care into what he regarded as precious. I think my departed friend would have wanted that for him, too.
 
Ah, yes, the lovely details of the present moment. The honoring of people who cross out paths. And the welcoming of new, high caliber friends who help us to make the unbearable bearable.
 
This is not a Mournday. It is a Moonday. As the tide rises and falls with the Moon, so my heart closes and opens in proportion to my fortune of knowing and being in communication with great, great hearts.
 
Happy Monday, friends new and old.

Peace for Self, Not The Only Path

Recently I’ve been reading spiritual posts and commentary in various online social media groups.  In these kinds of threads, I am frequently reminded of the conflict between “man of the world” and “man of the spirit” and find myself puzzled about how to integrate the two. Many people who consider themselves to be on the spiritual path will suggest that we learn to allow space for violence, cruelty, social unrest, systems of inequality and preventable suffering. The idea goes that individuals must become enlightened  to the true nature of Existence if they are to have any genuine impact.

Three years ago, I was in dialogue on a social media site about the issue of police brutality (which at the time was an issue I was strongly interested in). The commenter I was speaking with suggested that people stop reading the media stories about police brutality and learn to be peaceful within themselves, instead of getting too preoccupied with injustice. The commenter when on to state that withdrawal and meditation was the way towards peace and “raising the collective consciousness of humanity.”

The idea that personal peace and enlightenment must be reached before we seek any meaningful change in society is an old and stubborn one. Looking within and not getting involved in the outer world is said to be compassionate because it can be transformative for the individual. I can appreciate this view and to some degree I think it’s useful to become aware of our patterns and not to react automatically to outer circumstances or events. Even more, I appreciate the healing and insight that comes from meditation and learning to be open-heartedly present to our immediate experience.

But, I think the form of “transcendental stewardship” where we disengage from the world’s problems and go deeper into the impersonal, spiritual realms of consciousness is only one of the ways in which we can contribute to healing, wholeness and the relief of suffering. Without recognizing, addressing, and alleviating the traumatic conditions we have the power to influence, it seems to me that we abandon fellow sentient beings to conditions that are not favorable to the “awakening” of consciousness or spirit. Traumatizing events can hold people back from the luxury of even considering the possibility of a benevolent underlying spiritual force. This is especially true for people who experience the ongoing traumatization of being held in captivity in abusive situations such as tyrannical governments, relationships with violent intimate partners, and the slow inner death of working in a toxic workplace environment.

Trauma in all its forms keeps people far away from the spiritual aspect of things. Being peaceful, watching one’s thoughts, and merging with the lovely one-ness of it all is a far-away fantasy for victims of violence and cruelty, and it’s fair to keep that in perspective when we want to remind people of the ultimate and fundamental goodness of reality and the illusion of the life of ego.

I think if we are serious about the project of raising the “collective consciousness”, we would want to do our part to relieve the traumatizing circumstances experienced by other people, so that they might be able to sit down and be with themselves and allow their minds to let go into the present moment. We would want to participate in changing systems that systematically cause harm to people. We would want to at the very least acknowledge the circumstances people are in and hold back from criticizing people for not being spiritual enough.

A question arises. Should we expect ourselves to not have emotional reactions to external phenomena? Is that somehow an indicator of the level of a person’s enlightenment? If I can watch the graphic depiction of police brutality in the video below with non-reactive awareness, I can imagine that my actions in the real world will be more proportionate, efficient and unclouded by messy emotions. Perhaps, my actions might be objective and not volatile.  Then again, there may be a place in within transcendental awareness for experiencing -and not rejecting or judging- outrage, anger, anguish, grief, and interpersonal empathy when darkness and violence arises in our experience.

Not to participate in necessary change may be the right choice for spiritually enlightened individuals who have come to transcend human worldly concerns, having come to identify completely with Spirit, or Consciousness, etc. But, for those of us still hanging on at the sides of the mountain, the choice to participate in alleviating the dark circumstances of other sentient beings is a choice that is as right as rain.

Warning: The video below depicts NYPD officers throwing a pregnant woman onto her belly and shoving another woman hard enough to hurl her across the concrete, breaking her arm. As an exercise, I watched the video, breathed calmly and took note of emotional reactions as they arise in different parts of my body.

The Postmodern Fallacy of Dominance

I wrote this on a social media thread, and chose to use ALL CAPS as a metaphor for the theme of domination and power that I was exploring. I have been influenced to use ALL CAPS in a non-angry way by another writer whose writing on philosophy and spirituality is superb. Somehow his capitalized expressions do not come across as yelling but as emphasizing (as if italicized).

*********
So, this philosopher Derrida is very popular with the young activist crowd (and some old ones, too). He’s the guy who made an IDEA extremely popular… the idea that all systems, relationships and momentary exchanges are hierarchical in nature and are rooted entirely in POWER dynamics and the drive to DOMINATE.

Derrida went on to exhort us all to FLIP the hierarchy at every possible turn. In other words, we are called to reverse the power dynamics at all times… moment by moment… individuals and systems.

With this premise, it’s perfectly understandable why entire frameworks are created with a straight-out-of-the-gate adversarial stance against “the other” and the feverish drive to “dismantle” all things created and to win back the power that was stolen.

But, a question arises.

What if the original premise is incorrect? What if some -or perhaps many- people simply interacted with us out of the desire to connect? What if some -or perhaps many- people recognized differences in wealth, fortune and status between them and us and desired to share at least part of what they have with us? What if some -or perhaps many- people are simply not AWARE of these differences or how they fail to SEE us or our suffering and oppression?

What if the central premise of POWER and domination being at the root of all systems and relationships is not entirely accurate? What if this premise is just an INVENTED position based from painful personal experience and not a DISCOVERED pattern based on objective observations over time?

I ask this, because I have seen so many other premises (or operating PRINCIPLES) driving the behaviors and creations of individuals, communities and even entire systems…. lust, desire, longing, existential despair, desire for comfort, winning, striving for excellence, creating beauty, new discoveries, the seeking of justice, intentional ignorance of unpleasant realities, fear of death…. turning away from abuses…. and so forth.

Then there is the wondrous delight of building, innovating and creating….. and the ancient, universal and natural patterns of loving, belonging and nurturing…. so, so, so, so, SO much more to all of this than the Game of Thrones.

At least that has been my experience.

In recent years, I’ve seen relatives killed with bullets by law enforcement, dear friends lost forever to addiction, abuse and cruelty, students stabbed to death and shot outside their homes, liars getting away with lies, and the emergence of a culture of ridicule that demands that we diminish the all too real suffering of those whom we stand against.

And, yet I still cannot get behind the idea that life is all about domination, oppression and control. I believe in the goodness of people, even now.

What if re-designing and re-purposing lazily and selfishly designed systems for the betterment of all involved at least some degree of kinship with “them”… if only in the secret chambers of our minds?

What if a person who writes out ideas and questions like these doesn’t have any answers or solutions at all?

What if the answers we find in writers and thinkers lead us further away from ourselves and from one another?

What if this is all just an addiction to “the fight” to escape ourselves?

Human Rights: Allies and the Practice of Human Dignity

I have a friend who is a little older than I. He has been involved in activism for marginalized communities for decades now, and I consider him a mentor, as he is always on top with the most up-to-date trends and learnings within the larger human rights universe.

Just a year ago, my friend turned me onto this essay, which is one of the best and most authentic pieces I have ever read on the subject of building alliances towards the goal of attaining a society based on equality and rights for all. I would like to see this article become a required text for young people learning about human rights, race, gender, LGBT issues and equality. It would go a long way in softening the unnecessary adversarial stance against majority identity groups and reducing the dehumanization and stereotyping of “the enemy”.

 Activist leaders and progressive educators exercise immense power and influence over young, impressionable people searching for purpose and belonging, and it seems important to be responsible with that influence by teaching compassion alongside outrage.
 
Treating allies with dignity is not coddling or kowtowing to power, entitlement, or privilege. It is the call to practice the principles we wish to promote. As this essay tells us, it is a disciplined political act to steadily work at building the coalitions and sustaining the relationships that will help us get from here to there.
 

Because in the end, Nicholas Powers reminds us…. love is thicker than blood.

 

In Praise of Allies: Wherever we’re going, we’ll only get there together

More Thoughts on the Servant Leadership Model

I’ve been thinking a lot about the current political discourse on the national level, and the proliferation of the ego-centered leadership style across the spectrum of political, professional, and social subcultures. This has always been an important issue, because when we look around us, there are more leaders than we sometimes realize.

When we consider, for example, a popular, well-connected artist in a local arts scene or an outstanding small business owner who has a following and a golden tongue, we can say that the artist and business leader both have influence (power) and thus can be seen as leaders, if only in the informal sense. We can also say that a family member is a leader if that family member has formal authority as a parent, or as the oldest child of an elderly parent who has Alzheimers. While they may not be national heroes or infamous villains, a well-connected local artist, a small business owner, and the head of a family all have a profound impact on the spiritual lives of the people in their communities.

This is an important point that bears repeating. A leader on any scale has a profound impact on the spiritual life and well-being of an entire community. It is for this reason that we must never take for granted a leader’s motivations, actions or words. And, considering the universal presence of leadership in all aspects of human life, we must continually revisit the question of what constitutes quality leadership, and the potential consequences of promoting narcissists into leadership positions (or elevating them to the heights of power in any setting, from family settings to social movements). We also need to re-visit the devastating impact of enabling narcissistic power moves and maintaining our silence in the presence of the abuse of power. As many have come to realize in recent years, there is a growing trend of selfishness (even cruelty) and short-sightedness in leadership and decision-making on all levels of society. The frightening thing is, we have come not only to expect these qualities in our leaders, but to admire them. Selfish narcissism has become king, and we’re more okay with it than ever.

One important response to this trend is to promote its opposite. With this in mind, I often find myself promoting the practice of Robert Greenleaf’s model of Servant Leadership in writing and in conversation. This leadership framework has gained traction in recent years and has earned respect among organizational psychologists, leadership scholars, political theorists and business management experts.

According to Greenleaf, Servant Leadership begins with the idea that leaders must see themselves as servants first, and leaders second, if they hope to make a difference or to build a sustainable enterprise. For these leaders, leadership is not a status or station. It is an electrical current that moves simultaneously with directionality and permeability. In directionality, we see continuous movement oriented towards a goal. In permeability, we see the ongoing reality of intersubjectivity, in which the leader is both influencer and influenced. In this state of affairs, a genuine leader’s confidence and humility are fused together in a dynamic balance.

Put in a less philosophic way: Servant Leaders believe that when they find themselves in a position of power on any level, it’s up to them to set a standard of decency and thoughtfulness, to establish a mission that others can get behind, and to continually check in with their people to remind them that they matter and to inspire them to proceed.

A Servant Leader’s explicit aim is to serve others by generating what can be called “spiritual capital.” A capitalist in the true sense of the word is a person who generates capital, invests that capital, spends that capital meaningfully and re-invests that capital responsibly. Imagine if the substance of that capital was the human spirit. How much better would our world be?

For Servant Leaders, successful leadership on any scale -whether building a city or constructing a fence relies chiefly on the willingness to engage people’s humanity and intelligence, and their preternatural desire to be safe, happy and respected.

These leaders do not lie, do not complain, and do not ask those with less power in a situation to look up to them or to feel sorry for them for taking on the burden of leadership. They listen to concerns, and they do not shame or disappear people who raise them. Instead, they thank people for raising concerns, they address those concerns, and they act upon the wisdom derived from addressing those concerns.

The question of how a person arrives at this moral level of leadership, I’ll have to leave to others, at least for now. But, there is no question about the healing, productive qualities of humility, vulnerability, and the strength and personal power that comes from treating others with dignity and working with them to build a benevolent world.

 

Servant Leadership in a World of Extraordinary Need

*I’m re-posting this essay in its entirety. It was first published in 2014.

In early October, I was walking with a friend.  We were discussing the topic of compassion, and he said something striking.

“Compassion is not boundless.  To be effective, it needs to be channeled into a specific locality or sphere in which you have the influence to make at least a part of the world a better place.”

This quote is a good starting place for introducing the concept of Servant Leadership, because the sphere of influence and the compassionate vision of a Servant Leader are broad indeed.

Robert K. Greenleaf, who founded the “Center for Applied Ethics” in 1964, coined the term Servant leadership.  After he died in 1990, the name of his organization was changed to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.  At the present time, the Servant Leadership movement representing the ideas of Robert Greenleaf is under the stewardship of Larry Spears.

What is Servant Leadership?

Greenleaf spent more than 40 years after early retirement researching management, leadership, education, and organizational culture.  Over time, he came to the conclusion that the institutions in this country -both public and private- are suffering from a “crisis in leadership.”

In the Essay that started it all, Servant as Leader, Greenleaf introduces a vision of leadership in which leaders see themselves as servants first and leaders second.  Leadership is viewed as an instrument of serving the greater good, not as an end itself, and the search for and acquisition of power or influence is always subsumed into the overarching desire to be of service.

Servant Leaders are fundamentally about people and define the stakeholders in their sphere of influence quite broadly, including colleagues, subordinates, and boards of directors/trustees, clients and even the world at large.  They place the needs of their people as primary and will not sacrifice the needs of the organization they lead in the service of furthering their own careers.

Before I elaborate on the conceptual framework and human values around Servant Leadership, I want to say a few words about the title I chose for this section.  The wording of the title was borrowed from an article by legal scholar David Yamada, the author of the Healthy Workplace Bill.  His title is “The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary need.”  This article is worth a read, as are all of David’s writings that I have been introduced to.

Though I did not know David personally when I first drafted the original version of this essay, I was fortunate to meet him at a healthy workplace brainstorming conference he recently organized at Suffolk Law University. For this gathering in the fall of 2015, David invited six professionals from various fields to present works-in-progress for feedback from the other presenters and from others who attended the conference. As one of the presenters, my contribution included the importance of promoting positive models for organizational leadership and strategies for neutralizing covert aggression in the workplace.

Interestingly, David Yamada has been recognized in recent months as one of the 30th most influential organizational/industrial psychologists alive in the world. The only thing surprising about this is the fact that David -a legal scholar and professor at Suffolk Law University- is not, in fact, a formal organizational psychologist. Yet, the honor so bestowed is apt indeed. A lifetime of study, investigation, and development of insights in the recognition of the patterns of organizational behavior that adversely impact the micro and macro levels of society is worthy not only of recognition but of a movement.

At the present time, David Yamada is one of my favorite authors in the areas of human dignity, workplace ethics and social responsibility. It is with his encouragement that I have been putting out more writings on Servant Leadership.

Why We Will Always Need Leadership

The world has always been in extraordinary need, and that’s not going to change.  We live on a planet with natural laws, including weather patterns, ecosystems, and the presence of a large variety of organisms all competing with one another for survival.  The common reality faced by all organisms is the inevitability of death and the desire to continue on with living until that inevitable event happens.

For individual human beings, survival includes the need to be safe, accepted, nourished and happy as defined by each individual.  A significant portion of our survival is addressed by the development of society, which includes the development of local, national and international laws and armed services which protect us, physical infrastructures that transport and house us, agricultural systems that feed us, medical services that heal us, and institutions that organize, educate and serve us.

So, we can’t get away from the fact that human beings need organizations, both small and large to take care of our world.   We are continually organizing resources, building/managing institutions that curate and distribute those resources, and placing people in leadership positions to provide direction in the management of those resources. Leadership is also needed to facilitate the ongoing development and management of abstract resources like scientific knowledge, political and economic theory, moral frameworks and religious/spiritual systems.

Like it or not, we will always need organizations, which means that we will always need leaders.

Put in the plainest possible terms, human beings are called upon to be stewards of our world, and this means we are sometimes called upon to take initiative and to step out in front of others to influence the direction of that stewardship.  In the best possible scenario, those of us who choose to step out possess the fundamental asset that best qualifies us to ask others to place their trust in us: empathy.

In optimal circumstances, people in leadership positions care about people and act in good faith to actively serve them.   But, even a cursory glance at the leadership landscape reveals to us that many leaders operate out of narcissism, ego-centric agendas, and short-term gains at the expense of others, and frequently act with a destructive, even sadistic need to triumph over people.

The world is burning, because we fail to recognize the traits of narcissistic leadership and continue to promote narcissistic leaders into positions of power throughout the entire maze of society’s institutions.  We need to learn how to spot these people before elevating them.  But, more importantly, we need to learn how to spot those we can trust to take responsible stewardship of our resources.

It’s time for us to identify the traits we can expect from genuinely caring leaders, and we need to promote the understanding of those traits far and wide, if we hope to adequately attend to the extraordinary needs of the world we share.

We can start by examining the characteristics and behaviors of Servant Leaders.

A Servant Leader’s Worldview

I want to repeat the quote from my friend to illuminate an important aspect of a Servant Leader’s worldview.

“Compassion is not boundless.  To be effective, it needs to be channeled into a specific locality or sphere in which you have the influence to make at least a part of the world a better place.”

I believe he meant to say that compassionate action is not boundless.  Maturity informs us that no single individual, ideology or group is going to “save the world”, and experience has proven the disastrous results for those who have tried.  An imperial attitude of domination -however well meaning- will always meet with fierce resistance, and when greatness succumbs to grandiosity, a hero always burns.

But empathy and compassion can indeed be boundless.  The modern-day adage “Think globally, Act Locally” sums this up pretty well.  Our actions have an impact on the vast web of inter-related relationships and systems throughout the world, and those of us who understand and act in accordance with this understanding naturally develop over time a sense of kinship and empathy with people -and even animals- that we don’t know personally.  And, when people with this worldview act, it is always with the understanding of the impact of that action on the world.  They act locally with a vast global attitude.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to delve into how a person comes to the fulcrum of development in which she genuinely empathizes with literally billions of others.  It also needs to be pointed out that the paradigm of perfect, altruistic enlightenment in a single individual can be harmful because it’s an impossible ideal.

Servant Leaders are not and can never be perfect, altruistic flawless human beings.  But, they can, and often do practice the principles that inform their greatest moments of clarity and good will.  In those moments, the servant who has chosen to lead recognizes with crystal clarity the responsibility he has to take care of the present.  He recognizes that taking care of the present can help to take care of the future for people he will never even meet.

This is most certainly a boundlessly compassionate worldview, and it matters a great deal in a world of extraordinary need.

But, Servant Leadership should not be viewed as a station of completed development or evolution.  Rather, it should be viewed as a cultivated attitude and as a practice.  Part of that practice includes the commitment to humility, listening to others, and to remain open to new knowledge and learning. Although the framework for Servant Leadership is relatively simple, Greenleaf identified a number of observable qualities in servants who choose to lead.

Ten Principles of Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf developed a list of ten principles that guide the Servant Leader.  The principles I have outlined below are drawn from the literature, but the descriptions are in my own words.  For a more in-depth look at the Ten Principles, I recommend the writings of Larry S. Spears, who currently leads the Robert Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Listening – A servant leader truly listens to people, not just to understand but to address needs as they arise and are communicated.  Surprisingly, humility is not listed as one of the top characteristics of Servant Leadership, but can be included here as the close cousin to listening.  Without humility, the servant leader can never learn and certainly has no reason to listen.

 

Empathy – Compassionate leaders care about people they are working with, the people served by the enterprise they are leading, and the community in which their organization operates, including the larger world community.

Healing – A leader who cares about people is committed to wholeness and healing.  If she recognizes a deficiency or need in a person, she works to find ways for that person to heal and to become more complete.  This is not an annoying distraction from the organizational mission or business bottom line, but an important part of building and sustaining a team of mutually trusting partners.

Awareness – A person who has formal authority in any situation, including a workplace, group project or national organization has enormous power to make a difference.  This is why it’s key to elevate people to leadership positions who have a sophisticated awareness about many things.  Awareness of the impact of their work, the patterns of behavior on their team, and the importance of gathering information from multiple sources to ensure the best way forward.

Persuasion – Leaders who care about people do not cause harm.  They recognize that forcing others to act or to take a position is a harmful action, and thus, seek to persuade people with reasoned argument and an appeal to the mission.  They are not coercive.

Conceptualization – Like Transformational Leaders, Servant Leaders provide a compelling framework for the work they are doing in concert with others.  They take care to build concepts that appeal to the hearts and minds of people and that promote values that directly relate to the mission.

Foresight – Socially responsible leaders look ahead to potential fallout and beneficial outcomes of their actions and the actions of the enterprises they lead.  They contemplate not only the ways in which their organization might benefit from specific actions but how decisions and actions impact their people and the community around them.  In other words, they take the long view.

Stewardship – The word stewardship has become a popular piece of jargon, but the principle is profound and important.  Too many stories are coming out that tell the tale of a CEO who comes on board at the eleventh hour of a business and runs it into the ground before walking away with millions of dollars and a large workforce unemployed and destitute.  A Servant Leader comes on board to rescue the business or to work with people to find ways to close the business that can benefit the largest amount of people as possible.  She takes seriously her responsibility to steward the enterprise in a way that helps the micro-community of the business or organization and the macro-community in which the enterprise operates.

Commitment to the Growth of People –  This is a big one.  Regardless of the original mission or reason that people come together, a leader who wishes to serve the common good is first and foremost committed to growing as a person, allowing others to help her grow as a person, and helping other people to grow.  Whether coming together to record a music album, making a full-length feature film, running a public school, or building a legal case, the people with formal authority to set the tone for the community of people always have their eye on the common good as the greater, over-arching purpose.  In this category, stewardship takes on a broader meaning.  What is ultimately and always stewarded is the building of a better world because people have the chance to grow.

Building Community – All of the above principles act in concert to build a positive community.  Because of the principles of listening, awareness, persuasion, stewardship, healing, awareness and empathy, there is little room for a “cult of personality.”  Furthermore, if the conceptualization of the community’s mission is clear and includes foresight, there will be a built-in understanding of the ways in which authoritarianism and “cultishness” can be avoided.  This is partly related to a commitment to the growth of people.  People can only grow if a community isn’t all about the “leader” and if there’s room for feedback and development of the leader himself.  Ultimately, this kind of community is made up of Servant Leaders, all of whom take turns to step into the role of stewarding the community’s process at one time or another.

Criticism of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership can also be called socially responsible leadershipcaring leadership, or even steward leadership.  Boiled down to its essence, this is a leadership philosophy that makes caring about people the most important thing.

It would be difficult to argue that leaders should not care about people.  But, while most critics would agree that caring leaders are needed in the world, some have argued that this leadership style subtly and deceptively contains a gender bias, a patriarchal stance, and a strong representation of the myths and moralities in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Some have even referred to it not as a leadership philosophy but a leadership theology pointing out what they consider a strong religiosity and the occasional reference to the word “spiritual” in some of the literature.

Although Servant Leadership in recent years has steadily gained recognition as a viable model for positive, ethical and efficient leadership among leadership experts and social scientists such as Margaret Wheatley and Peter Senge from the MIT Sloane School of Management, it is by no means a universally accepted paradigm.

The main criticism is that this model of leadership is paradoxically both ambiguous and over-prescriptive, as this framework a) doesn’t catalogue empirically observable behaviors and b) doesn’t take into account the diverse perspectives and insights that arise within a community, instead relying on a predetermined ideology.  This, according to critics, is counterintuitive to the post-modern age of facilitative approaches to decision-making in which all stakeholders participate and retain their own autonomy culturally and ideologically.

I can appreciate some of these criticisms, and the fact that Robert Greenleaf was a white, male Christian easily opens this model up to being discredited.  At some point, I hope to write a response to an essay criticizing Servant Leadership from a feminist perspective. In that piece, I will respond to the microanalysis and socio-cultural deconstruction of the assumptions, aims, language and contradictions inherent in this leadership philosophy.

For now, I just want to make one point.

Stewardship is an attitude of wanting to take care of our world.  A person who has an attitude of wanting to help (be of service) will identify problems and work to find ways to solve those problems.  If that person winds up in a position of formal authority, he is likely to want to develop people on his team or in his organization.  This means he will be able to notice frustration in those who feel they lack a voice.  He will most likely want to remove that frustration or help to neutralize it by adopting a participative approach in which that person will have a voice.  And the organization will be all the better for it, because the information gleaned from the participative process will most likely lead to more informed decisions.  This will help the enterprise and help sustain long-term relationships within the community, team or organization.

So, the assumption that Servant Leadership necessarily precludes an egalitarian approach to decisions is just that.  An assumption.  And, an unexamined one, at that.

The key is empathy.  When a person of formal authority genuinely cares about people and has a compassionate attitude, he will use whatever leadership models and strategies available to him that can get the best results and maximize the benefits for the largest amount of people.  Sometimes, this will be participative, and sometimes it might be transformational.  Leaders who serve (or servants who lead) are the ultimate situational leaders because they are aware and emotionally intelligent enough to understand the full potential of these models and strategies.

We can go around in circles, critically analyzing and making sure never to allow any one theory, individual, group or position to dominate (a major preoccupation that postmodernists/deconstructionists have), or we can be honest about the fact that leaders will always be around and that we need to promote at the very least the fundamental value of having a heart.

Heart matters in a world of extraordinary need.

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The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work

I want to review a very useful book today. It’s called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work. To my great fortune, I was turned onto the works of author Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D about five years ago by a close friend. This is one of Elgin’s greatest works, and should be included among the greatest  contributions to the healthy workplace movement.

Elgin, a linguist, goes into great detail about the ways in which language can be strategically employed to both undermine and enhance the mission and culture of the workplace. She begins by examining the power of language and the importance of “cleaning up” the “language environment” in our workplaces, and goes on to explore the concepts of semantic features (the unique impact on different individuals of specific word choices) and recognizing and responding to what she calls Verbal Attack Patterns (VATs).

The most powerful chapter in the book is titled “Malpractice of the Mouth.” In this chapter, we are introduced to the importance of recognizing “verbal violence” and the responsibility we have to recognize and neutralize verbal violence whenever it surfaces in the workplace, especially if we find ourselves the target. The overarching goal in verbal self defense is to navigate the hostile mode of workplace aggressors towards the mode of “Leveling”. In Elgin’s description, Levelers are people who are straightforward and sincere, even if this sometimes involves a critique of the performance or views of a colleague.

The mode of Leveling does not involve aggression -especially covert aggression- and is the preferred communication mode for those who wish to make the workplace more productive and harmonious. Covert aggression, on the other hand, is the preferred mode of those who wish to “get under the skin” and undermine the confidence of their colleagues. In situations involving covertly aggressive verbal attacks, Elgin offers a way out. First, she instructs the reader in how to recognize the tactic of hiding “buried presuppositions” in verbal attacks. A crass example of this can be seen in the following sentence:

“When did you stop starving your parakeets?”

Three “facts” are presupposed in the previous sentence. 1. You have parakeets. 2. You began starving those parakeets at one point in time; 3. You ended the practice of starving the parakeets at another point in time.

If in fact you own parakeets (but have never starved them in the first place), according to Elgin’s strategies for verbal self defense, you will need to respond to the most important presupposition (that you began starving your parakeets) in order to neutralize the attack. She offers several strategies for accomplishing this task in ways that preserve the dignity of both the “verbal attacker” and the target.

I will be presenting hypothetical scenarios in future posts, in which I will explore the various strategies for handling covert aggression in workplaces, social communities, and group projects.

I want to end the post with a final thought.

It only takes a one or two individuals to compromise the mission of an entire organization, and this compromise is almost always built upon the consistent use of covertly aggressive tactics. Most of us care about the work we do, and it would be wise for us to hold these individuals in check. Whether we name the tactics workplace bullying, covert aggression, manipulation, or verbal violence, we need to learn to recognize them and de-fang them if we hope to do great work in a mission-driven atmosphere.

This excellent book will go a long way in that endeavor.

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The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work

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Stewardship Across Domains

Below is an adaptation of a passage from the essay “All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision”.

A simple definition of stewardship is “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted in one’s care.” In the context of organizational or project leadership, stewardship involves the commitment to the creative, professional and personal development of the people themselves.

Responsible stewardship of a culture has an enormous impact on a group or organization’s  mission. This is why stewardship has become so popular in recent years in the fields of organizational learning and in academic circles.  In fact stewardship has become a trend across multiple domains, including religious ones. Although the framework is markedly different, the principles of stewardship appear to be very much the same in all of them.

Christian theology, for example, has embraced the principles of stewardship over the past few decades and goes by a number of names, including Christian Stewardship, Biblical Stewardship, and Co-management with God. In the essay, “Four Principles of Biblical Stewardship”, Christian writer Hugh Whelchel presents a framework elucidating the four principles of ownershipresponsibilityaccountability and reward, all of which form the foundation for stewardship in the Christian faith. The fourth principle is explicitly Biblical in the sense that the reward for carefully and thoughtfully attending to what is needed in our sphere of influence is rewarded in the Afterlife. The overall message of Whelchel’s conception of stewardship is the expansiveness of this worldview, the sense that we have responsibility for the world we’ve inherited.

But, this expansive take on stewardship can be seen in Mahayana Buddhism as well. In that tradition, the Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) forestalls complete enlightenment until all other sentient beings are saved (or are liberated from the wheel of rebirth). From the standpoint of a cosmology which includes billions of lifetimes for each seed of consciousness, the Ultimate Steward is one who vows to return to the world of suffering to offer healing and compassion to those who continue to traverse the lower rungs of karmic life (animals, insects, and human beings born to misfortune or “lower births”).

A number of Mahayana traditions forgo the entire cosmology and define the Bodhisattva’s commitment to include putting other’s first and doing all that one can to take care of the world . As the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it, “instead of holding our own individual territory and defending it tooth and nail, we become open to the world that we are living in. It means we are willing to take on greater responsibility, immense responsibility.”

Of course, religions and spiritual movements have not cornered the market on stewardship. For example, we have the secular strand from the Progressive movement in the form of Environmental Stewardship. This movement stands on the premise that we are called upon to take care of our world -literally, as the world in this instance means “the Earth.”

Regardless of the particular domain in which stewardship is sought to be employed, the overarching philosophy and practice is very much the same. But, there is one domain in which stewardship takes on a deeper dimension, and it’s impact cannot be overestimated: Interpersonal stewardship.

More on this at a later time.

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“I Miss Who I Was”… says a former student

The following is an excerpt from an essay I’ve been writing. The essay is called “All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision.”

In June, 2013, I was walking on a bike path, listening to mixes of “Eleventh Hour Shine” on my headphones.

“Mr. Lawrence!” a voice yelled out, cutting through the music.

I recognized him right away. It was a former student of mine, who I’ll call “John.” Upon seeing me, John, now a high school senior, threw his bike down and stood to face me. I was taken aback at first, having just been ripped out of the imaginary world of “Pragnus Gray”, so very far away from the world of teaching and adult responsibility.

“John!” I heard myself say reflexively. I remembered him well. He had been a student of mine some years earlier when he was in the 8th grade. Under the warm sun, we exchanged the usual small talk I always engage in when running into former students. I offered the standard “stay in school” meme that I had become so accustomed to, and John updated me on his schooling life. But, then he said something that I’ll never forget.

“I miss you.” I was taken aback at the utter lack of embarrassment -the complete absence of calculated pride- in such a statement.

But almost immediately he looked up and to the side, as if searching for a clarifying followup statement. And then he came up with this:

“I miss who I was.”

Ah-ha! That was it! It wasn’t me that John missed, after all.

He missed himself.

What followed was a brief conversation about the depressing conditions in his current school, the lack of empowerment he was experiencing in his classes and the relegation of his mind and heart to the permanent station of being a Special Ed student and all that comes with that. His current teachers apparently could not see past his deferential demeanor, simple speech patterns, and guilelessness. They could not see his depth of emotional intelligence or his fierce determination to grow beyond the category that had come to define and limit him.

After a few minutes, we parted ways, returning to our respective lives. John was on his way back to the small world of hopelessness and confining boundaries he had always known. I was traveling back to the much larger world of agency, creativity and the process of finding the invigorating unknown.

Walking to the recording studio, I looked back at the time John was in my class. I remembered promoting him to the role of Newsroom Manager in a Journalism class I taught, where students and I produced a newspaper. I remember well my choice to lend him a blazer to help him grow into the leadership role, to build a sense of personal strength, pride and dignity that he could not yet see, but which were obvious qualities I knew he possessed.

I have to admit, there was not a little resentment brewing in me at the time. I felt a tinge of anger at the fact that once again a student born with the short end of the stick was stuck with these cynical, deadened adults with no vision for the possible, no belief in who he could become, and no insight into who he was. I had known a few educators like this, and it didn’t sit well with me.

But, I’ve also known educators who were just the opposite. Educators who tirelessly, ceaselessly, and gladly magnetized students towards their highest potentials, love of self, and the discovery of that Great Apparatus that transcends, race, gender, religion, creed and all other categories.

The Heart.

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Another Straw Man in the Torture Debate

This morning, I read an article with the title “Bryan Fischer: Torture Is A Christian Value.”  The title is certainly a grabber, but its level of deception doesn’t meet even minimal journalistic standards.

This man said no such thing.

If my post below became a sensational headline, it would read, “Lawrence states that Bryan Fischer’s Logic for Torture is Moral and Sound.”

Of course, that’s not at all what I mean in the six paragraphs below. But, in today’s age, we often score points by ignoring a main argument, selecting words with the most incendiary potential, and placing them in an altogether different context to discredit the speaker.

First, I want to say that my opposition to torture is strong and absolute. Torture is cruel, immoral and ineffective. But, I don’t like the title to this headline, because it’s nakedly misleading, setting up a straw man argument, missing the point Fischer is making about international law. In the next paragraph, I’ve amended Fischer’s statement to include an all-caps for the word “right’ (which is the word he stressed) and a bracketed phrase of my own words which helps to describe Fischer’s intended meaning.

BRYAN FISCHER: “They have absolutely no legal rights that they can claim anywhere. So whatever treatment we give them, if there is any mercy involved in it, they have no RIGHT to that [but if anyone does happen to show them mercy]; that is simply because we are a merciful people who are driven by Christian principles.”

After listening to Bryan Fischer’s voice and re-reading his statement, it’s clear that he is not saying torture is a Christian value. HIs logic begins with the fact that terrorists operate outside the boundaries of state and international relations. According to Fischer, as terrorists do not represent a sovereign state that previously participated in the Geneva conventions, they are not technically bound or protected by the rules of engagement -including internationally illegal torture. While those in uniform representing their countries are protected, in Fischer’s view, terrorists are not.

Fischer is also saying that if a terrorist is not an American citizen, s(he) cannot claim any protection under the Constitution, which is an American governmental contract between and among American citizens and their government.

So, in this clip, Fischer is indeed making a logical argument -one, which negates any and all conventional legal protections for terrorists while asserting that any mercy involved in their treatment can only come from the mercy informed by Christian principles. Fischer is clearly stating that mercy is not a “right” under national or international law, but an unofficial privilege. Agree or disagree, but this is what he is saying.

I feel compelled to weigh in here because Fischer’s ACTUAL argument is the right place to engage in real debate. Any argument that uses the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, or any national/international policy or law to deny human rights or justify immoral acts deserves to be thoroughly vetted. The false claim that Fischer justified torture as “a Christian value” is a distraction, and as long as we remain distracted by something that wasn’t even there, the real (and dangerous) legal argument sneaks by un-noticed.

We need the debate. Are terrorists (those whose combat tactics operate outside the boundaries of state) to be denied the legal protections and human rights afforded to combatants who operate within the confines of an actual state or country? I say no. A government should always act from the highest level of state morality, and this means to treat all with dignity.

No to torture. And no to straw men.

Bryan Fischer argues that terrorists are not afforded human rights and protections enjoyed by conventional combatants.

 

The Fuse that Drives the Flower

* This is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

 

Dylan Thomas wrote a famous poem in 1934 called “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”  I don’t quite understand this poem, but the metaphor of a force behind the green fuse that nourishes a flower is a compelling one.

I want to carry this metaphor into the realms of leadership, teamwork, empathy and the drive for excellence.  In a slight departure from this metaphor, I will focus on the green fuse and leave aside the “force”.  I’ll just say that the force could be what the Buddhists call “True Nature”, the Christians call “agape” or “grace” and the non-theistic humanitarian, transpersonal theorist or existentialist philosopher might call “Being”, the natural state of calm beingness that makes it easier to express one’s authentic self.

If the flower of this revised metaphor is a healthy and productive community of whatever scale, then the green fuse that drives that flower is the intentional attitude of maintaining an atmosphere characterized by humility (openness to new learning), respect for others (the ability to “look again” instead of reducing people or their ideas to stale objects), and the willingness to “stay in the conversation”, whether that conversation involves negotiating personal/professional boundaries and relationships or sticking with a complex problem, which is temporarily holding things up.  This is far removed from the usual oppressive, hierarchical and egocentric approach to getting things done, and is ultimately more effective.

This is because, in the absence of an oppressive, frustrating or even traumatizing environment, people are free to be themselves as they are.  They are free to simply “be” without the need to exhaust their energies in reaction to perceived threats or to build hardened defensive shells to shut out negativity, the experience of being shut out or silenced or other dehumanizing external factors.  This kind of atmosphere is an ideal circumstance because it enables discovery, creativity, collaboration and self-expression.

Of course, this scenario does require some direction and guidance.  A laissez-faire, totally-hands-off approach could easily squander the opportunities, so there has to be some leadership, direction or guidance.

A group project, institution or business has the best chance of succeeding if the chief stewards are wise and mature enough to build a culture of architects, a culture in which the potential of others is sought and accessed, or at the very least not stifled.  I would even say that the chief stewards may not need to be wise and mature per se, but brave enough to encourage this kind of culture.  Why brave?  Because it’s brave to let others’ brilliance shine.  It’s brave to allow others to be right.  It’s brave to be called out for something you’re not doing so great.  It’s brave to relinquish control.

It’s brave because it involves some pain.  It’s painful to give up control, to be open to critique, or to not have the answers.  Who doesn’t want to be the most brilliant or to be the one most beyond reproach?  Who doesn’t want things to go her own way without the need to time-consumingly consult others? Being open to this kind of pain is not an easy task, but it’s necessary, because in my view, it’s more reality based. We are not always right, and, by default as human beings, we only have a partial, limited or sometimes even distorted perspective.  Whether due to our conditioning, our personality type, our worldview, or unresolved trauma, we need other people’s perspectives and expertise if we hope to grow as people and to be effective in the work we have set out to do.

The green fuse that drives the flowering of any enterprise is ultimately built on ensuring excellence by respecting and caring about people. It is both efficient and evolutionary.

The Green Fuse
The green fuse that drives the flowering of any enterprise is ultimately built on respecting and caring about people. It is both efficient and evolutionary.

Criticism of Servant Leadership

*This is an excerpt from Chapter 2 in All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

 

Servant Leadership can also be called socially responsible leadershipcaring leadership, or even steward leadership.  Boiled down to its essence, this is a leadership philosophy that makes caring about people the most important thing.

It would be difficult to argue that leaders should not care about people.  But, while most critics would agree that caring leaders are needed in the world, some have argued that this leadership style subtly and deceptively contains gender bias, a patriarchal stance, and  a strong representation of the myths and moralities in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Some have even referred to it not as a leadership philosophy but a leadership theology pointing out what they consider a strong religiosity and the occasional reference to the word “spiritual” in some of the literature.

Although Servant Leadership in recent years has steadily gained recognition as a viable model for positive, ethical and efficient leadership among leadership experts and social scientists such as Margaret Wheatley and Peter Senge from the MIT Sloane School of Management, it is by no means a universally-accepted paradigm.

The main criticism is that this model of leadership is paradoxically both ambiguous and  and over-prescriptive, as this framework a) doesn’t catalogue empirically observable behaviors and b) doesn’t take into account the diverse perspectives and insights that arise within a community, instead relying on a predetermined ideology.  This, according to critics, is counterintuitive to the post-modern age of facilitative approaches to decision-making in which all stakeholders participate and retain their own autonomy culturally and ideologically.

I can appreciate some of these criticisms, and the fact that Robert Greenleaf was a white, male Christian easily opens this model up to being discredited.  At some point, I hope to write a response to an essay criticizing Servant Leadership from a feminist perspective. In that piece, I will respond to the micro-analysis and socio-cultural deconstruction of the assumptions, aims, language and contradictions inherent in this leadership philosophy.

For now, I just want to make one point.

Stewardship is an attitude of wanting to take care of our world.  A person who has an attitude of wanting to help (be of service), will identify problems and work to find ways to solve those problems.  If that person winds up in a position of formal authority, he is likely to want to develop people on his team or in his organization.  This means he will be able to notice frustration in those who feel they lack a voice.  He will most likely want to remove that frustration or help to neutralize it by adopting a participative approach in which that person will have a voice.  And the organization will be all the better for it, because the information gleaned from the participative process will most likely lead to more informed decisions.  This will help the enterprise and help sustain long-term relationships within the community, team or organization.

So, the assumption that Servant Leadership necessarily precludes an egalitarian approach to decisions is just that.  An assumption.  And, an unexamined one, at that.

The key is empathy.  When a person of formal authority genuinely cares about people and has a compassionate attitude, he will use whatever leadership models and strategies available to him that can get the best results and maximize the benefits for the largest amount of people.  Sometimes, this will be participative, and sometimes it might be transformational.  Leaders who serve (or servants who lead) are the ultimate situational leaders because they are aware and emotionally intelligent enough to understand the full potential of these models and strategies.

We can go around in circles, critically analyzing and making sure never to allow any one theory, individual, group or position to dominate (a major preoccupation that postmodernists/deconstructionists have), or we can be honest about the fact that leaders will always be around and that we need to promote at the very least the fundamental value of having a heart.

Heart matters in a world of need.

Postmodernist Deconstructionism
Critical Theory has been helpful over the years in revealing the underlying assumptions and tacit or unacknowledged motivations in theories, frameworks, authority systems and other domains. However, criticism which starts with the premise that nothing can ever be objectively true is itself prejudicial and can devolve into rational nihilism and a profoundly cynical worldview.

 

Ten Principles of Servant Leadership

*This is an excerpt from the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

The following list of principles was s developed by Robert Greenleaf.  The categories are drawn from the literature, but the descriptions are in my own words.  For a more in-depth look at the Ten Principles, please visit this website, which provides a description written by Larry Spears.

Listening – A servant leader truly listens to people, not just to understand but to address needs as they arise and are communicated.  Surprisingly, humility is not listed as one of the top characteristics of Servant Leadership, but can be included here as the close cousin to listening.  Without humility, the servant leader can never learn and certainly has no reason to listen.

Empathy – Compassionate leaders care about people they are working with, the people served by the enterprise they are leading, and the community in which their organization operates, including the larger world community.

Healing – A leader who cares about people is committed to wholeness and healing.  If she recognizes a deficiency or need in a person, she works to find ways for that person to heal and to become more complete.  This is not an annoying distraction from the organizational mission or business bottom line, but an important part of building and sustaining a team of mutually trusting partners.

Awareness – A person who has formal authority in any situation, including a workplace, group project or national organization has enormous power to make a difference.  This is why it’s key to elevate people to leadership positions who have a sophisticated awareness about many things.  Awareness of the impact of their work, the patterns of behavior on their team, and the importance of gathering information from multiple sources to ensure the best way forward.

Persuasion – Leaders who care about people do not cause harm.  They recognize that forcing others to act or to take a position is a harmful action, and thus, seek to persuade people with reasoned argument and an appeal to the mission.  They are not coercive.

Conceptualization – Like Transformational Leaders, Servant Leaders provide a compelling framework for the work they are doing in concert with others.  They take care to build concepts that appeal to the hearts and minds of people and that promote values that directly relate to the mission.

Foresight – Socially responsible leaders look ahead to potential fallout and beneficial outcomes of their actions and the actions of the enterprises they lead.  They contemplate not only the ways in which their organization might benefit from specific actions but how decisions and actions impact their people and the community around them.  In other words, they take the long view.

Stewardship – The word stewardship has become a popular piece of jargon, but the principle is profound and important.  Too many stories are coming out that tell the tale of a CEO who comes on board at the eleventh hour of a business and runs it into the ground before walking away with millions of dollars and a large workforce unemployed and destitute.  A Servant Leader comes on board to rescue the business or to work with people to find ways to close the business that can benefit the largest amount of people as possible.  She takes seriously her responsibility to steward the enterprise in a way that helps the micro-community of the business or organization and the macro-community in which the enterprise operates.

Commitment to the Growth of People –  This is a big one.  Regardless of the original mission or reason that people come together, a leader who wishes to serve the common good is first and foremost committed to growing as a person, allowing others to help her grow as a person, and helping other people to grow.  Whether coming together to record a music album, making a full-length feature film, running a public school, or building a legal case, the people with formal authority to set the tone for the community of people always have their eye on the common good as the greater, over-arching purpose.  In this category, stewardship takes on a broader meaning.  What is ultimately and always stewarded is the building of a better world because people have the chance to grow.

Building Community – All of the above principles act in concert to build a positive community.  Because of the principles of listening, awareness, persuasion, stewardship, healing, awareness and empathy, there is little room for a “cult of personality.”  Furthermore, if the conceptualization of the community’s mission is clear and includes foresight, there will be a built-in understanding of the ways in which authoritarianism and “cultishness” can be avoided.  This is partly related to a commitment to the growth of people.  People can only grow if a community isn’t all about the “leader” and if there’s room for feedback and development of the leader himself.  Ultimately, this kind of community is made up of Servant Leaders, all of whom take turns to step into the role of stewarding the community’s process at one time or another.

Taking care of one another is a principle of stewardship in a world of extraordinary need.
The overarching principle that guides a leader who serves is the commitment to use one’s influence and resources to take care of others, at whatever scale.

A Servant Leader’s Worldview

* This is an excerpt form Chapter 2 of the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

I want to repeat the quote from my friend to illuminate an important aspect of a Servant Leader’s worldview.

“Compassion is not boundless.  To be effective, it needs to be channelled into a specific locality or sphere in which you have the influence to make at least a part of the world a better place.”

I believe he meant to say that compassionate action is not boundless.  We all know that no one individual or group is going to “save the world”, and we all know the results for those who have tried.  An imperial attitude of domination -however well-meaning- will always meet with fierce resistance, and when greatness succumbs to grandiosity, a hero always burns.

But empathy and compassion can indeed be boundless.  The modern-day adage “Think globally, Act Locally” sums this up pretty well.  Our actions have an impact on the vast web of inter-related relationships and systems throughout the world, and those of us who understand and act in accordance with this understanding naturally develop over time a sense of kinship and empathy with people -and even animals- that we don’t know personally.  And, when people with this worldview act, it is always with the understanding of the impact of that action on the world.  They act locally with a vast global attitude.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to delve into how a person comes to the fulcrum of development in which she genuinely empathizes with literally billions of others.  It also needs to be pointed out that the paradigm of perfect, altruistic enlightenment in a single individual can be harmful because it’s an impossible ideal.

Servant Leaders are not and can never be perfect, altruistic flawless human beings.  But, they can, and often do practice the principles that inform their greatest moments of clarity and good will.  In those moments, the servant who has chosen to lead recognizes with crystal clarity the responsibility he has to take care of the present.  He recognizes that taking care of the present can help to take care of the future for people he will never even meet.

This is most certainly a boundlessly compassionate worldview, and it matters a great deal in a world of extraordinary need.

But, Servant Leadership should not be viewed as a station of completed development or evolution.  Rather it should be viewed as a cultivated attitude and as a practice.  Part of that practice includes the commitment to humility, listening to others, and to remain open to new knowledge and learning.

Interconnectedness
According to Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leaders recognize the impact of their actions on the larger world, and thus take care to consciously steward the process of their organizations and teams to help make a better world. They recognize that the world is a vast web of inter-relatedness.

Servant Leadership in a World of Extraordinary Need (Part II)

* This is an excerpt from the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

The world has always been in extraordinary need, and that’s not going to change.  We live on a planet with natural laws, including weather patterns, ecosystems, and the presence of a large variety of organisms all competing with one another for survival.  The common reality faced by all organisms is the inevitability of death and the desire to continue on with living until that inevitable event happens.

For individual human beings, survival includes the need to be safe, accepted, nourished and happy as defined by each individual.  A significant portion of our survival is addressed by the development of society, which includes the development of local, national and international laws and armed services which protect us, physical infrastructures that transport and house us, agricultural systems that feed us, medical services that heal us, and institutions that organize, educate and serve us.

So, we can’t get away from the fact that human beings need organizations, both small and large to take care of our world.   We are continually organizing resources, building/managing institutions which curate and distribute those resources, and placing people in leadership positions to provide direction in the management of those resources. Leadership is also needed to facilitate the ongoing development and management of abstract resources like scientific knowledge, political and economic theory, moral frameworks and religious/spiritual systems.

Like it or not, we will always need organizations, which means that we will always need leaders.

Put in the plainest possible terms, human beings are called upon to be stewards of our world, and this means we are sometimes called upon to take initiative and to step out in front of others to influence the direction of that stewardship.  In the best possible scenario, those of us who choose to step out possess the fundamental asset that best qualifies us to ask others to place their trust in us: empathy.

In optimal circumstances, people in leadership positions care about people and act in good faith to actively serve them.   But, even a cursory glance at the leadership landscape reveals to us that many leaders operate out of narcissism, ego-centric agendas, and short-term gains at the expense of others, and frequently act with a destructive, even sadistic need to triumph over people.

The world is burning, because we fail to recognize the traits of narcissistic leadership and continue to promote narcissistic leaders into positions of power throughout the entire maze of society’s institutions.  We need to learn how to spot these people before elevating them.  But, more importantly, we need to learn how to spot those we can trust to take responsible stewardship of our resources.

It’s time for us to identify the traits we should expect from  genuinely caring leaders and to promote the understanding of those traits far and wide, if we hope to adequately attend to the extraordinary needs of the world we share.

We can start by examining the characteristics and behaviors of Servant Leaders.

Devastation
Leaders who are servants first, will work with others to provide stewardship in a world of extraordinary need.

Servant Leadership in a World of Extraordinary Need, (Part I)

*This is an excerpt from the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

 

In early October, I was walking with a friend.  We were discussing the topic of compassion, and he said something striking.

“Compassion is not boundless.  To be effective, it needs to be channelled into a specific locality or sphere in which you have the influence to make at least a part of the world a better place.”

This quote is a good starting place for introducing the concept of Servant Leadership, because the sphere of influence and the compassionate vision of a Servant Leader is broad indeed.

The term Servant leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, who founded the “Center for Applied Ethics” in 1964.  After he died in 1990, the name of his organization was changed to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.  At the present time, the Servant Leadership movement representing the ideas of Robert Greenleaf is under the stewardship of Larry Spears.

 

What is Servant Leadership?

 

Greenleaf spent more than 40 years after early retirement researching management, leadership, education, and organizational culture.  Over time, he came to the conclusion that the institutions in this country -both public and private- are suffering from a “crisis in leadership.”

In the Essay that started it all, Servant as Leader, Greenleaf introduces a vision of leadership in which leaders see themselves as servants first and leaders second.  Leadership is viewed as an instrument of serving the greater good, not as an end itself, and the search for and acquisition of power or influence is always subsumed into the overarching desire to be of service.

Servant Leaders are fundamentally about people and define the stakeholders in their sphere of influence quite broadly, including colleagues, subordinates, boards of directors/trustees, clients and even the world at large.  They place the needs of their people as primary and will not sacrifice the needs of the organization they lead in the service of furthering their own careers.

Before I elaborate on the conceptual framework around Servant Leadership, I want to say a few words about the title I chose for this section.  The wording of the title was borrowed from an article by legal scholar David Yamada, the author of the Healthy Workplace Bill.  His title is “The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary need.”  The article is worth a read, as are most of the articles David has written.  I do not know David personally, but at the present time, he is one of my favorite authors in the area of workplace ethics and social responsibility.

merlin-robertgreenleaf

Thoughts on Situational Leadership

This is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

 

Situational Leadership  This philosophy of leadership was developed by Paul Hersey, (who wrote a book called Situational Leader), and Ken Blanchard, the author of The One Minute Manager.  Simply stated, situational leadership theory proposes that no one leadership framework can work all the time in all contexts.  The idea is very simple.  Use whatever strategy is needed in the moment.  Use whatever leadership style that is needed in a particular time frame or place.

This makes good sense to me, and it’s almost self-evident.  All of the above modes of leadership have their uses, after all, depending on the variables within and surrounding an organization or project.

But, there’s a vital question in all of this.  For situational leadership to be truly effective, one has to have arrived at a fulcrum of personal development, in which he or she possesses the awareness, skills and insights that can best facilitate the appropriate use of various leadership strategies.

One can take the position that personal growth, awareness and maturity don’t matter, and that leaders only need to be trained in “leadership strategies” to be successful.  But, this position is very hard to defend and begs the following questions:

1.  Can an internal rolodex of strategies be built up over time and expertly executed by a leader regardless of the maturity and intentions of the leader?

2.  Can effective leadership be ensured by generating a list of strategies that can be studied, internalized, and accessed when the need arises in a given situation?

3. If leadership can be reduced to the acquisition of strategems, are some of the tactics and strategies on the list qualitative, involving the personal development of the leader?

The situational leadership model promotes the value of utilizing all modes, styles and frameworks of leadership, but doesn’t offer a satisfying explanation around the personal qualities that need to be developed and available for a leader to make effective use of them all.

Thus, we return once again to the personal character, worldview and development of the leader himself.

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Thoughts on Charismatic Leadership

This post is an excerpt from an essay called All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

 

Charismatic Leadership  This style (or mode) of leadership is difficult to define because it involves what Carl Gustav Jung called participation mystique, the amorphous area of psychological co-participation that involves intense relationships between leaders and followers.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the leader works to hold in check his charismatic energies and remains respectful of the autonomy, intelligence and self-power of her followers.  Charismatic leadership can be a potent antidote to organizational malaise (and perhaps corruption) and can help set things right again under the best of circumstances.

This style of leadership is often the result of the natural personal attributes of the leader(s) and can be seen as a mode of interaction within the overall spectrum of transformational leadership.  Charisma can be powerful indeed when building up individuals and championing a bold, new vision.

But, charisma can also be a destructive force in the individuals and groups who possess it and for those who have the misfortunate to be crushed underneath its weight.

The problem with charismatic leadership is that it often becomes “all about me.”  If the leader is set up as the end-all-be-all, then there is little room for others to grow or to become leaders in their own right.  In addition, followers may eventually give up their own critical thinking capacities by taking in a totalistic ideology that the charismatic leader (or charismatic group) has inculcated in them.  This problem has surfaced time and again in businesses, public institutions spiritual/religious organizations, political campaigns and organizations, the circle of adoration around public intellectuals, and even academia, where teachers can exert a powerful influence over young minds.

To learn more about this phenomenon, I would recommend a book called “The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power”  by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad.  This book is not against spiritual teachings or teachers (nor am I, having taken my Buddhist vows in the late 1990s and attended various retreats in that general vein). The guru/disciple model simply provides a clear foundation for the argument that man must be free from undue influence if humanity is to further evolve.

In the view of the authors, the inherently authoritarian setup of the traditional guru/disciple model best exemplifies the dark and bright sides of authority itself. The second half of the book explores in a clear and lucid way our “inner authoritarian”  -the small child in each of us that wants a surrogate parent to take care of us and to think for us, so that we can feel stable and secure in a ceaselessly changing, sometimes frightening world.

Other books explore similar themes, both secular and spiritual, with a balanced outlook that respects frameworks, ideologies, paradigms and power structures alongside a critical inquiry into the limits of giving up one’s autonomy to another person or belief system. Two books by Jack Kornfield come to mind: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, and A Path With Heart. Both of these books are considered classics in the fields of meditation and spiritual psychology.

In the secular realm, one of the most important books on the subject was published back in 1961 and is still relevant. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism was written by Robert Jay Lifton and explores the “brainwashing” techniques used by the Chinese Communists against their own people and western captives. This book systematically examines the various techniques used by people and groups to subjugate the critical thinking capacities of captives and converts, including “thought-terminating cliches” which are phrases used to shut down a conversation or free thought.

For more on the subject of freeing the self from authoritarianism, the reader may wish to check out “Escape from Freedom” by Eric Fromm.  This book is drier, but a really exciting read intellectually as it takes the reader further into the existential and philosophical dimensions of breaking free to a life of authenticity.

Charismatic Leadership
Charismatic people often attract large numbers of followers. Their charisma can run the gamut from infectiously charming behaviors to powerhouse passion. All too often, a cult of personality can form and it becomes “all about me” rather than the original mission.

Thoughts on Transformational Leadership, Part II

From Chapter 2 of the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

 

Transformational leaders have made a significant impact on our world from the beginning of time.  In all domains of knowledge, social policy and morality, these leaders have inspired others towards greatness, building cities and nations, ending slavery and other forms of injustice, and boldly expanding knowledge of humanity, even at the expense of death or ridicule.

But, to put it bluntly, transformational leadership can be dangerous.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt presided over the United States during the Great Depression and most of America’s involvement in World War II, and is almost universally credited with saving the economic system of the United States and inspiring a nation to collectively roll up its sleeves and work together to defeat fascism abroad.  FDR was without a doubt, a profoundly transformational leader, and he is frequently pointed to as an example of this style par excellence by leadership scholars.

But, so was Adolf Hitler, the Chancellor of Germany and the chief architect of the most devastating war and large-scale murder in the history of the world.  Like Roosevelt, Hitler provided intellectual stimulation, mentored his closest followers (consideration), provided inspirational motivation to the masses, and became the model of the very ideals he promoted in his speeches and policies.

In my understanding, the dark side of transformational leadership can be mitigated by promoting awareness of the dangers of authoritarianism and the need for leaders to encourage others to lead.  Ultimately, the best transformational leaders work to build transformational leadership in their followers and leave behind a legacy that outlasts themselves.  In other words, to be genuinely transformational and positive, leaders should steadily work to make their own selves obsolete.

Admittedly, this is extremely hard to do, which is why transformational leadership so often devolves into the dark side of charismatic leadership.

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler’s Transformational Leadership inspired the largest mass murder and large-scale war in world history.

Thoughts on Transformational Leadership, Part I

From Chapter 2 of the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

 

Transformational Leadership  This style of leadership has powerful pros and cons.  In a time of crisis or change, transformational leaders can build inspiration, commitment and a can-do attitude in those who are part of an organization or project.  Much has been written about transformational leadership, and there are quite a few insights offered by leadership scholars about what transformational leadership looks like and what specific behaviors, attitudes and strategies this style entails.

James MacGregor Burns, a presidential biographer and leadership expert introduced the idea of transformational leadership decades ago, and his framework was further expanded by the work of Bernard M. Bass.  Other leadership scholars have further studied the phenomenon, which has led to a further illumination of the key behaviors of transformational leaders.  Below is a list developed by these researchers of the four key behaviors.  The descriptions are in my own words, but the categories are drawn from the literature.

Key Behaviors of Transformational Leaders

 

  • Individualized Consideration – The transformational leader carefully studies his followers and searches for their gifts and strengths.  Once he understands what they are capable of -and perhaps where their growing edge lies- he works steadily and consistently alongside each individual and helps to transform the latent gifts into fully realized personal visions.  No one in the organization or group project is left to his own devices.  Followers are individually cultivated to be the best they can be.
  • Intellectual Stimulation – Transformational leaders provide a compelling framework for the way forward, clarifying and transforming visions and goals.  The key here is to stimulate the thinking of the organization by satisfying the intellectual appetites of the team.  Ideas are carefully crafted with an eye on the mission, and virtually no ground is left uncovered.  There is no ambiguity around “why we are here.”
  • Inspirational Motivation –  To be truly transformational, a leader must inspire her followers. This behavior is similar to individualized consideration, but the key difference is that the attention is paid to the macro-ideals and values that inform the organization’s mission and goals, in addition to the micro-attention to individuals characterized by individualized consideration.  Here, the transformational leader points to societal goals, shared values, and humanity’s deepest aspirations.  Inspirational motivation goes a long way in transforming an organization, especially in times of crisis.
  • Idealized Influence – This aspect of transformational leadership brings to light the centrality of the leadership-followership paradigm in this style.  There is no question that there is a key figure in the organization or enterprise and that she has become the model for the organization’s values, norms and commitments.  Simply stated, the leader promotes, expresses and inhabits certain values and behaviors.  And the followers -learning by example- eventually emulate and potentially elevate those values and behaviors.  Put another way, the transformational leader intentionally influences her followers towards the adoption of specific ideals and becomes the expression of those ideals.
Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.21.20 PM
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was an extraordinary Transformational Leader, igniting the Civil Rights movement and promoting profound humanistic values among millions of people.

 

 

Thoughts on facilitative leadership

By Steven J. Lawrence © 2014

 From chapter 2 of the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

Facilitative/Participative Leadership  Now, we’re getting closer to a style of leadership that takes people and innovation into account.  Leaders who take the facilitative approach encourage the participation of all members of an organization/project in key decision-making while retaining the formal authority to cast the tie-breaking vote at any time.  The idea is that those closest to the action have information that is vital to informed decision-making.  Thus, dialogue and input is consistently sought and then actions are taken which take into account the information that is learned.

It should be easy to see how gratifying this can be for participants in any group endeavor, whether a rock band, a hospital, or a public university.  For the most part, we can expect those closest to the ground to have developed more specific expertise in their particular skill (or job) than the formal leader.  Thus, it’s important to get their input for the success of the organization.  Moreover, failure to get input can also cause considerable frustration and even resentment throughout the organization.  If this were to persist, the organization or group project would eventually suffer from high turnover, lack of buy-in or investment, and the potential demise of the whole enterprise.

So, participation is key to morale and mission.  But, sometimes, this democratic approach is not enough, and can often lead to “analysis paralysis.”  At some point, after seeking the insights of others, the leader must provide explicit guidance and direction, even if some of her decisions are not universally appreciated.  Pointing the way forward from the “bully pulpit” of formal authority is especially key in times of change or crisis.

Facilitative Leadership
Leaders that build a culture of participation engender a sense of mutual trust, appreciation and investment throughout the organization. They respect and implement the insights and ideas of those closest to the action.

Thoughts on transactional leadership

From chapter 2 of the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

 

Transactional Leadership  This mode of leadership is often found in “middle management”, especially in large bureaucracies.  It is a strictly rules-bound method of leading a project or organization.  The principle is simple.  If you do X, you will receive Y.  If you fail to do X, you will receive -Y.  Rewards and consequences are the name of the game, and “the way we do things here” is the way we will always do things here.  If you’re late, you get written up.  If your sales rise above quota, you get a bonus.  If you write less speeding tickets than expected, you get a written reprimand.

The problem with transactional leadership (when used exclusively as a leadership style) is that innovation and change is nearly impossible.  In a constantly changing world, organizations led by transactional leaders will fail, because of the built-in, rigid and institutionalized resistance to change.  It should be easy to see how quickly change agents are targeted for removal from these places.

Transactional Leadership
Transactional Leadership is a tightly-controlled style of management in which work is heavily codified and quantified. Rewards and consequences are strictly tied to deliverables, and change and innovation is discouraged.

Thoughts on “laissez faire” leadership

I have been writing an essay about collaboration, using the process of making the album “Eleventh Hour Shine” as a case study.  To my surprise, the essay has taken a turn towards the study of leadership.

I’ve decided to post different portions of the essay in individual blog posts.  Today, I’ll present a brief passage about a style of leadership called “laissez faire” or “Delegative” Leadership.

Laissez Faire/Delegative Leadership  This leadership style seems to be the most prevalent in large bureaucracies.  The words laissez faire come from the French and mean “let” (laissez)  “do” (faire).  The phrase was born from a French economic philosophy which champions the idea that an economic system should take its own course without regulation or interference.

As far as leadership is concerned, this style has some merit in that the leader chooses not to micro-manage or interfere with subordinates.  Rather she allows the activities of the organization/project to take their own course and trusts people to do what is needed.  If the right people are hired or brought onto a project or organization -people with an internal locus of value and intrinsically high standards- then this mode of leadership might be effective.  Problem is, this is rarely if ever achieved.

Projects, businesses or organizations with this style of leadership are destined to fail because this mode of leadership doesn’t take into consideration the following factors: 1) There are certain personality types that thrive on clear and directive guidance from people with formal authority.  2) The lack of direction and oversight almost always breeds a power vacuum in which informal authority can be seized by unscrupulous individuals with psychopathic tendencies.  This is why workplace bullying is so prevalent in public bureaucratic institutions.

Laissez-Faire Leader
Laissez-Faire Leadership can lead to organizational malaise and potential chaos.

Death brings “closer to home”

This morning, I awoke with a vivid recollection of numerous moments throughout my life.  It didn’t feel like what the Buddhists call “monkey mind,” the onslaught of chaotic, rapid disconnected thoughts that cause agitation or coagulate into a rigid storyline.

It felt more like the simultaneous visitation of life moments beyond time and space.  Hard to explain.  It was more than just the visual representation of long-ago moments.  It was the presence of positive feelings associated with all of them.

I remember I used to say to myself “which one was my home?” when reflecting on all the changing relationships and situations throughout my adult life.  As I have experienced three sudden deaths in my family this year, this question often comes to the fore with a gentle intensity.  Gentle in the sense that there is no urgency to answer the question.  Intense in that this question is the primary, all-encompassing one at this time in my life.

steve:running on beach:81
Steven at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, spring of 1982

Tibetan Buddhist teacher/scholar Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche often wrote about “the genuine heart of sadness.”  He defines this sadness as an all-encompassing vulnerability, the ability to hold in one’s heart the whole spectrum of the human condition all at the same time without filters, without anger or regret, without fear, and most importantly, without romanticism.  Put another way, all of these feelings both positive and negative can be present simultaneously, and can be accepted, too, as part of that spectrum.  The idea is that when we really look at life in a truly real way, the painful, the beautiful, and the terrifying … if we can really be with that, a feeling of kinship for all things sometimes percolates and we feel a sweet kind of sadness.

That is the feeling I woke with this morning, and I would like to honor those life moments that cascaded through me as I slowly opened my eyes. I’ll just list a few of those moments without much elaboration.

The deep regret and anguish on my frail father’s eyes last October, as I spread my sister’s ashes at sea. He died unexpectedly six months later.

The feeling of “home” whenever I hear country music, which I was introduced to in the early 1980s when my mother, sisters and I sang at country & western jamborees.

The bag of rotting lobster shells filled with maggots, underneath the Route 295 bridge in the summer of 1980 in my hometown Portland, Maine.  I was 10 years old at the time and vividly and immediately recognized that death was a part of all this, and sometimes disgusting and undignified.

The taste of Dr. Pepper and Alexander the Grape candies, mixed with the smell of the Nissen Bread factory, located at the bottom of Munjoy Hill where I once lived with my sister and father.  My life in Portland, Maine was not a happy one, by any means, but there was the feeling of “home” that has never left me.

Now, that my sister and father have both died without saying “goodbye”, that feeling of “home” is a deeply private place now that nobody alive can ever really share with me.

There are many homes I’ve experienced over the years -jobs, friendships, projects and social scenes I identified with.  Now, they are all gone and their memory feels like a series of foreclosures.  There has always been an ending beyond my control, even if the ending was a positive transition to something else.

I recall that the original Guautma Buddha of 2,500 years ago equated the liberated heart with “homelessness”.  Letting go of vanishing realities and impermanent phenomena is akin to dying into all things.  Maybe this is what the genuine heart of sadness is all about.

It just might be that the recognition of my powerlessness over death is bringing me closer to home than I ever was.

 

Paying attention in the teaching situation

The other day, I had an interesting experience that reminded me why it’s important to be aware and hopefully even caring when working with people -especially in a teaching situation.

On a warm October morning, I was training a mother and her two teenage sons in how to use a Segway properly and safely.  As the Director of Training, I have been developing a curriculum for tour guides that includes the ability to recognize the basic psychology and learning styles of the people we are training and the appropriate training responses available to us.

Segway student

Her older son, 15, who I will call Reynold, exhibited a lack of energy and appeared not to notice me even as he stood on his Segway and looked straight at me.  I knew right away that he had a learning disability and that I had to use very specific instructional strategies to teach him.  I recognized that if I failed in teaching him, he could fall off the Segway and get hurt.

The younger son, 13, who I will call Justin, lacked a strong sense of self – what some psychologists and educators would call a sense of agency, the feeling that “I can, and I will”.  I was not aware of any learning disabilities in Justin, but I recognized that his educational background was poor, as he did not know important words that I regularly use in my training, such as “come to a gradual stop.”  He did not know the word gradual, and I could tell that he was embarrassed about it.  For him, I felt the main issue was confidence and self-esteem.

In both training situations, the safety of my guests very much depended on my resonance with their particular learning style.  It was less important that they understood the narrative of the city’s history, and so much more important that they mastered the use of the motorized vehicle they would be operating.

I succeeded in training them, because I cared.  I paid attention.  And I responded to their specific needs.

For Reynold (who I later found out had Asperger’s Syndrome), I had to use re-direction and hard, physical reality-based instruction.  For example, “on the left, we have a big, red building”  or “look at your left wheel as you turn left” and “don’t let your wheel touch the bright orange cone”.  Using modifiers and repeating words was an important strategy for keeping Reynold focused and safe.

I also made sure to place the responsibility of learning on Reynold himself.  I did this by asking questions that would guide him to come to make decisions on his own.  For example, I asked him “Why did you take your hand off the left handle bar as you stepped off?”  He answered that he didn’t want to jerk the Segway to the side.  Questioning helps students to develop an ownership of whatever material they need to master, as they come to grasp the “why” and “how” rather than try to remember an abstract “right answer.”

Justin required only two things.  Paraphrased instruction, in which I used big words and their simpler cousins (e.g. gradually and more slowly); and consistent public praise, while using his name.  I could have just used the word slowly, but I felt responsible for helping build his vocabulary, which is why I introduced a few ten-cent words into the training.  “Great, Justin, you carefully rolled over the speedbump, just like we trained you!  Well-done!  You’re becoming an expert.”  All of my responses were designed to build a sense of agency and confidence in Justin, something I dearly hoped he could walk away with…. just enough that it might carry over into his next endeavors.

So, the key here is that I succeeded because I cared.  And, because I cared enough to respect the actual teaching situation, paid attention to the details of the situation, and responded appropriately, these young men not only enjoyed themselves but avoided potentially serious injuries.

So, it’s important to be aware.  This is the simplest essence of the teaching situation.  It is the essence of cultural sensitivity, attunement to different learning styles and abilities, and concern for the well-being of the person we are serving.

Nothing satisfies me more.

 

The Hero’s Journey… a lens for storytelling

Over the past six months, I’ve been developing an approach to educational consulting, that I think has made me a better teacher.  One client in particular has given me an opportunity to see stories in a whole new way, as we have worked together for two months building a theatre arts curriculum geared towards middle school and high school students.

The unit that I enjoyed the most is the one on playwriting, which we have titled “The Play’s the Thing.”  In this unit, we explore playwriting through the lens of “The Hero’s Journey,” the archetypal path traversed by the protagonist in most conventional narratives.  The book we studied together is called The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.

hero3

Traditionally, plays and screenplays are organized into three acts.  The first act involves exposition, where we learn about the characters’ lives, histories, gifts and flaws.  The second act involves conflict wherein the main character is set against external forces (people, circumstances) that keep him/her from achieving some objective.   The third act involves resolution, in which the conflict comes to a close in some way and the objective is either achieved or tossed aside in favor of a more enlightened objective.

But, the Hero’s Journey offers a deeper more meaningful template for storytelling.  In the curriculum we have been building, we divided the 12 phases of the journey into three parts and correlated them with the traditional three-act structure.   What we discovered is that the individual phases of the Hero’s Journey become very much alive in each act and help to place exposition, conflict and resolution in a broader and more detailed context.

I will return to this topic in a later post, but i want to introduce the reader to the Hero’s Journey for reference.  Below is a brief description of the phases.  Most of the writing below is copied directly from Chrisopher Vogler’s website.

Act I (Exposition)

1.    THE ORDINARY WORLD.  The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma.  The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history.  Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.

2.    THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.  Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.

3.    REFUSAL OF THE CALL.  The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly.  Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.

4.    MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.  The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey.  Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.

Act II (Conflict)

5.    CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.  At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.

6.    TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.  The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.

7.    APPROACH.  The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.

8.    THE ORDEAL.  Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear.  Out of the moment of death comes a new life.

9.    THE REWARD.  The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death.  There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.

Act III (Resolution)

10.  THE ROAD BACK.  About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home.  Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.

11.   THE RESURRECTION.  At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home.  He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level.  By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.

12.   RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.  The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.