Friday, July 17, 2009

Deconstructing Leadership

Part 2 of Prisoners of the Real

This is about the people in charge. We give them a variety of names -- executives, administrators, managers, coordinators, officers, foreman, leaders, presidents, and kings. When they meet, discussing their problems and ours, their decisions affect everyone. They are wielders of power, the men and woman who are "responsible."

The ideas and actions of our leaders are like pebbles tossed into the stream of life. And in a sense, we all send out intersecting ripples. But leaders, because most of us listen to them – and usually follow their advice or directions – make the largest waves. Clearly, then, we owe it to ourselves to understand how they think and how their thoughts are transformed in the real world.

This is also, and perhaps more importantly, an examination at how individuals currently and, potentially, could relate to organizations. Like any conceptual system, this one establishes artificial boundaries for the purpose of analysis. Categories are proposed, and admittedly debatable distinctions are drawn. The approach isn’t strictly logical; rather it is a combined product of intellect, emotion and will. The central assumption, eloquently stated by John Lilly, is that we should continually strive to move beyond our current structures of belief. "In the province of the mind," Lilly once wrote, "what is believed to be true is true or becomes true, within limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind, there are no limits."

According to system theorist Kenneth Berrian, any attempt to "master" knowledge in a discipline will result at best in an outline of ignorance. Since what will follow is a synthesis of knowledge from several disciplines, Berrian's warning is especially apt. Thus, I don’t claim mastery, but rather offer my observations, combining them with some hopeful speculation.

The observations began more than 40 years ago, when I began to examine first-hand the American struggle for self-government. As an aspiring journalist, I admired the "muckraking" reporters of an earlier era. One of the foremost, Lincoln Steffens, traveled across the United States in 1901 to investigate structures and processes at the municipal and state levels. Among his findings about the power brokers of his time was that Mark Hanna, who had engineered William McKinley into the White House for a second term, didn't much concern himself with the "issues." Like many leaders, what Hanna wanted was "the management of the American people in the interest of the American businessman for the profit of American business and politics."

At the end of his journey, Steffens concluded that it would be "worthwhile to look straight in the face the fact that there is no marketable commodity more easily cornered than the people themselves. The people are a crop that costs little to harvest, and not the ablest men in the country go into the business." Unfortunately, the same could be said of contemporary political life.

Over the years since Steffens chronicled what he called "the shame of the cities," however, people have continued to struggle valiantly against the cynicism of journalists and the schemes of social engineers. Aware of this dynamic, I offer a conclusion of my own: the decisive issue is autonomy. Each human being, however limited his or her choices may appear, cherishes freedom and believes in the ability to make wise independent choices – that is, to find the best way to reach personal goals. Many of us also think we have something unique to contribute to our work group, community or society. This is a dynamic spirit I call Dionysian Leadership. The world is rich with potentially Dionysian leaders, and together they constitute a vital alternative to the dangerous growth of rational collectivism, a phenomenon reflected in the dominance of society at large by rigid technicians and obsequious bureaucrats.

Though it may sound extreme at first, the argument that will be made in the installments to folllow is that the solution to many organizational problems, at the local as well as the global level, will be found by turning to a model of group guidance grounded in the intuitive approach of mystics and artists. These natural Dionysian leaders understand that diversity benefits both the individual and the group. Drawing from their experiences, others can move away from directive techniques and toward an "enabling" role that poses challenges for choice. Like Thoreau, they extol the sovereignty of each individual. Like Voltaire, they believe that reality is the lie agreed upon.

On the surface, this may seem a bit mystical and abstract to be practical for complex situations in a post-industrial society. However, such an approach to organization-building and ongoing management is also consistent with the discoveries of system theory. There is even a systems term for the impulse to find independent routes to a shared goal – equifinality. As a systems analyst might put it, the structure of organizations should shift as "role tenants" change. Despite this advice, however, most modern organizations opt for increased structural rigidity in the face of almost any crisis or change.

Another relevant observation of system thinkers is that the merging of smaller systems within larger units is a progressive inevitability. The problem is that, very often in such circumstances, individuality is viewed as a form of deviance. Within most bureaucracies, specialization and rationalization make workers subservient to division of labor concerns. The organization, say our “rational” managers, must advance "as a whole," and can't easily consider the needs of everyone. In reality, however, an understanding of parts rather than the whole is actively promoted. The concomitant anonymity and secrecy that characterize rational collectives are potent forces working against responsibility. In the end, decisions are made independent of human choice.

With such contradictions in mind, Dionysian leadership stresses the centrality of individual responsibility and true engagement. The simple fact is that loyalty oaths and security measures can provide little help in forming ethical positions or nurturing organizations based in a moral awareness. And if we are to respond effectively to the myriad problems facing the world, nothing less than that will do.

Next: Anatomy of Insecurity

Previously: The Creative Also Destroys

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