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The Spirit of LEADERSHIPLiberating the Leader in Each of Us
By Harrison Owen
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Harrison Owen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhere Have All the Leaders Gone?
Where have all the leaders gone?" That could well be the song for the last part of the twentieth century. In the national press, scarcely a day passes without extended discussion of the lack of political leadership and the apparent inability of the major political parties to raise up anyone who remotely looks the part.
Corporate America is in little better shape. The strong, charismatic, decisive leader of yesteryear has seemingly been replaced by colorless men. Bold strokes have given way to defensive strategies, aimed less at defining the future than at preserving the past.
Indeed, to the extent that heroes and leaders of the people still populate the planet—at least the U.S. portion of the planet—as likely as not, they appear to be rogues: the corporate raiders and other folks who live by the Darwinian law of survival. Brandishing their leveraged buyouts, they add another notch to their guns.
As we sing our song and look for leaders, we find vast numbers of willing guides and commentators. Books and courses on leaders and leadership seem to have risen in inverse proportion to our perception of available talent. We are counseled on how to take charge, be assertive, and don the charismatic cloak, and other surefire methods for slaying dragons and summoning popular support. But for all the courses and training time, it seems that the refrain is still to be sung, "Where have all the leaders gone?"
The current crisis in leadership is genuine, but its cause may be more a matter of our perception. There is no question that leaders of the kind we have always known are in short supply. We might ask whether something has gone wrong with the genetic pool such that Homo sapiens no longer possesses the capacity to lead. Or could it be that the times have changed and leadership "as it used to be" is no longer appropriate?
Here is my theory. As the structures of our world and the conditions of certainty have yielded to an avalanche of change, the extent of our longing for stable, definitive leadership has been exceeded only by the impossibility of finding it. The fault lies not with leadership but rather with ourselves and our expectations. In the old days, leaders were supposed to make sense of chaos, to make certainty of doubt, and to create positive action plans for the resolution of imponderable paradoxes. Good leaders straightened things out. Should chaos rear its ugly head, the leader was expected to restore normality immediately.
But there's the rub. Chaos is now considered normal, paradoxes cannot be resolved, and certainty is possible only to the level of high probability. Leadership that attempts to deliver in terms of fixing any of this can only fail. And that is exactly what is happening.
Have the Leaders Really Gone?
Now, suppose we were to twist things around a bit, even at the risk of charges of Pollyannaism. As strange as our world appears at the moment, and despite all the obvious risks now present, isn't it quite remarkable that we appear to be muddling through as well as we are? To the extent that leadership is necessary to survival, perhaps leadership is not as absent as we have thought.
The list of impending disasters, potential and actual, is long: nuclear holocaust, acid rain, holes in the ozone layer, overpopulation, famine, chemical wastes, the greenhouse effect, omnipresent carcinogens, and a variety of other planetary catastrophes. At the level of the marketplace, we confront such difficulties as financial collapse, monumental national debt, plant closings, downsizing, restructuring, takeovers, and the elimination of entire industries. Were one given to pessimism, there is enough material here to legitimize a massive state of depression. Yet for all that is going wrong, will go wrong, or could go wrong, the fact remains that we seem to be making it, one way or another. Much like Mark Twain said, we may remark that the report of our imminent demise is premature. And to the extent that leadership is now, as always, necessary for our survival, one might suspect that it is still present somehow.
Obviously Homo sapiens, and indeed the small planet Earth, could cease to exist tomorrow morning, or sooner. But that has always been true, if not for reasons of our own stupidity, then because of some aberrant asteroid. Yet for several billion years planet Earth and its passengers have survived, one might say prospered. Contrary to every prediction of disaster to date, we are still here. What on Earth, we may ask, is going on? What would we be doing if we thought what we were doing made sense?
What on Earth Is Going On?
We are doing what we've always done: we are transforming. In one way or another, with or without our permission, we are headed down the path we have always been meant to follow— toward the fulfillment of our human potential. There is, of course, no guarantee that we are finally going to make it.
The process of transformation is not always pleasant; indeed, it can be downright terrifying. For transformation means that the old forms of our existence are blown apart and put aside, creating open space within which a new expression of us may emerge. For those who have found their meaning exclusively in the forms and structures of life, the experience is actually beyond terror, for it appears that life itself is about to cease. And in truth, life as it was does come to an end. That is chaos, but it may also be the nutrient seedbed from which new life will emerge.
And what of leadership? Two versions of the leadership tale are currently told. The first version is one we have been telling for some time, in which the few, or even "The One," have all the answers, and therefore the power, to protect us from chaos. Because of their strength, we learn, or are forced, to do the right thing that will ensure the preservation of life as we have come to expect it. Order and stability are the fruits of our obedience, and a full belly, a full garage, and lifetime employment are the anticipated rewards. And when, at a time such as now, order and stability are mostly apparent in their absence, we look around for some suitable object of blame. That blame object is not far away: there is a lack of leadership. If that were not true, so goes the story, things would obviously be better than they are. Perhaps.
But there is another story, in which leadership is not the exclusive property of the few or The One. Questions, not answers, predominate, and the right thing is no thing at all. In this story, there is no lack of leadership, but rather the emergent presence of a very different sort of leadership. It is new, really there, and really effective. Leadership under the conditions of transformation is a collective and constantly redistributed function, and not the private property of the few or The One. The role of leadership is to engage in the quest (to pose the question) for the realization of human potential. And the goal of leadership is not the establishment of some perfect state (the right thing), but rather the heightened quality of the journey itself. The secret is out. We are all leaders, and there are plenty of us—at least according to this story.
A Word About Storytelling and the Teller of This Tale
Stories and the telling of them have, until quite recently, occupied a place of honor in society. But somehow we became infatuated with the facts, nothing but the facts, and stories are sometimes notably short on such vital details. As for storytellers, they are simply not to be trusted with the task of presenting reality with starkest objectivity. All of these allegations and suspicions are true with regard to this book. It is a story and I am a storyteller.
There is, however, a possibly deeper way of looking at the enterprise of storytelling. The intent is not so much to render "the Truth" in literal, factual detail, but rather to create the conditions under which the Truth may be perceived. Storytelling, in short, is a collaborative undertaking between the teller of the tale and the hearer (or in this case, the reader). When the storyteller does the job well, he or she creates an environment in which the Truth appears, less by the massive assemblage of fact and logical argument than by creating a resonant field wherein the hearer's imagination and life experience may grow and in this case call forth a useful understanding of leadership. So, if you are anticipating a careful review of all the available literature, combined with a detailed analysis of the pertinent facts—past, present, and future—you will do well to stop right where you are. This book is not for you.
On the other hand, if you are willing to engage with me in a quest of sorts, to explore some possibly strange spaces and places, we may together develop an understanding of leadership that is powerful and effective for the present day. There are no guarantees, of course, and you will have to judge the extent to which I live up to the standards of the storyteller's trade. But that is the intent. As I said, I am a storyteller. You may determine whether I am a good one.
Of course there are sources for this tale, and the thoughts of others have had their impact, which I will acknowledge as appropriate. But at the end of the day, I alone take responsibility for the integrity of my tale (for better or worse).
The primary source for this story is my own experience, which it may be relevant to share briefly. I am an Anglican (Episcopalian) priest, although it was never my intent to be a parish priest. I was going to be an academic with a fundamental focus on the myth and ritual of the ancient Near East, combined with a fascination with the process of creation as it danced between order and chaos. Season well with a heavy dose of epistemology, the study of how we know, and you have the ingredients for a very esoteric career. But life has a funny way of not working out as you planned. In fact, I have pursued all of these passions for almost forty years, but rarely in the academic environment I had expected.
The halls of the academy gave way to the streets when the civil rights movement erupted in the 1960s. My avocation became a job when I became the executive director of the Adams-Morgan Community Council, a large community action program in Washington, D.C. That job was followed by a stint in West Africa as associate director of Peace Corps/Liberia, doing pretty much the same thing. Upon returning to the United States I became enmeshed in the world of health care as director of a health care infrastructure development program for Long Island, New York. Relatively senior positions with the National Institutes of Health and the Veterans Administration completed my stay in the health care field and also provided my last honest jobs. From 1979 until the present moment I have been—for lack of a better word—a consultant, albeit president of H. H. Owen and Company.
H.H.O. and Company is an enormous operation consisting of me in all roles, with able assistance from my wife, Ethelyn, and our children (occasionally and usually under duress). There has never been a business plan, and marketing efforts have been miserable to nonexistent. In fact, I've never really understood what business I've been in until it has happened. Clarity on the nature of my business is still elusive, but it has definitely been a wonderful ride!
It all began as I sat beneath a cottonwood tree. How is that for the commencement of a tale? In the moment, I felt a profound connection, not only to the tree but also to the earth from which it grew and the sky toward which it pointed—and to the people and places of the earth: organizations and families, nations and businesses, dogs, cats, and all the wild creatures connected by and through what I could only call Spirit with a capital S. The experience was hardly rational and definitely on the scary side. But there it was.
From that day until this, I do not know what Spirit is, and I feel little inclination for precise definition. Perhaps this is laziness, but it feels more like questions of possibility and necessity. No definition seems to work very well, and in the final analysis precise definition is really not needed. Spirit is one of those "things" you know when you run into it, and you know when it is not there. Words fail, as they probably should. Mystery seems to be an essential precondition for the appreciation of Spirit.
It occurred to me at the time that such experiences could well appear weird to many, and something of a mental health hazard to more than a few. Over the years I have been somewhat comforted to find that other folks apparently suffer from similar aberrations. Perhaps there had not been a cottonwood tree in their experience, but it turns out that encounters with Spirit are pretty commonplace. Indeed, I have discovered that from the loading dock to the boardroom, everybody knows when Spirit is up, and also when Spirit has disappeared. Wonderful things seem to happen when Spirit is present, and in its absence nothing much seems to take its place. No amount of money, technology, or brilliant ideas seems to make a difference when Spirit has gone over the hill. Call it lack of inspiration if you like, and inspiration after all means to be inspirited.
So, I would guess that my business is all about Spirit. That being the case, it will not surprise you to learn that for me Spirit is the most important thing.
When it comes to leadership, the connection with Spirit is essential. Leadership in the absence of Spirit just does not make it. And Spirit simply refuses to play by somebody else's rules, as in "command and control." It goes its own way, thank you very much. So leadership with Spirit, or spirited leadership, must be something else, having little to do with positional power and authority, which were once considered essential for those who would call themselves leaders.
The connection between leadership and Spirit is much more than an intellectual proposition for me, although it is certainly that. Fundamentally, it is a matter of experience and, if you will, necessity. Although it is true that I have held positions with at least the appearance of formal power and authority attached, I can honestly say that I have never accomplished anything of significance through the use of such authority. There always seemed to be a better and, in many ways, simpler way, which I can call only the way of Spirit. In recent years, this better, simpler way has been the only way. There has quite simply been nothing else available. Formal positional authority does not exist for me, and yet I would like to think that I have manifested leadership in several areas—Organization Transformation and Open Space Technology, to name two—and that the results have been useful.
The world of the early 1980s was a curious one indeed. Simultaneously we were visited by Ronald Reagan, Marilyn Ferguson, John Naisbitt, and Tom Peters. Not that these folks did it all by themselves, but they were representative. Reagan gave us a tough-guy conservative in the White House; Ferguson introduced the New Age; Naisbitt pointed out that the world was doing very strange things, which he called transformation; and Peters told great stories about something we had almost lost sight of—excellence. For me and a handful of close friends and colleagues, the times were pregnant indeed.
In our part of the world we had noticed that the organizations with which we worked, typically as consultants, were behaving in a very odd manner. Instead of following nice, orderly developmental patterns, they seemed to be taking discontinuous jumps. It was pretty messy and often painful for everybody involved.
A friend, David BelleIsle (then at Martin Marrieta), and I compared notes, and six months' dialogue convinced us that a major part of our personal difficulty was that we were looking at a new (for us) reality through old eyes. We expected development (as in Organization Development), but what we were witnessing was transformation, and frankly we did not have a clue to what was really going on.
Excerpted from The Spirit of LEADERSHIP by Harrison Owen Copyright © 1999 by Harrison Owen. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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