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Summoned to Lead
By Leonard Sweet
ZondervanCopyright © 2004 Leonard I. Sweet
All right reserved.
The Era of the Ear
Faith is the daring of the soul to go farther than it can see. -19th-century theologian William Newton Clarke
Leadership is the art of the future. A leader is one in whom the future shines through in support of the present in spite of the past.
But something is wrong in our understanding of leadership. The decades that brought us the greatest burst in leadership literature also brought us corporate scandals with Enron and World.com and Adelphia and Tyco and Global Crossing and Arthur Andersen, and they brought us President Bill "It-dependson-what-the-meaning-of-'is'-is" Clinton. More than seven out of 10 USAmericans say they distrust CEOs of large corporations. Nearly eight of 10 expect top executives to take "improper actions" to help themselves at the expense of their companies.
THE VISION THING
What is wrong is "the vision thing." Our understanding of leadership needs to be turned upside down.
The future needs ears even more than it needs eyes.
In the literature on leadership, the eyes have it hands down. Warren G. Bennis's famous definition of leadership established the course for countless others: "the capacity to create a compelling vision and translate it into action and sustain it." An adviser to heads of the largest nations and businesses in the world, Bennis is sometimes called "the godfather of leadership literature." In his 27 books Bennis introduced a new orthodoxy that made leadership into a science with its own set of rules and principles: leaders are made, not born. Anything that involves a goal (i.e., "vision") requires a leader, and everyone needs to be trained to be a leader. By the late 1990s, many of the 200,000 MBA graduates turned out every year had taken required "leadership" courses and "visioning" workshops.
No wonder the business world has made "vision" a catchword, perhaps the catchword of the 20th century.
It was this definition of leadership's intellectual haute couture that inserted itself into a presidential campaign. The phrase "the vision thing" stems from candidate George Bush's 1988 response to a friend who suggested that he spend some time thinking about what he would do as president.
Bush blurted out, "Oh, the vision thing."
George W. Bush now says that what he learned from the mistakes of his father was, "The vision thing matters."
His MBA-less father was right.
This is an anti-leadership leadership book. It offers a patently and passionately unfashionable stance on one of the defining issues of our day.
To put it bluntly: the whole leadership thing is a demented concept. Leaders are neither born nor made. Leaders are summoned. They are called into existence by circumstances. Those who rise to the occasion are leaders.
Everyone is "called" by God for some kind of mission. But sometimes the "called" are "called out" for leadership. How you manifest your mission will change throughout the course of your life. But the mission remains constant. When how you do your mission and how you make your way into the world coincide, you are living the dream life.
True, some people are born leaders. It just comes with their psychological territory. But these are few and far between.
Ask any kindergarten teacher. You want to know if you're a leader? Look in back of you. Anybody following?
We're all "players" in life.
Yet sometimes life summons "players" to be "leaders." It may happen only once or twice in life. Sometimes life takes shape in such a way that a player is like the missing piece of a puzzle: the exact fit for the situation. Up to that point, the jagged pieces of your life don't seem to fit into any significant pattern. But then life calls you out and summons you forth. A player in life becomes a leader, and even "born leaders" find themselves following the summoned leader. Not accidentally, the primary language of many is "hearing the call."
One freezing Thanksgiving evening, dairy worker Guillermo Garcia was herding Holsteins toward the barn in thick coveralls and heavy rubber boots. He looked up and suddenly discovered a shoeless, shivering seven-year-old boy screaming while vomiting on the manure-stained frozen mud: "My mom! My mom!"
Unfortunately, Garcia didn't speak English. But he knew someone who knew someone who did, who called 911.
The vomiting, shoeless boy was Titus Adams. Titus had run a quarter-mile in his white socks to seek help. He and his two sisters, Tiffany and Tierra, had been riding in their mother's pickup truck on a remote road north of Greeley, Colorado. They were in their pajamas, ready to be carried in and put to bed once they got home from Thanksgiving Day at Grandma's. Titus was talking to his dad on the cell phone when his mother stretched to get the phone at the call's end. She unbuckled her seat belt, then lost control. The pickup rolled twice and ejected her through the glass of the driver's window. Tammy Adams-Hill lay unconscious and near death in 23-degree weather.
The children were strapped in. Titus unbuckled his belt and checked his sisters. Tiffany's nose was bleeding and a cut on her head was staining her blond hair. Tierra was unharmed but hysterical.
Titus knew what he had to do. He bundled coats around his sisters. He gave Tierra her pacifier. He told Tiffany to "stop crying. Stay right where you are. Don't cry. I'm going for help."
The truck doors wouldn't open, so he climbed out the window his mother was thrown from. Titus looked for her in the dark and felt his way around the truck on the ground but couldn't find her. In the distance he saw lights from a small farmhouse (a tenth of a mile away), but the lights from the dairy barn shone brighter. Titus ran toward the brighter light. It was a quarter-mile away.
Titus was a called-forth leader. He saved his mom from dying that night.
Titus was not trained to be a leader. He was born a player, not a leader. But he was summoned by a situation. He was called out by history. He became a leader by responding to the call.
Will you rise to the occasion? Will you be there when life calls you forth? Will you answer the call of called-forth leadership?
What is the most desirable characteristic for a new CEO? Is it vision, or is it vigilance and good corporate governance? Lou Gerstner uttered a now-famous sentiment back in 1993: "The last thing IBM needs now is vision."
In one sense, the last thing the church needs is "more vision." When Christians sing "Be Thou My Vision" we are testifying to the fact that we have all the vision we need in Jesus. Where we need help is in developing a musical ear: ears to recognize the vision that is already at work in our world, ears to hear the false notes, and ears to tune ourselves to God's Perfect Pitch, Jesus the Christ.
The need to go beyond vision is borne out by arguably the two most important leadership books of the past 25 years: Tom Peters and Bob Waterman's In Search of Excellence (1982) and Jim Collins and Jerry Porras's Built to Last (1994). Peters and Collins are archrivals. Their books seem to be at opposite poles. But when the rhetorical flourishes and turf markings are stripped away, both authors emphasize the same thing: What makes a successful corporation is not a great product or a great leader, but a great culture in which people are empowered in creative goodness, innovative beauty, and unyielding truth.
It's easier to hear this in the "dowdy," calm, long-haul Collins than in the "sexy," hyperactive, make-shift Peters. For Collins, "charisma is a liability-something to be overcome, like a speech impediment."
Collins is known for one primary prejudice: an enduring distrust for the concept of leadership. "I've never believed in leadership," he says. "In the 1500s, people ascribed all events they didn't understand to God. Why did the crops fail? God. Why did someone die? God. Now our all-purpose explanation is leadership.... We have basically lots of witchcraft, lots of religion, and very little understanding."
The only thing we can say for sure about great leaders is that no two are alike. Every great leader's "greatness" is different.
According to Collins, the success of the world's best companies (what he calls "Level 5") can never be truly known.
Collins talks about how one gets a giant flywheel moving. At first you start to push on it and feel as if you're making little progress at all-it's barely moving. After just one revolution, you're already tired out. But you keep pushing in the same direction. As you push, the flywheel slowly accelerates; after turning a few revolutions, it gradually gains momentum. You keep pushing, and all of a sudden you realize that the wheel is going along on its own. The heavy flywheel that had been resisting your push is now going your way. And if you keep pushing, you soon find that it's going hundreds of revolutions per minute-and pushing you.
Then Collins stops to ask the question, "What was the one big push that caused this thing to go so fast?"
In Built to Last, the leader's personality was upstaged by the organization's personality. The culture of a corporation is what produces success, not CEOs. Jack Welch didn't make General Electric's success; GE's success made Jack Welch. In recent years Collins has seemed to back off his anti-leadership tack, but not before redefining what real leadership means. It is the intentionally humble and quiet leaders who truly do make a difference. Humility can win out over more powerful organizational forces.
Even if you agree with the "leadership" concept, the world doesn't need another leadership book. At last count, there are more than 10,000 books in print that have "leadership" in the title. Is it possible to bear one more without an authorial apology or excuse? Besides, what are the differences between a book on leadership by a Christian and one by Jack Welch? How many more books can you read based on the same formula: Follow these principles and you will change your life. The best reaction to the appearance of another leadership principle is one of resignation-another point nicely made but another instance of missing the point.
What's more, isn't the very notion of "self-help leadership" an oxymoron, since the self-help comes in decidedly relational ways: seminars, groups, tapes, and chat rooms.
THE EARS HAVE IT
The definition of leadership as "vision" trips a variety of clichés. Leadership as "vision" has become another way of talking about exercising dominance and pushing other people around with your ideas. Governor Gray Davis of California-subsequently recalled-was toast the moment he said, early in his term, that the state legislature's job was to "implement my vision." Vision has become a way of declaring dominance, of achieving alpha status and stats.
Furthermore, "vision casting" is most often nothing more than "strategic planning" board games. "Visionary" endows shopworn ideas with new roadworthiness and respectability. Even worse, when leadership development is disfigured as "the vision thing," we are teaching a dysfunctional system to leaders whose success will hinge on their ability to dismantle the very thing they've been taught.
Investing more time in the vision thing is not a good deal because it's not a good ideal, as recent events have proved. When it comes to leadership, the senses are not born equal. Leadership has more to do with the ears than with the eyes. The significance of sound is the missing chord in the literature on leadership. What matters most is not the clarity of your eyes, but the charity of your heart and the clearness of your ears.
Leadership is an acoustical art.
People from other cultures have understood this better than those in the West. The words ear and wisdom are the same in ancient Sumerian. The phenomenon of leadership always will remain misty-and always should. But failure to probe the currency of hearing as well as the currency of seeing is one reason why leadership remains one of the most studied and least understood phenomenon of the last century.
After nearly 200 pages and 7,500 citations on leadership, one report concluded that it found "no clear and unequivocal understanding of what distinguishes leaders from non-leaders, effective leaders from ineffective leaders, and effective organizations from ineffective organizations." Another study of the congested analysis of leadership, having compiled 110 different definitions, concludes that "attempts to define leadership have been confusing, varied, disorganized, idiosyncratic, muddled, and, according to conventional wisdom, quite unrewarding."
In all this literature on leadership, the eyes are the most recurring motif and metaphor. The eyes have not always had it, however.
For Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, it was the ears. Called by colleagues "the greatest leader who ever came on God's earth, bar none," the Antarctic explorer Shackleton understood that leadership was more than meets the eye. To adapt Paschal: the ear has its reasons that the eye knows nothing of. The ability to find one's voice and to hear and call other voices into harmonious sound is the essence of a Shackleton-inspired definition of leadership as the acoustical art of imagining the future.
Mark Twain had a bad habit of using profanity in his speech. Twain's wife was as refined and cultured as her husband was raw and coarse. Her husband's uncouth manner of speaking offended her sensibilities, and she tried many ways of curing him of his bad habit.
In desperation, she tried the shock technique. "Maybe if he hears what he sounds like and I become a sounding board, he'll be so shocked at what he hears, he'll change his ways." So when Twain came home one afternoon, she met him at the door with a stream of obscenities, throwing back at him every bad word she could remember coming from his lips.
The classical curser listened quietly until she finished, and then said: "My dear, you have the words, but not the music."
Excerpted from Summoned to Lead by Leonard Sweet Copyright © 2004 by Leonard I. Sweet. Excerpted by permission.
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