Leadership at its Best

Recently a utility CEO said something that made me step back and appreciate wisdom. Asked for an important lesson in leadership, he observed, “Leadership isn’t about me. It’s about the team.” He went on to explain that leadership isn’t about being in charge, but rather about ensuring that the team has the conversations and makes the decisions that are needed to move forward.

This CEO’s perspective has a lot in common with that of Liu Xiaobo. Mr. Xiaobo’s life and his words have stimulated a worldwide discussion about what it means for people to make progress, the nature of progress, and its price.

I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. . . .

For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes . . . to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love. . . .

Liu Xiaobo
the 2010 Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, from his final statement before going to prison

I think most of us would agree that Mr. Xiaobo is practicing leadership. However, notice that his leadership stands in stark contrast to the common notion that leadership is about directing others. The people that Mr. Xiaobo is impacting would not consider themselves to be his followers: His words have caused you, me, and a world of others to pause and think about our aspirations, to compare the way we live to how he lives, and to reflect on partisanship and other divisions in today’s world. He is not directing us; rather he is causing us to engage in conversations and make decisions that are needed for our countries to move forward.

The CEO and Mr. Xiaobo tell us something else about leadership at its best, namely that it opens our minds. Divisive comments resonate when they highlight the good in “us” or condemn the evil in “them.” Such partisanship rallies our hearts towards a shared cause, perhaps even a good one, but it ultimately poisons our spirit and imprisons our minds, preventing us from having the dialogues we need for progress.

What can you do with these leadership insights? If you are in charge of a group, look for examples of leadership within your group, and give those practices the energy and protection they need. Also look for ways to develop leadership skills within your group, namely the skills needed to provide leadership without being in charge. If you find yourself within a group, look for situations where the group is not recognizing difficult realities, is holding onto traditions that hold it back, is resisting open discussions, or is failing to learn from novel experiences. Finding these, engage allies to mobilize the group into serious consideration of your observations, all the while recognizing that your ideas are, at best, only partially right and that, with proper leadership, the group’s insights are likely to be better than your own.

Finally, remember the words of Lao Tzu, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.”


A Leadership Deficit

with Araceli Castañeda

This moment in history is a good opportunity to learn about leadership. We see the U.S. debt ceiling deadline looming large and our federal government losing its AAA credit rating, even if a debt deal is reached. We also see the people who are in a position to do something faltering: Three perspectives seem to prevail. First, there are the political actors who see today’s predicament as a phase in a long-running competition for public approval and political power. They play to the media and the voting public, demonize rivals, and exalt themselves, seeking advantage for the next election.

Second, there are those who view this moment as resulting from recent elections that authorized them to reign in government spending; they feel a need to meet their supporters’ expectations and stand firm against the bad guys.

Finally, there are those who perceive the situation as a train wreck; they attempt to distance themselves from the fray, from the adolescents, and frame the state of affairs as someone else’s fault.

These three views shape much of the activity in Washington, D.C., at least as it is portrayed in the media. This media view is to be expected. After all, powerful drama with good guys, bad guys, and looming disasters stimulates newspapers sales, newscast viewership, and Internet page views.

However, these perspectives seem to miss the uncomfortable feeling that is settling in for this country: Most of us in the U.S. have never lived in a country that was not the world’s leading economy, not the world’s leading financial center, and not a world leader in good government. Now we do.

Public debt as a percent of our income (GNP) now stands at 73%. That is double what it was at the start of the current recession. Thumbing its nose at historical patterns, our sputtering economy is now into its fourth year of the doldrums, despite multiple attempts at fiscal and monetary stimulus. Wall Street is now a four-letter word in much of the public discourse, not the respected center of international finance that it became after the Great Depression. U.S. government officials are being lectured about financial responsibility by officials from countries that we considered developing economies just a few years ago. Now the media mentions the U.S. in the same breath as it does Europe’s most anemic economies.

Our natural response to this predicament is to view it as someone else’s fault: We blame Democrats, Republicans, greedy businesses, bureaucrats, Bush, etc. We don’t see ourselves in the problem. We are there.

We are there in part because we are looking for solutions in the wrong places: We are looking for a traditional type of leader, one who would provide direction, solve problems, and fix the bad guys. This approach, however, does not work because this is new territory, and there are no easy answers. Making matters worse, we are divided in what we want. Some voters want to live in the world’s strongest economy, financial center, etc. again. Others are more comfortable with a United States that does not stand out on the world stage. Some voters don’t bother themselves with such concerns, preferring to focus on culture wars, nanny state, wealth envy, or social and environmental justice. As a result, many of us become upset if someone tries to lead us on a particular course, as President Obama has discovered. Maybe the leadership deficit is in us.

We are also in the midst of this dilemma because we do not like what someone practicing leadership has to offer. Leadership in moments like this should stir, steer, inspire, and disappoint. Stirring keeps our problems, conflicts, and contradictions before us so that we see them clearly and debate them with our friends and colleagues. Steering moves us away from past loyalties and supposed truths that in fact hold us back, and moves us onto new paths of our own making. Inspiration is needed to keep us in the game: It gives us hope that we can overcome the current situation. It also carries us through the disappointment of coming to the realization that some of our “truths” may be false, and some of our aspirations may be fantasies.