Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gentle Stewardship

We Are All Leaders
True leadership is focused on inspiration, motivation and right action.

Every acorn is a potential oak. And if the right conditions of soil, water and sunshine are met, something as small and insignificant as an acorn will become a mighty oak tree. In a similar manner every human being is a potential leader – provided that the right conditions are met so that leadership qualities of courage, commitment and selfless service can grow.

Just as every oak can offer shade for the weary traveller, a branch for a bird’s nest or a beam for the farm barn, every human being has the potential to care for the Earth, serve the poor, liberate the oppressed and scale the heights of imagination and self-realisation.

The kind of leader we are concerned with in this issue of Resurgence is not a rare hero, not an ego-driven dictator, not a self-conscious superstar, not a self-centred celebrity or a power-manic manager, but a humble host to humanity – a servant of the Earth and an ever-vigilant conscience of the people. Such a ‘servant’ leader is as mindful of the process and purpose of life as she or he is aware of the goals; there is no conflict between the means and the ends here. In the work of such a leader there is complete harmony between what is to be done and how it is to be done.

True and effective leadership is more about inspiration, facilitation and right action than about outcome, achievements and unrealistic targets.

A real leader leads by example. Anyone who demands, “Do as I say and not as I do!” is not a good leader. Integrity between words and deeds is an essential quality of inspirational leadership. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked: “When you call upon people to do something, they follow you in their millions; what is the key to your successful leadership?”

Gandhi reputedly replied: “I have never asked anybody to do anything I have not tried and tested in my own life. We have to practise what we preach. In other words, we have to be the change we wish to see in the world.”

One living example is more effective than a million words; congruence between preaching and practice is a prerequisite for purposeful leadership.

We are all potential leaders, because we can all lead our own lives in the right direction.

We can show the world that a good life can be lived without exploitation, subjugation or domination of others, or of natural resources. We can show that a simple, wholesome and equitable life can be joyful and good. We can show that happiness doesn’t flow from material goods or the amount of money in our bank accounts: rather, happiness flows from the quality of the life we live, and the kind of relationships we have with our families, with our communities and with the natural world.

This is bottom-up leader-ship. We don’t have to wait for a messiah. Genuine leadership is not going to emerge from parliament or presidential palace. Leadership is not about legislation. The end of apartheid in South Africa, the establishment of civil rights in the USA, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the dismemberment of the Soviet empire, and many other such transformations occurred in the history of humanity because millions of people took action at grassroots level and refused to accept the unjust order of the day. The feminist movement and the environmental movement are examples of people taking personal responsibility to participate in the process of the great transformation necessary for a just, sustainable and resilient future for the Earth and her people.

True leadership is not about heroic headline-grabbing actions: true leadership is to live and act with integrity and without fear. Leadership has nothing to do with power, position or office; nor anything to do with birth, class or status. Leaders can emerge from anywhere: from the Royal Family, like Prince Charles, or from a Maasai community, like Emmanuel Manjura – both of whom are featured in this issue.

Leadership is an inner calling to lead ourselves and the world from subjugation to liberation, from falsehood to truth, from control to participation and from greed to gratitude.

We can all be leaders. All we have to do is wake up, stand up, live and act.

Satish Kumar - Editor-in-Chief, Resurgence magazine.

Humility is the key to ‘good’ leadership and the antidote to those models of ‘heroic’ leadership that were always doomed to fail, writes Sharon Turnbull.

How does leadership serve our planet and our society? For many, this question might provoke an emotive or negative response, especially amongst those for whom the idea of leadership evokes the world of politics and big business. Tainted by corporate scandals, expense rows (in the UK) and short-termism, and tarnished by narcissism, selfishness and abuse, leadership in the 21st century has lost its appeal, and for many, this overused and devalued word has become meaningless, even dangerous.

The paradox facing society today, however, is that leadership may nonetheless be the only credible solution to the web of complex problems and urgent challenges facing our planet. And the public’s understandable rejection of leadership as a failed concept may now be stalling the emergence of a radical new model of ‘good’ leadership for the world.

Without ‘good’ leadership, we risk descending further into a materialistic chasm that ignores the needs of the Earth and its many inhabitants.

Leadership in the Anglo-American world has long been obsessed with personal traits and competencies, a holy grail for effective leadership. By defining leadership in this way, we have been unable to move away from a stultifying person-centred view of leadership that worships leader as hero. The cult of personality in contemporary Western society is everywhere, dominating our media and our literature with its insidious attraction. The vast majority of leadership books are about one man’s (or very occasionally one woman’s) leadership journey. But those we place on such pedestals are ultimately destined to criticism and perceived failure by the very people who seek such infallibility: Obama, Mandela, Gandhi, Kennedy, even Jesus and the prophets – all of these have been expected to be free of human flaws, and then later accused of human weaknesses and frailty.

It is time to admit that the expectation we place on individual leaders is unrealistic and unsustainable, and that we must all now engage in and accept our shared leadership responsibility for society and our planet.

So how can we make progress towards developing this new form of ‘good leadership’?

Firstly, we must change what we mean by leadership, and move away from the narrow idea that leadership relates to the capabilities of a single individual. Leadership can be a shared phenomenon. Indeed, for many ancient societies leadership and decision-making is a shared process, with all members contributing a voice, from the oldest and wisest to the youngest and most curious.

In many such societies, the remit of the chief or elder is to seek ideas and consensus and safeguard the reflective process towards the best possible outcome – a stark contrast with the heroic leadership model that we have internalised in the West.

Secondly, we need to encourage a humble and collective leadership that will influence actions and outcomes in all corners of our organisations and communities. According to Joseph Badaracco’s book Leading Quietly, it is the many acts of quiet leadership at all levels and across society that will propel the societal and ecological transformation we so desperately need. For Badaracco, humility is an antidote to the heroic leadership that has dominated our mindset for so long both in the Western world and beyond.

Two of the most important omissions in Western leadership theory today are purpose and responsibility. Leadership texts often suggest that leadership is about winning over and engaging followers, but rarely do they address the crucial sense of moral purpose that is needed at the heart of leadership. Jim Collins’ book Good to Great suggests that ‘good’ is not enough: leaders must aim to be ‘great’. My view is that ‘good’ is the quest to which leaders must aspire in order to be called leaders. It is the only route to addressing the deep ecological and spiritual imbalances that we humans have created, and to a return to a sense of soul and oneness with the Earth.

How many of our apparently intractable problems would disappear if leadership simply focused on ‘goodness’? A colleague and friend of mine, Jonathan Gosling, frequently asks his MBA students: “Does a leader have to be good to be good?” This question invariably keeps the group occupied for hours in heated debate! For us, ‘goodness’ is a complex and challenging aspiration, but a worthy goal for leadership.

In his book Should Prometheus be Bound? Philippe de Woot argues that the current dominant market ideology of the firm has contributed to the crisis of ethics in today’s globalised world. The recent corporate scandals and their aftermath have, he points out, focused largely on breaches of integrity and trust within the rules that preserve the status quo of 21st-century capitalism. As globalisation advances, de Woot declares that a dominant ideology that reveres wealth creation, free trade, profit and financial orthodoxy over global sustainability and social justice remains unchallenged. The solution, he argues, is to build an ‘ethic of conviction’ that focuses on the type of society we wish to build, combined with an ‘ethic of responsibility’ that challenges the instrumental logic of today’s society. Responsibility and stewardship, both underused words in today’s society, are key triggers for such ‘good’ leadership.

Alternative mindsets found in Indigenous societies or ancient Eastern texts can offer much to those seeking to tackle the world’s problems. In our Worldly Leadership research, initiated by The Leadership Trust, we have discovered that reflecting on leadership through lenses that challenge the narrow paradigms of Western thinking has thrown glimpses of light on a path that could lead to a more connected, relational and responsible world.

Our concept of Worldly Leadership is grounded in an idea first put forward by Henry Mintzberg and Jonathan Gosling in their article ‘The Five Minds of the Manager’ (published in Harvard Business Review) that a ‘worldly mindset’ is one of the key mindsets needed for leaders today. By this, they refer to an ability to see the world from close up, understand the many different worlds within worlds that make up our globe, and take action. Our Worldly Leadership project foregrounds questions of responsibility and sustainability, focusing on the collective nature of the leadership process, and the relational nature of leadership. It also emphasises human dignity, global fairness and justice, thus resonating with de Woot’s call for a leadership ethic of responsibility and conviction.

It is time for ‘good’ leadership. Greatness is yet another ideal that must fade as we move away from the many destructive actions that have typified the 20th century. One man or one woman alone cannot change the world. We need leadership that connects and enables the many quiet acts of stewardship that will safeguard our world for future generations.

For more about The Leadership Trust visit: