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The Spirit of Leadership

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The business world is desperate for leaders. Books and courses on leadership flood the market as companies search in vain for that one person who can make sense of their rapidly changing environment through assertiveness, charisma, and control. According to noted consultant Harrison Owen, our inability to locate such a person isn't the fault of our leaders, it's the fault of our expectations.
In today's world where chaos is "normal" and paradoxes can't be resolved, such old-style leaders no longer offer the solution. Today's world requires inspired leadership from all levels of the organization. "Inspired leadership" literally means in-spirited leadership, and this book explores the intimate connection between spirit and leadership it implies. It presents the radical notion that spirit is the most important ingredient of any organization and that leadership means opening space for that spirit to show up in powerful and productive ways.
The Spirit of Leadership lays out the New Rules of Leadership, rules which surprisingly turnOl organizations have always played by. For the keys to these new rules, the book turns to those who have always successfully operated apart from the levers of formal power and authority-women. Offering lessons from effective female strategies, it reveals the true functions of leadership: to evoke, grow, sustain, comfort, and raise the spirit.
Not to be confused with morale building, motivational techniques, or even the current fad of spirituality in business, The Spirit of Leadership digs deeper to show that, at its essence, leadership is our link to deep inner forces. It provides practical steps readers can use to uncover their own capacity for leadership in whatever position they find themselves, and to exercise that capacity both to enhance the performance of their organizations and to find their own fulfillment as complete human beings.

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CHAPTER 1: Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

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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?”

 

CHAPTER 2: Transformation

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Transformation is occurring now—not later, not soon, but right this instant. Of course it has always been so, for the history of our species has been an ongoing journey of the evolution of consciousness: the continuous transformation of our essence from one form into a new one. From the moment we branched out from our brothers and sisters who constitute the rest of the animal kingdom—indeed, from the moment before that moment, when animal and plant became distinct entities—transformation has been occurring. To tell the truth, it all began, if it began at all, in that fiery instant of pure energy expanding infinitely across nothingness. And who knows, maybe it never began but always was. Whatever the point of genesis, transformation is not new.

What is new, or at least what strikes us as strange, is the rate of transformation. There clearly have been times when things seemed never to change. Perhaps appearances were deceiving, or we were deceived by our own lack of awareness, but at times it certainly seemed that yesterday, today, and tomorrow were all of a piece. Our deception was probably self-induced. No one and no thing likes to change, for all systems are essentially conservative. So it may well be that we have played the ancient and honorable game of the emperor’s new clothes. Everybody knew the emperor was naked, but no one dared say so.

 

CHAPTER 3: A Whole New Ball Game

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To people nurtured in the business school environment who came of age in traditional Western organizations, the world of the informal organization appears strange indeed. It is counterintuitive and somehow wrong. Even though these same people may admit privately that not much gets done in their organization by following the old organizational chart, this admission often takes on the aspect of a secret confession—for everybody knows that position is power and that the balance sheet rules. That is what it says in all the books, and of course they must be right.

As a matter of fact, the shadow world of the informal organization is often treated as the enemy. After all, it operates like the underground economy—off the books and beyond the control of those who think (or hope) that they are in control. Given the training and predisposition of many managers, the predictable, primary response to this strange beast is either to stamp it out or to bring it under control. Informal communication, for example, is presumed to be bad, therefore the formal reporting structure must be adhered to and enforced. The anticipated alternative is chaos.

 

CHAPTER 4: Leadership Lessons from the Disenfranchised

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The prototypical disenfranchised group is women. For whatever reasons—and we are now beginning to understand some of them—women have been seen by men, and often by themselves, as on the fringes, and certainly not in charge.

Making generalizations about women, particularly if you happen to be a man, is dangerous. So it is essential to clarify the basis from which I speak and my perceived right for doing so. I speak as a man observing women in my part of the world. That my observations may be warped and biased is a given. As for my right to speak, I take it as true that all humans are both masculine and feminine. As I have come to explore my own feminine aspect, I find that disenfranchised woman is not simply a phenomenon of the external world. She exists in me as well.

The stereotypical view of women, as I was growing up, is captured exquisitely in the song from My Fair Lady in which Henry Higgins, the archetype of all male chauvinists, wonders, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Women, it seemed, were bereft of logic and were incapable of making plans or following them through. To the extent that they had a use at all, except as playthings for men, it was to be mothers and caretakers of children. Men, after all, were in charge of the world, and the girls were to be left to girlish things.36

 

CHAPTER 5: Life in the Underground

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Although Mother and her friends might not have liked the image, I think they operated very much in the underground. From the viewpoint of those “in charge,” they were definitely off the books and not in control of the normal levers of power. Despite this—actually, because of it—they managed to accomplish much deemed impossible by those who thought they determined the nature of possibility. Leadership in the underground was not without its power, albeit power that manifests itself in some basic, counterintuitive, not to say mysterious ways.

As we experience the dissolution of the structures and controls by which we have always done business, we may do well to take another look at that elemental world. The return to basics is partially a nostalgic revisitation of a simpler age, but it is not necessarily bad for that reason, because it may well be that we missed some important things along the way to our future.

On the simplest level, what we discover are the informal organization and the informal communication system. But these discoveries, I think, are only the beginning, and a rather superficial beginning at that. Under normal circumstances, the informal system is understood to be more primitive and less sophisticated and evolved than the formal system. There is a sense in which we have intentionally, and thankfully, left the informal way of doing business behind in our ascent to the present rational mode. The informal system is seen as “less,” and the formal system as “more.”42

 

CHAPTER 6: Spirit and Leadership

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For many in the West, Spirit is nothing.1 Operating under the premise that if you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist, the conclusion is that Spirit is not there, or if it is there, it can’t amount to much. At the level of proof there is little if anything that can be done to alter this position, for having started with the premise of “countability,” the conclusion is inescapable. Yet despite the obvious inescapability of the logic, there appears to be a growing sense that this logic need not be the only one used.

Perhaps it is only the uneasiness of the times but conversations about Spirit now seem to appear in some of the strangest places. As long ago as 1987, for example, a major corporation took out a full-page ad to proclaim that a central corporate goal is to “sustain the Spirit.”2 Perhaps they didn’t mean it, but it is interesting that they felt free enough to say something like that. And of course there has been a recent outbreak of spirituality in business, a phenomenon that leaves me a little uncomfortable. It tends to be off-putting to many; but most worrisome, I think, is that it may trivialize the subject. In present discourse, spirituality often shows up as an add-on—we have business to which we may add a spiritual dimension. For me there is no question of adding on—everything begins with Spirit, which shows up (for better or worse) as the business we do. Spirituality does have a place, but not as a special department in the organization, the Department of Spirituality, managed of course by the director of spirituality. Spirituality is what we all do twenty-four hours a day as we acknowledge our existence as Spirit and learn to live with that reality.52

 

CHAPTER 7: The First Function of Leadership

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Leadership is not a matter of command and control. It is the evocation and alignment of Spirit. Spirit cannot be commanded, but it may be invited. Spirit cannot be coerced, but it may be channeled. Spirit rarely, if ever, responds to answers; rather, it responds to questions, which create the nurturant Open Space in which it may flow. Vision poses the question that creates the space into which Spirit flows and becomes powerful.

It has become popular for organizations to engage in “visioning,” the end product of which is a vision statement. The advent of visioning as a legitimate corporate practice is certainly to be applauded, for it recognizes precisely the realities we are discussing. But the equation of vision with a vision statement is at best weak, and at worst a total perversion of what vision is all about.

There is an acid test for the effectiveness of vision statements. One simply posts them on the wall and asks the group involved, Would you be willing to give your life for that? Admittedly this may sound rather extreme, but we typically spend more time “on the job” than doing anything else, with the possible exception of sleeping. If the answer is no, there is reasonable indication that the statement is only words, untouched by the power of vision.

 

CHAPTER 8: The Second Function of Leadership

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Spirit evoked by vision can begin to realize its potential not only when the vision is shared but also when it is grown. Leadership has a central part to play in this process through collective storytelling.

Storytelling may seem a rather weak reed with which to build an organization, but that is to misunderstand the power of stories. When I say story, I am referring not to some idle or amusing tale, but rather, to the central vehicle through which the Spirit of an organization is gathered and focused on the job at hand. The story is the organizational mythology.

Having said “mythology,” I may have made the situation even less comprehensible, for to many people myth is not merely an idle tale, but it is by definition untrue. Contrary to this view, myth is neither true nor untrue. Rather, it is behind or beneath truth; it establishes the context within which people talk to one another and determine the truth. A short example may clarify.

Suppose you walk into a business as a prospective employee. You are presumably interested in all the normal, first-line questions about compensation, benefits, job description, hours of operation, and organizational structure, the answers to which are provided to you through a series of tables, charts, and manuals. Necessary as that material is, it seems a little dry and abstract. You press deeper, to questions that are more amorphous but very important: questions about working conditions—what it would feel like to work in this place, and what it all really means. Some answers will appear just by walking around and looking at the physical circumstances, the layout of the facility, the color on the walls, the patterns of activity; but sooner or later you will find it necessary to identify some kind of context in order to determine what is different about this place compared to all others. And most important, do you really want to be a part of it?72

 

CHAPTER 9: The Third Function of Leadership

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Gathering and focusing Spirit is the first act of leadership, but if left at that point, Spirit will once again dissipate and disperse. Unless it is channeled for the long haul, Spirit raised by vision and fused in the collective story will fly apart. Organizational structure is the pathway of Spirit, and growing appropriate structure is the third function of leadership.

Creating organizational structure is probably what we in the West do best; at least we spend the most time on it. We pay a price for our fixation, however, for all too often structure is seen to be the only thing in an organization. At worst this leads to the denial of Spirit, which cuts us off from the true source of organizational power. Even under the best of circumstances, our obsession with structure causes us to build structure first and then to try to squeeze the Spirit into it. Architects understood some time ago that “form follows function.”1 In short, it is worthwhile to consider what you are going to do in a building before you build it. In a similar way, structure follows Spirit, and to reverse the order is to invite disaster.

 

CHAPTER 10: The Fourth Function of Leadership

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All good things come to an end. This is true of boxes of candy as well as outstanding human systems. To restate the Fourth Immutable Principle, “When it is over, it is over.”

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that all systems tend toward entropy, which is a concise way of letting us know that eventually the energy that drives a system becomes so regularized and evenly distributed across the system that it is no longer clearly in evidence. Strange as it may seem, the first law of thermodynamics, which asserts that energy is neither created nor destroyed, is not contravened; for all appearances to the contrary, the energy is still there—it is just homogenized into sameness. There is no “difference that makes a difference.”1

The same may be said about human systems. It is not that the originating Spirit has disappeared; it is only locked up in the organizational structure. What began as a flash of Spirit manifest in vision, focused through a collective tale, and made real and concrete in structure with its own time and space eventually becomes boring.

 

CHAPTER 11: The Fifth Function of Leadership

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Raising Spirit is the final task of leadership. It is final in the sense that it is the last one on the list of leadership functions, and also because it represents the critical difference between continuation and ultimate demise.

When an organization simultaneously reaches its fulfillment and its end, the old forms, structures, building, plants, and facilities may persist for a period, indeed even hundreds of years, but they are rather like the remains of former civilizations—empty shells in which life was lived. There may be a few caretakers, hangers-on, and remnants of former days, but the Spirit of the place moves out pretty quickly.

Separated from the ruins of ancient Greece or Egypt by several millennia, we may look at them with a certain equanimity, even nostalgic attachment. But when the ruins happen to be your organization or business, such dispassionate contemplation is not likely. Leaving aside all elemental questions about the necessity to earn a living, certain thoughts will inevitably appear about all that might have been done, or that could still be done, if the Spirit were available. Question: How do you revive Spirit, not in the same old form, but in new forms and new structures appropriate to the changing environment?

 

CHAPTER 12: The Spirit of Leadership The Leader’s Spirit

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I have an Indian friend and colleague who was the vice president for human resources of a large hotel group and is currently a consultant and university professor. Like many of his peers, my friend grew up in a Hindu family and, until the age of twelve or thirteen, went through what we might now call the consciousness-raising program common to the Hindus. He also participated in Western-style education through preparatory school and university. When he had completed his course of study, along with many others of his generation in India, he found the old ways somehow not in tune with the business environment of the late twentieth century. Quantitative methods, behavioral science, and a variety of other approaches had much more to do with the bottom line.

Then, for reasons that have never been shared with me, he made a remarkable discovery: as effective as his business school methods were in manipulating and interpreting the bottom line, the bottom line became positive and meaningful only in a context of inspired human performance. When Spirit was up, good things happened, and when it was not, no amount of number crunching was going to change the result. My friend realized what I have been suggesting here: Spirit is important.

 

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