Monday, May 25, 2009

Compassionate Leadership

Leadership is all the rage these days. Professors of leadership and management define, analyze, and propose models of leadership, and business sections of bookstores are filled with leadership/mentoring books. Political candidates routinely assert that they (alone) will provide leadership. Church authors have jumped on the bandwagon too, sifting history for role models of leadership and for lessons to cultivate more effective leadership. New members of Congress attend special seminars in effective leadership, as do new university presidents. It’s boom time for taking notes about leadership.

Yet two paradoxes immediately raise concern. First, one of the few realities that link the world’s leaders across the millennia is that they never studied leadership. Many of the truly profound people we now saddle with that label wouldn’t have recognized themselves as such — they were simply doing what they understood God, family, nation, or simply decency, demanded of them. The flip side of this paradox (that leaders don’t study leadership) is that the people who teach leadership are generally not, themselves, leaders.

The second and greater paradox is that leadership involves complex ethical dilemmas at every turn. Despite the ethical perils, we need good leadership and we crave great leaders. There is far too much abuse today by the hands of leaders who only know the tactics of fear and intimidation. If you question them, they equate your actions as questioning God (them). They leave behind a landscape of wounded laborers who will die with their hurts. As is so often the case in life, the best safeguards we have to preventing abuse is robust conversation — frequent, thoughtful, passionate, open, and inclusive.

About what do we need to converse?
  1. About the need for and the danger of leadership based on inspiration and charisma
  2. About the need for a compelling vision, and for forcing ourselves to notice our vision’s blind spots
  3. About the tension between affective leadership versus transformational leadership
  4. About the temptation to reduce leadership to management, or to consider leadership above management and ignore the details and the methods of implementing leadership vision
We need to consider the nature of group responses to leadership — the tyranny of the majority, and the nature of herd mentality. We need to look at structures to channel and contain leadership.

Finally, we need to think long and hard about the issue of character and compassion as a cornerstone qualification for true leadership. It is not so much running with the wolves, but intuiting and protecting the sheep that defines the ideal greatness of leadership.

What say you?

[Based on comments by Bradley Shavit Artson]

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