An essay in which Nathan Hilder, aka Perhansa, ponders the qualities of leadership, and determines that in-Curious George has none.
If you think you're a leader, look behind you and see if anyone is following. If no one is following, then you're just taking a walk. - Anonymous
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Now that Susan and Barbara have been so kind as to introduce my true identity, when you hear that I have spent a good deal of time specializing in "leadership" training and coaching you might be inclined to imagine someone like Zig Ziglar, Dale Carnegie, or Tony Robbins, your typical positive thinking DVD-auditorium style evangelists for Corporate America or a self-styled self-help guru like Deepak Chopra.
You would be mistaken. Think T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, or Paul Gaugin, artists who also held down "day jobs" in the world of commerce'"someone who has chosen to earn a living while treading the path of creativity rather than starve for their art. I am an artist who happens to think creativity and artistic sensibilities shouldn't be separated from leadership in life or commerce.
I've had the great good fortune to work for or observe some excellent leaders in action and to learn from some of the best thinkers in the field. As someone who has spent a good deal of time teaching leadership skills and coaching leaders to enhance their ability to lead others, I have strong opinions about the current "leadership" (or lack thereof) in Washington, hence, the opening quote. There is, in my humble opinion, a good deal of aimless walking about going on in the nation's capitol, beginning with the Walker-in-Chief. So I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the poverty of leadership and offer some suggestions on how we might steer this rudderless ship that seems to be sailing toward imminent disaster. The C-Line's been dinged of late for not offering "facts" but fiction. I'd like to throw down the gauntlet to the defenders of the status quo to offer up even a shred of evidence that the people in charge in D.C. deserve our following.
Our Decider-in-Chief likes to compare his own leadership style to notable personages of the past. He has, on occasion, likened himself to Lincoln, Washington, Truman, and Churchill. One of the chief problems I perceive in in-Curious George is that he hasn't any style of leadership. In fact, he's a follower pretending to be a leader. The great leaders I've observed have a natural comfort with their role. They step up to the task of leading instinctively, not through default or crisis. In-Curious George often seems uncomfortable stepping up to the task of leadership. He likes to pose and posture as a leader. He seems to feel an urgent need to remind people or declare that he is in charge (The Decider) because his actions and instincts don't clearly communicate that message. He is a classic example of the Peter Principle -- he has risen to a level where he is over his head and, sad to say, not competent to do the job. He has a tendency to surround himself with people who are friendly to him but, like him, not competent (think Brownie & Alberto). I don't care if he's likable or not; a guy you'd want to have a beer with or not. One thing is undeniable to me. He does not have the requisite skills to lead. And yet, he somehow got himself put in charge of the world's most powerful and complex government. If you feel like you've been living a six-year nightmare'"you have.
The Vision Thing
One thing I have come away with from 25 years of working with leaders is that the most successful and effective leaders are "visionary". Great leaders inspire people with a vision of what is possible and help people see how they can be a part of something meaningful and satisfying. This administration is bereft of vision, with the exception of the apocalyptic visions they use to marshal fear and supplication. Barack Obama has garnered a great deal of enthusiasm by taking the opposite approach'"starting with a vision of hope and the future. The response he's received is not at all surprising. The question now is whether there is substance behind it. But when you have no positive vision, you have to garner an emotional commitment through a negative vision or fear of the unthinkable (think mushroom clouds or chaos and calamity). What has this administration ever offered in the way of a positive vision for our nation? Nothing; nada; empty words, clichs, sound bites, and threat levels; incompetence in Iraq, lack of focus and sustainability in Afghanistan; negligence in New Orleans. Not once, never, an inspiration'"unless you consider greed, parochial self-interest, and a Dow Jones Industrial Average above 13,000 as your idea of inspiration.
Strength as Virtue
In his writings on the concept of "servant leadership," Robert Greenleaf wrote at length about strength as a basis for ethical leadership. He often began discussions about strength with the following quote: "It is an art to drive hard with a light hand." Great leaders, ethical leaders, exhibit strength'"internal fortitude mixed with equal parts caution and compassion. They know that anything worth doing requires a community and sacrifice. These two things are avoided at all cost by the current administration. Much has been written about the sense of community that was present after 9/11. (ed's note. The wave that Rudy Giulliani still rides.) The opportunity to step back, examine ourselves, and decide how we want to move forward together has never been greater than since WWII. Yet today there is no longer any sense of community or any commitment to the way forward. We are divided, angry, distrustful and focused inward, with screaming voices on the Right and screaming voices on the Left and the disillusioned or disinterested in between. We've neglected the tragedy in Darfur. We've been utterly remiss to the point of contemptible in our unresponsiveness to climate change. We've conducted a divisive war on borrowed funds. We've asked for no sacrifice except from the families sending their offspring into the hell hole we've help create in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A great leader would have called on his or her nation to look into its heart and choose carefully how to move ahead. A great leader would not have said, everything has changed but go shopping and pretend nothing has changed and keep the economy humming'"approve my tax cuts indefinitely. Where was the national dialogue? Where the communal introspection? Wounded at heart, did we reflect, reach out and decide together what was best? Or did we strike out in anger and vengeance and allow ourselves to be drawn into a web of deceit about the "war on terror" and the hidden dangers lurking in every corner, hating us "for our freedoms"? The opportunities lost can never be reclaimed. With a true leader at the helm, 9/11 could have been a wound whose scar left us with greater strength and virtue. Instead, it became an ominous symbol of everything "evil" and anti-American.
Like the mythic stories of Solomon, great leaders have wisdom. Wisdom is born of a deep understanding of history, of human nature, and a hard earned humility. Great leaders are philosophical'"they love wisdom. Great leaders desire knowledge, insight, and awareness, understanding. In-Curious George believes he already has the Answer'"it comes from his God and his Bible and his Financiers. He has no need of philosophy, no need of knowledge or wisdom. God has handed it to him the same way his earthly daddy or other benefactors have handed him most of what he's acquired in life. Laura claims no one suffers from his decisions more than her husband. To feel, really feel the impact and consequences of what he's done, there has to be some depth of character'"some "soul lines;" reservoirs of compassion worn into a person's heart and soul by the suffering and contingency of life. I know this will feel both harsh and judgmental, but I look in vain for evidence of soul lines in him. (ed.'s note. Harsh? Judgmental? Perhansa, do you know who you're hanging out with here at the C-Line?) I see a man who has lived a sheltered comfortable life of privilege. In the tale of the Buddha, he, like in-Curious G, lived a life of comfort and security until he wandered out one day and was confronted with the realities of life. It led him to leave his former life and spend the rest of his years pursuing relief for himself and his fellow man from the wheel of suffering and death. The story of the Christ has many parallels. There is a reason they're cherished as great leaders and visionaries. For many, they represent wisdom, compassion, sacrifice, and humanness. There stories reflect deep soul lines capable of carrying the tears of their fellow travelers. When they looked behind they were not alone.
I did not write this in anger. I do not hate George Bush. But I am very tired and weary from the rancor and divisiveness in our heartland. I love my country but I do not feel a need to proclaim it the best. I find it better to ask, what have we learned and what would make us better. I've been lucky enough to visit many parts of the world. It is full of great people. It's abundant with leaders. The Russian poet Yevtushenko once said, "There really are enough good people in the world, it's just that we don't have each other's phone numbers." As I have written this I have become more saddened for my nation. We have chosen poorly. We have no leader. We are utterly rudderless in a turbulent sea. But I am not without hope. Ultimately, it is the followers who decide who leads. If we understand what we need in our leaders we'll make better choices. If we look at actions and results rather than words we'll have all the "facts" we need to get better. If, instead of hardening ourselves, we let the rivers of suffering, sorrow, love, and hope etch deep soul lines within, we'll have greater capacity for compassion, forgiveness, peace and community. If we share our phone numbers we'll find each other and we'll find the leaders we need living right next door. We don't need The Decider. We need leadership, wherever we can find it.