Feature Article: Towards an Ideal of Global Leadership

October 2008 / Feature Articles

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.
He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,
Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.
Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.
When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.
He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.
He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

—Robert Graves (1974)

Janet RechtmanThe International Leadership Association asked this question: “Is there indeed an ideal of “global leadership” that links local leadership efforts?” The word indeed signals the categorical nature of this question and demands that one consider widely, so that the global ideal (should it exist) would be an accurate representation of all forms of leadership. The term local suggests that the category being considered includes diverse, on-the-ground examples. On the other hand, the word ideal intimates that abstraction, or a degree of unreality, is also a factor in this discussion. So, impelled to bridge the concreteness of local with the abstraction of ideal, we are invited to think global. Indeed! The scholar smiles at a very sexy opportunity to expound upon praxis.

And then the smile wilts in the heat of that notion of linkage. The question requires us to constrain our exposition with pesky inter-connections. Are those connections statistical, projections of generality rooted in prevalence of particular practices? Or is the hook-up physical, a club or association of leaders who share some tenets, qualities or maybe just got a membership card like the one you get from AARP the day you turn fifty? Perhaps the connection is spiritual, with global leadership some type of higher power or a noosphere, the realm of human thought (deChardin, no date), a companion to geosphere (the realm of inanimate matter) and biosphere (the realm of carbon based life forms) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noosphere).

We must also consider the other definition of global, as in universal, “including or covering all or a whole collectively or distributively without limit or exception; especially: available equitably to all members of a society” (Merriam-Webster, 2008). That definition would situate leadership as a general phenomenon that is “present or occurring everywhere, existent or operative everywhere or under all conditions, …embracing a major part or the greatest portion (as of humankind) and comprehensively broad and versatile” enough to denote every instance of leadership (Merriam-Webster, 2008). Say the answer brings an all encompassing characterization of leadership. If we do theorize that there is some other existing form of uber-leadership, that raises a serious question of who really is the leader in charge of the leader in charge.

So the search for the something-we-can-say runs the risk of too quickly “thinking in clear images” and in our rush, forsaking the “broken images” (Robert Graves, 1974) that characterize the more mysterious aspects of our field. Almost every scholar has had the experience of seeing her clearly articulated theory yield to a new confusion of her understanding, which, if she’s lucky, leads to a new understanding of her confusion. This essay reflects on the changing field of leadership by exploring the two-sided coin of confusion and clarity, a notion that is at the heart of Integral Leadership. The goal is not so much to devalue clear images as to re-value the transient, ephemeral, transcendent and, ultimately, broken images that are essential to a global understanding of leadership. The clear images are the multiple models and theories of leadership, such as charismatic, transactional, managerial, or authoritarian, to name a few, that Yukl (2002) and Bass (1990) feature in their encyclopedic taxonomies. Broken images are the discontinuous, fragmentary, poetic, occasionally hallucinatory after-images of a lived experience of leadership, like the spots that appear before your eyes when you look away from a long hard stare at the sun. These after images appear to exercise their power in less clearly defined leadership experiences, mostly intra-psychic states we variously call inspiration, motivation, accountability, obeisance, or fear, for example.

By acknowledging the complexity involved in simultaneously holding broken and clear images, Integral Leadership theory inhabits the space Peter Vaill (1996) called “permanent white water.” The irony is that white water is by its nature impermanent, subject to water levels, erosive action of water itself, and intrusion of objects like trees, rocks and bridges that alter the flow. Having thus mapped the river of theory, the temptation is to prescribe rules for navigating every rapid and eddy even though, as Heraclitus observed, you can never step in the same river twice. Students of leadership recognize many of these constructs as our stock in trade, ways we describe what occurs when leaders and followers engage each other, within the semi-permeable boundaries of a field of relationships called the leader-member-cohort (LMC) (Rechtman, 2008). These reflections are one practitioner-scholar’s reflection on Integral Leadership, as she explores the confusing relationship between clearly defined images of ideal leadership, called theories, and the broken images that characterize the more ephemeral, absolutely local experience of lived leadership. If we do theorize that there is some other existing form of uber-leadership, that raises a serious question of who really is the leader in charge of the leader in charge.

1. “Is there indeed an ideal of “global leadership” that links local leadership efforts?”

What a powerful question! Our tired old globe could certainly benefit from leaders who connect their local visions. With the improvements in communication and coordination that ensue, this rich relationship between global and local instantaneously focuses on the power of leadership to align forces across boundaries. Embedded in that image is the promise that if we can figure out how leadership works, we can improve the coordination and synergy between individual and collective leadership activities. Thus we enact the ecological ideal: “Think globally. Act locally.”

Our pleasure in such a phrase rises in proportion to our ability to articulate a deeper understanding of the narrative embedded therein. Through our research, we increase the capacity to perceive embedded structures by creating cognitive constructs that mesh an otherwise intangible experience with tangible concepts. “The result is recognition, experienced subjectively as a catharsis (a release of tension)” (Rapoport, 1972, p.15), an aha! moment, that Anatol Rapoport called “a mini-orgasm of the mind” (p. 15). “It seems that the inquiring mind actively seeks such ‘meshings,’ as if driven by a libido. The delight of unraveling a puzzle, of guessing a riddle, of solving a problem, and of perceiving regularity where none was apparent before, are all one of a kind” (Rapoport, 1972, p. 15).

Rapoport suggests that this act of meshing increases our understanding of structure, simplifying what was complex, and helping us see the subject as simpler than it first appeared to be. Further, Rapoport argues, by fusing inevitability with surprise, great insights that involved “discovered simplicity” (1972, p. 17) have esthetic qualities that provide sensual pleasure. Going beyond pleasure, Rapoport argues that this search for simplicity is rooted in the survival mechanism because “a simple, predictable environment is easier to adapt to than a complex, capricious one” (1972, p.17).

By situating the emerging discipline of leadership studies and the search for a global definition of leadership as a “systematized search for simplicity, a method of making the world predictable” (Rapoport, 1972, p. 18), we couch our understanding of the term global leadership as an effort to gain power over an element in the environment. The implicit narrative of cause and effect is: if I understand the global nature of leadership, then I will be a better leader—if we understand the global nature of leadership, then we can make a better world. This hopeful trope promises a sense of control leading to ideals of synergy and coordination or, perhaps, in more fractious settings, the even more vicious infliction of suffering upon one’s enemy. Embedded deeply in this search for simplicity an instinctual, perceptibly libidinal, animal transaction whose exchange launches the after-images and attendant behaviors that we may call synergy, coordination or viciousness. These contextually determined manifestations are myriad unique examples of local leadership. Once enshrined in some medium or other, these examples become taxonomies and typologies that idealize leadership behaviors and prescribe how to select for and evaluate against well-defined leadership competencies. Indeed, as analyses yield to meta-analyses the mirror images multiply, creating an apparent consistency across cultures and contexts that, in turn, affirms our increasing documentation of these phenomena, which may called knowledge.

Yet, when it comes to predicting when and how leadership will arise, this knowledge is only as useful as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, a precious imitation of history rather than a precursor of future reality. Let us not fool ourselves into believing that the inevitable consequence of our hard won knowledge is an improvement in the practice of leadership at the global or local level. As students of Integral Leadership, let us instead recognize the dialectic between the search for simplicity and the simple reality that the global experience of leading and leadership is complex, probably unfathomable.

Rapoport observed, “Understanding the motion of the planets does not confer the power to control them. Nevertheless, there is an undeniable connection between understanding and control. Understanding the nature of the world can confer power over a portion of it” (Rapoport, 1972, p.18). Such understanding derives from analogy—the perception that something is like something else. If the eyes are a window to the soul, Rapoport’s notion of a simplifying analogy is a window on a nebulous interior, a momentarily clear image in a context of broken images. This is the “better” view in the vision test, as the lens of theory improves the naked eye’s capacity for sense-making. While such clear images greatly simplify the process of visualizing a complex phenomenon, they bring with them a positivist narrative of predictability rooted in the analogy of cause and effect or, “if so, then so” (Rapoport, 1972, p.21).

If the physical sciences can stipulate that one falling stone is very much like another, we students of leadership must proclaim that each leader stands (or falls) in his or her own unique space. Rapoport says this is because “…the most fundamental difference between the physical and the social sciences is that, in the former, reliable analogies are comparatively easier to discover than in the latter” (p. 21). Like our colleagues in other social sciences, we share a conviction that “underlying apparent wide dissimilarities are profound similarities which, when one perceives them, make order out of chaos, hence simplicity out of complexity” (p. 28). Yet, while we are compelled by our culture to create a “science of leadership,” we are equally constrained by our subject to hold “the dialectic opposition between exact knowledge and speculation, between the specifically demonstrable and the intuitively perceived” (p. 23). Therefore, as Rapoport concludes, we are wisest when we “seek simplicity and distrust it” (p. 30).

2. “Is there indeed an ideal of “global leadership” that links local leadership efforts?”

This question affirms that leadership is local and ephemeral as well as a generalized, more or less permanent state of being. Leaders are human beings who engage other human beings by concretizing an airy matrix of relationships and mutual understanding. Leaders enact their powers through episodic relationships with followers that in US culture, at least, bring with them higher status and material rewards. Once the episode of leadership is over, the residual sense memory of the experience of being a part of a leader-member-cohort (LMC), whatever one’s role, may establish an expectation of the future role of the leader or member. An experience of successful leadership may increase the leader’s skills and competency in the role. The personal qualities of ambition, competitiveness or sense of mission may draw the leader into a repeat performance. Still, can we predict any of these behaviors from a single—or even multiple—episodes of leadership by any individual? And, if we can do so in one culture—say the US—does that mean we can do so globally?

Looking at contemporary studies of the world’s nonviolent societies, Bonta (Bonta, 1997) observed a direct link between achievement orientation and competition, which in turn was linked to aggressiveness, which these societies believe leads to violence. Therefore, instead of instilling competition as an intrinsic value, these cultures reinforce peaceful, cooperative and harmonious beliefs and behaviors. Many of the non-violent societies studied avoid having leaders by refraining from a focus on individuals and their achievements. In these societies, people believe in an absolute condition of equality, and that no one individual can tell another what to do. These beliefs are reinforced through the lack of rewards or recognition for people who exhibit leadership characteristics to the exclusion and sanctioning of braggarts, bullies and snobs. In some societies, prestige accords to people who mind their own business.

While individuals are expected to do things that in other cultures would make them be regarded as leaders (e.g., perform rituals, help resolve disputes, teach traditions and develop strategies for advancing group life), they do not accrue power in exchange for discharging these responsibilities. Behavioral strategies for sustaining this level of equality include cultural values of modesty and humility, child rearing techniques that instill fear, reticence and caution among outsiders and a belief that no one person is special or unique within the culture and a sense that the group, rather than the individual, is responsible for overall outcomes. By thus seeing individual achievement as a threat to peacefulness, these societies tend to avoid the creation of individual “leaders” and the notion of “leadership” is not seen as a social asset or an individual role (Bonta, 1997, p. 11). These observations suggest that while certain leadership behaviors may be global, the local interpretation of these behaviors and the distinction between individual and collective leadership may vary widely.

3. The Plasma Proposition

In physics, plasma is a fourth state of matter, besides solid, liquid and gas. In a plasma state, manipulation of free electrons and positive ions create manifestations as diverse as Aurora Borealis, the fire of Saint Elmo, sun spots, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and the glow of neon light bulbs. Plasma states are self-organizing self-contained phenomena, whose boundaries are defined by the effective reach of the magnetic or electrical force in play. In leadership, the metaphor of plasma embodies the magnetic force of the leader and the establishment of evanescent relationships within the LMC. Such illumination appears and disappears as the energy and focus of the LMC wax and wane over time and activities. In some times and places (say a community response to an emerging need), this radiance speaks more to proximity, serendipity and synchronicity than acts of will. In other times and places (like the current political campaign for the US president), the power of intention creates a high voltage display that dazzles those who pass by.

Thus, in addition to setting boundaries around leadership, we also must acknowledge the possibility that in the early stages at least the leader is the boundary, through the authority of the role, the power of an idea or personal magnetism. Individuals who are not aware of their magnetizing power may develop a reputation for false starts or lack of follow-through, when in fact they simply do not realize the role they may have innocently assumed in the spirit of brainstorming or camaraderie. Worse, some individuals may use their personal magnetism to distract people from real work and real issues, as exemplified in the fear-mongering of some candidates for political office. If ever there was a time that power brought responsibility, the phenomenon of a leader who magnetizes the energy of followers begs the question: leadership for what?

4. “Is there indeed an ideal of “global leadership” that links local leadership efforts?”

There are no secrets to leadership. Indeed, were such secrets possible, withholding that information is like denying the life giving reality of clean air. Breathing continues whether we acknowledge it or not. Instead we teachers of leaders meet people where they are, work with information they are comfortable sharing, and hope that the relationships that emerge will support deeper disclosures and a more complex response. There are no secret methods either: the sharp images of proprietariness come more from the field of marketing than the field of leadership.

Scholars of leadership study human relationships and the patterns that occur when people work together. No one has a patent on these insights. Failure to share is a failure of trust. Failures of trust invalidate a basic premise of leadership. As scholars of leadership, we learn from our own experiences as well as our observations of multiple experiences of others. Within the LMC, we find patterns, challenge assumptions and discover new realities in situ and in general. We teach what we have learned as we widen our circles of influence and as we share what we have learned through writing and professional development. We serve by honestly representing what we can and cannot accomplish, and by staying with the problem all the way through to the solution, instead of assuming that once the goal is achieved, our work is done.

If this is who we are, how in the world do we teach other people how to do this work? If every job is unique and every day on any given job is unique, and we are honest about our limitations, how do we anchor our professionalism and our sanity? What are the boundaries in this boundary-less frontier? We create these boundaries by our very presence, as we magnetize those within our reach turning groups to plasma for a time, and then allowing them to return to their prior state–transformed, perhaps. Perhaps not. We know transformation has occurred when those we touch in turn transform to their own circle of contacts. This by definition is transformational leadership. This is the work of the leader.

We should refuse to allow leadership to become yet another a form of learned helplessness in which followers are required to return again and again to the leader for additional direction, nurturance or encouragement. Nor are we able to free people from the need (possibly instinctual, if one is to believe Rapoport) to lead and to follow by postulating some all-leaders/no-leaders global ideal. Heretofore we developers of leaders have defined ourselves as visible (and perhaps risible) actors who take center stage with propositions and acronyms, runes and rituals, an assessment or insight that inspires those in our vicinity to break an habitual pattern and look at the world with new eyes. In that way we are identical to those we teach: what more or less is leadership than a fresh and compelling look at a problem. We are the slap on the newborn’s bottom: we do not teach the baby to breathe, we jump start the innate apparatus that, once begun, continues to work on its own. Leadership development starts at this slap-on-the-bottom place.

In our commercialized culture, the relationship between leaders and teachers-of-leaders most often consists of a transaction involving an exchange of money for advice, emotional energy, skills or technology designed to help one be a better leader. That begs the questions: What are they paying for? What indeed is the value of a global definition of leadership? As each of us formulates the questions and answers that constitute the market for leadership development and the academic discipline of leadership studies, we have to ask really is the purpose of our work, other than the occupation of our own busy brains? We know our work adds legitimacy and value to our field. But what does it do for leaders? What does it do for followers? What does it do for the people, environments, and cosmos that constitute the sphere of influence in which these leaders and followers do their thing?

At a servant leadership retreat many years ago, a teacher asked the group to reflect on Robert Graves’ poem, Broken Images. I remember how much I applauded Graves’ appreciation of the value of brokenness. My inner anarchist took heart at the subtle put down of clear thinking. When I revisited that poem as I prepared to write this essay, I realized my own understanding of its meaning had changed. This poem is not about two people: it is about two ways of seeing with one pair of eyes. Without sharp images, we are condemned to wander blindly. Without broken images, we are lulled into false complacency about what we think we see. As teachers of leaders, we need sharp images to help others understand this work and this role. As students of leadership, we need broken images to help ourselves understand this work and this role. Both perspectives are essential if we want to maintain an ideal of global leadership that links local leadership efforts.

5. “Is there indeed an ideal of “global leadership” that links local leadership efforts?”

Yes. As part of our libidinal search for simplicity, humans instinctually seek to transform broken images into clear images. This instinct regularly manifests as the capacity to form magnetizing relationships, some of which involve following a leader in the context of the leader-member-cohort. And, no. Broken images persist despite our best instincts and the magnetizing clarity of simplicity. An honest ideal of global leadership must include the assumption that clarity and brokenness, liberation and confusion, are equally important.


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Janet Rechtman, Ph.D., is a Senior Public Service Associate at the Fanning Institute at the University of Georgia. She specializes in helping non-profit and community based leaders embrace the challenges of internal and external collaboration. With a background in advertising and marketing, Janet has more than twenty-five years of experience providing technical assistance, training and facilitation in the areas of strategic planning and implementation, organizational development, marketing and internal communications, and leadership development. Janet has a doctorate in the field of Leadership and Change from Antioch University, a Masters from York University in Toronto, Ontario and a BA with High Honors from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The Southeastern Association of Facilitators named Janet “Facilitator of the Year” for 2004. As a volunteer, she is currently Chair of the Board of Directors for the Foxfire Foundation and Treasurer of the Board of Directors of the Georgia After School Investment Council (GAIC). Janet is a member of the YWCA Academy of Women Achievers and Leadership Atlanta. She has conducted workshops at a number of national conferences including the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, the International Association of Facilitators, the Community Leadership Association, Southeastern Councils of Foundations, Georgia Gerontology Society and the International Leadership Association. Her articles, poetry and fiction have appeared in a wide variety of publications.