Leading Comments: Leader, Leader, Who is the Leader?

Leading Comments / March 2008

Russ VolckmannAs people around the world who are interested in the practice, development and theories of leadership, we face a dilemma. Well, maybe more than one. For example, how does it feel to be a part of a field of understanding with no agreement about what the field is about? Is it about management? Is it about something that is different from management? Is it about service? Is it about charisma? Is it about transformative change? Is it about leaders and followers? And what other variables are important for us to think about?

It isn’t that there aren’t answers to these questions. It is that we have many, many answers. The problem is that we have no agreement and no map for creating agreement.

Is culture an important factor? Most agree it is, but do we find culture included in definitions of the field? Rarely. Yet we find ourselves divided by our cultures around the world. In some places leadership is highly valued. In others it is highly suspect because the language of leadership and leaders is provocative of unpleasant memories of oppression.

The result of all of this—and I have just scratched the surface of our dilemma—is that each of us feels forced to choose. We choose to focus on one small aspect of leadership. If we are academics, that may be a good choice for our careers, but how does it strengthen the larger field, particularly when most of our institutions pit one perspective against another, as though one is right and the other is wrong. Or we choose a theory of leadership that fits with our values: servant leadership, transformational leadership, leadership as decision-making and so on. We have thereby built camps of followers of particular leadership theories. Or we choose to focus on the lessons we can discover in the experiences of other leaders in business, politics, government, communities, academia, schools and health systems. Somehow, if we can identify what worked for them, how they became recognized as successful leaders, maybe we can then identify what will work for us.

Look at the literature you have accumulated on the subject of leadership. Think of all of the authors and what stands out for you in their work. Look at all of them, not just the ones you are currently most closely associated with in your practice, development or theory. Many of you are highly skilled at reciting the strengths and weaknesses of these various approaches. Run those through your mind. Think about the people these perspectives relate to and what they are doing in their lives and careers. Notice what differentiates you from them and what brings you together.

We can choose one side or another or we can begin to choose an approach that seeks the truth in all of the different approaches to the subject of leadership. Surely, they fit together if we consider the whole of leadership, the leader in context, the movie and not just the snapshot.

I remember the first major organization change program I was a part of. I had been in academia and was transitioning to building a practice as an organization development consultant, something that I did for twenty plus years. My strategy for building this career was two-fold: educate myself holistically and find a mentor, someone I could follow. The first mentor I worked with was Dick Vittitow, a kind, gentle man who sometimes became impatient and angry about the things going on in organizations that were at odds with his values. He introduced me to the world of “not for profit” organizations and the use of action research. I was looking to him for leadership. I sought to learn from him, to get guidance, to help me become effective as a consultant.

The second was Jim Kouzes, a brilliant, energetic, intense leader of an academically based federally funded, multi-month project with several public agencies. In this project there were several organization development consultants, all of whom were more experienced than I. All seemed to have a strong client base, something I only aspired to at that time. I looked to each of these more seasoned consultants as leaders, as sources of information and expertise, and guidance as well.

In the first situation I looked to one person as a leader. In the second, I experience the dynamics of leadership as each consultant moved in and out of leadership roles when we worked together over the months. Here I discovered leadership as a complex phenomenon, not just a romanticized heroic individual. Yet, despite these wonderful lessons, I was slow to focus on the question of leadership. I would find myself focused in my consulting on tools and methods or on personality or interventions.

It took years of consulting and coaching experience and my introduction to meta-theoretical thinker Ken Wilber before all of these pieces began to converge, to come together, to relate. I was finding a path to bring the multiple truths of practice, development and theory together. Since then I have benefited from learning more about meta-theoretical approaches and how we might begin to use them in comprehending leadership. And a key source of this learning has been the many articles contributed by our readers, the interviews with leading practitioners and thinkers about leadership and event he chance to play with leadership cartoons.

Integral Leadership Review is providing a field for the Tower of Babel of leadership to begin to sort through all of the voices to help them find their place in spreading leadership capability all over the world. As Steven Denning indicates, we are in an era of a rapidly growing need for leadership—not instead of management, but in addition to management. His definition addresses part of the equation: “Leadership [is] the ability to connect people to meaningful goals without hierarchical power to compel compliance…” Well, I would suggest that this addresses part of the challenge of comprehending leadership; it addresses skills an individual in a leader role will need to have to be effective in enlisting others. And there is more.

Thanks to all for their nominations for our First Annual Readers’ Choice Award for 2007.

No need for a tie breaker here.

More and more individuals are beginning to take on the challenge of sorting through the voices to provide us with a coherent comprehension of leadership. Reaching out to multiple cultures and disciplines on this journey is essential. In this issue of Integral Leadership Review, I continue the dialogue with Mark Edwards in Australia. Matthew Kalman in London reviews Steve McIntosh’s book, Integral Consciousness, Rafi Nasser reports on a New York dialogue Steve and Carter Phipps participated in and I provide an interview with Steve from his office in Boulder, Colorado. Lillas Hatala reports from Canada (and the US) about the work she and husband Rick Hatala have been doing on integrative leadership. Maureen Metcalf, Peggy Holman and Tom Atlee reflect on aspects of leadership and changing evolving systems, while Tim Warneka and Curtis Watkins serve up leadership coaching tips. While we had hoped to have additional material for this issue, particularly from Germany and South Africa, I guess those will have to wait until June. See you then and, as Garrison Keeler says, “Keep in Touch!”.