34- The Postmodern Leader: Style Three. II. The Challenges

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II. The Challenges

In Blog 33 I wrote about the unique nature of Style Three Leadership—a leadership that is founded in service to the vision held by other people in the organization. This is a style of leadership that builds on humility rather than hubris. It is a style of leadership that fosters collaboration rather than competition. It is a style of leadership that builds on a foundation of generativity and generosity rather than stagnation and resentment. Perhaps most importantly, it is a style of leadership that primarily requires the work of one’s soul rather than one’s spirit.

Generativity and Soul Work

There are two forms of generativity that challenge Style Three postmodern leaders. There is first, the generativity of spirit. This generativity ensures that our presence is felt in the world. In Frank Capra’s  It’s a Wonderful Life, George was having a crisis of the spirit and was consumed by this crisis. He was unaware of and insensitive to the location of soul in his life. Soul was to be found in his loving family and friends, not in his worldly accomplishments. He had to resolve his sense of worthlessness in the world. He had to move past the generativity of the spirit before he could come to realize his deeper and more enduring worth as a loving husband, father and community servant.

Generativity of the soul concerns the discovery of that which we truly care about. It concerns caring deeply, thoughtfully and patiently for that about which we care. Generativity of the soul is about tending to sick or dying parents. It is about comforting the child in our arms. It is about protecting our child after a world-wide holocaust (as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) or a personal holocaust. George needed to attend to his crisis of the spirit. Then at the end of the movie, he could attend to his soul, which was so powerfully represented in the Capra myth of hearth, home and the fabled Christmas of bygone years.

The generativity of the spirit also concerns discovery of higher order truths. We soar upward, like Icarus, as we reach the highest point in our career, the highest point of status and influence in our communities. Those who hold the power define the truth and as leaders who hold power we are given the opportunity to define truth. We may foolishly think that we have “discovered” truth, when in fact we simply have the status and power to define what truth is and how it will be judged. In the movie, Network, Paddy Chayefsky offers a penetrating analysis of contemporary corporate life and communications. He portrays a world in which those in power primarily define the truth. These powerful figures are predominantly white males. Yet, Chayefsky also notes that the new power elite is increasingly likely to come from non-western nations (in particular, oil-rich countries). Icarus doesn’t soar for long. Chayefsky observes how precarious one’s position is at the top, particularly concerning a grasp of the truth. His protagonist, Howard Beale, struggles throughout the movie with what truth really is and how easily it is manufactured. Beale encourages all people to stand up against the manufactured truth, yet seems always to be swayed left and right to different versions of the reality that are presented to him by other powerful men and women, in particular the Faye Dunaway character.

In postmodern terms, the “grand narrative” has collapsed. The widely accepted, abiding truths in our society are no longer viable and there is nothing to replace them. Like Howard Beale, we are left in a vacuum and look in vain for a solid source of truth.  As postmodern leaders we are particularly vulnerable to this collapse of the grand narrative. We have reached the highest point in our career only to discover, as did Howard Beale, that those truths which do seem to endure are ugly. They are based in ego and greed rather than in any sense of rationality or community welfare.

The Losses: Freedom, Truth and Grace

As postmodern leaders we often discover in addition that we have exchanged our freedom for the achievement of high social status and power. George Orwell writes of this tradeoff in his short story “On Shooting an Elephant.” The esteemed and powerful white leader of an Indian village, during the years of the British Empire, must kill a rogue elephant that is threatening the villagers. He hates the idea of killing this magnificent beast. Yet because he is at the top of the social order in this village, he finds himself walking down a path preparing to shoot the elephant. At this moment, the white male leader discovers that he has traded his freedom (to say “no” in this instance) for social status and power. This may be one of the most important truths that postmodern leaders must learn. We gain power in exchange for freedom. We must go “mad” like Quixote in order to gain more freedom. We must defy the system that got us to the top in the first place to confront and alter this truth. This is one of Chayefsky’s most haunting images in “Network.” We witness Howard Beale go mad and become “madder than hell,” as a way of discovering his own freedom.

At other times, postmodern leaders have lost all truths as a result of social revolution or massive technological change. They are left without any foundation. My own experiences of leaders living in Estonia after the collapse of the Soviet Union have lingered with me. Many of these men and women seemed to be wandering around in a haze. They had lost their ideology or their base of opposition to the dominant ideology. Now what do they do? Where do their abstract thinking and their spirit find a new home? With the collapse of the “grand narrative” in Western culture, we may similarly find our colleagues (and perhaps ourselves) wandering about, unable to find a new source of spirit and guidance.

At the highest point in our career (maximum ego inflation and ego gratification) we are likely to fall from grace like Icarus, even if we don’t go “mad” like Howard Beale and seek out freedom. We fall from grace precisely because our success breeds envy and power plays. If we are a bit older, our age suggests vulnerability to other people. They assume that we are now on our way “out”—or soon will be—or we have already departed and like the Jack Nicholson character in About Schmidt find that our carefully prepared recommendations and succession plans have been thrown in the garbage by our successors. Our long tenure in the organization may breed impatience among those who are younger and waiting their turn to take over. We may even come to realize, painfully, that our own egos and our own internal demons (unattended voices) breed mistakes, miscalculations, and a failure to grasp reality. Like Icarus, we fall back to Earth. We are forced to grovel and to return to the mundane.

Several years ago, while licking several of my own narcissistic wounds, I read an article in a local paper about a man who formerly was a major league baseball manager. He was now living in Maine. The ex-manager talked about going fishing each day and babysitting his granddaughter. He was not sure whether he would like another tour in leading a major league team. In our ego deflation of later mid-life, we are forced to deal with the soul and the loss of status and pride. We learn to find gratification in the mundane and everyday. The wife of a colleague of mine, who went through his own traumatic ego-deflation, having been deposed as president of a major nonprofit organization, speaks about how wonderful it is to see her husband tend his garden every morning before listening to his phone messages. He similarly acknowledges the important lessons he is learning about himself through his gardening.

A wounded leader is often someone who has fallen from grace or has never attained the heights of which he or she dreamed. If this leader remains wounded, she will go on to wound other people in her organization, especially if she remains in a position of leadership. King Lear is a man gone mad as a result of confrontation with fearsome forces and a turning to the soul. He soars to the height of his power. He flaunts his power, inflates his own ego, then falls and goes mad. Jane Smiley rewrites the Lear story from a female perspective in A Thousand Acres. The father in Smiley’s novel is playing games of power, while his children are dying. How many stories concerning the fall from grace do we find among political figures in Washington? How many sad stories of ego inflation and deflation come from inside the Washington Beltway?  A few years ago several now-often forgotten men could be mentioned:  Bob Packwood? Alan Cranston? Then there are the big time figures in 20th Century and Early 21st Century American politics: Richard Nixon? Bill Clinton? George Bush? They are mostly men. But I can also identify several contemporary women in American political life. Those who are liberally-inclined might mention Sarah Palin, while those of more conservative inclinations might mention Nancy Pelosi. Other people around these powerful leaders helped elevate them and inflated their egos. These assistants and loyalists also have protected these powerful men and women from the real world. Ironically, these aides have often helped bring their bosses back down to earth. They have exposed them, shifted loyalties, and misinterpreted their aspirations and plans to subordinates or the media. These leaders (like Don Quixote) stand before the Knight of the Mirrors. They must confront their own reality and madness in order to begin the journey inward toward the soul.

Conclusions

In essence, the work of Style Three leaders in a postmodern setting involves moving inward as well as outward. We must return home to our family and our own inner life. We must cross the border into new worlds and new experiences. We must ultimately bridge the chasm between soul and spirit. Early in my own life I repeatedly dreamed at night of this bridging and integrating process. I now realize that this dream was preparing me for my future life, as do many repetitive dreams in our lives. I dreamed of climbing a flower-strewed mountain. This mountain rose up singularly and impressively from a plain. I now realize that it was a strong image of spirit and of achievement for me. Near the top of the mountain there was always a cave. This was a hide-away. I looked forward to reaching this cave while climbing up the mountain. The hideaway was always damp. This cave closely resembled a “clubhouse” that my brother and I built as small boys living in Illinois. We dug a big hole in the ground and covered it with plywood. The clubhouse wasn’t very pleasant. It was very dirty and offered little light. It soon was filled with water and spiders; yet, for a brief period of time this clubhouse represented safety and a respite from our schoolwork and family responsibilities. It was an enduring image for me of a soulful presence in my life. Similarly, the cave in my dream represented safety and a reprise from the climb. The dream has taught me that I need to blend the spirit of the mountain and my climb up the mountain, with the soul work of the cave and “clubhouse.” This recurring dream and my recollections of the childhood clubhouse teach me about the essential integration of spirit and soul.

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