22- The Premodern Leader: Style Three. II. The Challenges

December 22, 2008

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II. The Challenges

If a vision is generated that is compelling, what do we do about it? We must do more than applaud the visionary speech-giver. We must do more than walk away, inspired to do good –for at least a day or week. So-called “motivational” speakers provide a welcome respite from the daily grind, but they rarely have along term impact. As was the case with the two other premodern styles of leadership, the neurosciences offer an important clue. Recent research regarding the hormonal system in the human body points to the important role played not just by adrenaline (which plays a key role in the Style Two Leadership focus on fighting and fleeing from the enemy), but also by oxytocin, a hormone that brings us closes together rather than leads us to fight or flee. Oxytocin is a “bonding” agency. It is critical to the production of love and hope in human beings. It is the hormone that surges in women (and even in men) when a child is about to be born. It is the primary physiological ingredient which turns (to use Martin Buber’s phrase) an “I-It” relationship into an “I-Thou” relationship.

I would propose that oxytocin is also critical to the sustained engagement with a compelling vision. While adrenaline may surge after a stirring (and visionary) speech, it is the bonding power of oxytocin that motivates people to build on a vision through collaboration and community. Thus, the neurosciences are teaching us that premodern leaders of vision must not just excite people, they must also “bond” people to the new vision. In another publication I write about the “triangulation” that is required for a vision to be sustained. By this I mean that it is not just enough for two people to work together—a third element must be present if the working relationship is to be sustained. This third element is a shared vision (linked to a shared mission, set of values and compelling social purpose). The “I-Thou” conception offered by Martin Buber provides us with guidance in this matter. According to Buber (a Jewish theologian), the “I-Thou” exists through God’s grace.

Similarly, the Greek word “agape” refers not just to mankind’s relationship to some deity. It also relates to the ways in which we treat and care for other people on behalf of our religious beliefs. In the 21st Century, we need not focus on the relationship between humankind and a deity—we can focus instead on the ways in which relationships are enhanced and sustained (“I-Thou”) when these relationships are based on a shared vision—when oxytocin is produced to bind people together and bind people to an organization and its vision (as well as mission, values and purposes). This is the key to enactment of a vision. It must induce a sense of community and shared commitment—hence can not just be the product of one person’s sense of the future.

Keeping the Vision Alive

If people are bound together, at least in part, through commitment to a shared, compelling vision of the future, then it become obvious that the key role to be played by the visionary leader is: KEEP THE VISION ALIVE. This usually means not only that the leader periodically reminds his or her colleagues of the vision, but also that the leader facilitates a periodic review of and updating of the vision. The leader of vision is in trouble if the vision either is ignored or if the vision is reached. Thus, there must always be a sense of something undone, of something yet to be done, of something worth doing.

Many years ago, a noted European social historian, Fred Polak, wrote about the decline of social systems that have lost their image of the future. I will have much more to say about Polak’s important work in a later blog; it is only important to note at this point, that Polak points to a critical factor in the ongoing existence of any social system (or any living system for that matter). It must have something toward which it is moving or toward which it is growing. Organisms are inherently “auto-telic”—meaning that they are self-purposed. They don’t need anything outside themselves to engage their world actively and in an inquisitive manner. This is the fundamental nature of play (common to all mammalians) and of curiosity. Without a sense of direction and future possibilities we dry up and find no reason to face the continuing challenge of survival. We also find little reason for producing and preparing a new generation.

In the series of Australian movies regarding Mad Max a post-nuclear holocaust world is portrayed that is coming to an end. When no viable future is in sight, then (as we see in these movies) there is no attending to children. They must fend for themselves, for we know they have no personal futures. Ironically, there is a powerful story about post-nuclear holocaust in a novel by Cormac McCarthy called The Road in which the father continues to protect and sacrifice for his son, even though the world is coming to an end. This extraordinary protagonist somehow finds meaning and purpose – and vision—regarding his son in the midst of despair and death. Perhaps this is the type of premodern leadership that we need in our challenging world of 21st Century terrorism, nihilism and despair. McCarthy offers us a portrait of leadership that blends courage (Style Two) with vision (Style Three)—and perhaps in some very deep manner even the qualities of wisdom (Style One).

The premodern leader who is honored and respected for his or her capacity to convey a compelling vision of the future needs a viable vision (just as the Style Two leader needs an enemy and the Style One leader needs to possess wisdom). One of the great challenges for the third type of leader emerges when the vision has been realized, abandoned or ignored. If there is no longer the need for a vision, than we certainly don’t need a visionary leader. We can point once again to Winston Churchill as a notable example of this decline in collective support for a visionary leadership. During World War II, Churchill not only exhibited courage, he also articulated a compelling vision regarding the future of England (and all of Europe), that helped to increase the resolve of English citizens to fight against the Naxi regime and Hitler’s equally as compelling (though horrifying) vision for a new Europe. When the Germans were defeated, England and Churchill not only lost an enemy, they also lost their compelling vision for the future. While England (and all of Western Europe) were certainly better off after World War II was terminated, than they were during the war—there was not a new Europe. The United Nations didn’t solve all international problems. This was not the war-to-end-all-wars (as was proclaimed at the conclusion of World War I). Many writers have documented the existential despair that followed World War II, when people had to return to a life that had not improved, despite the visionary statements of World War II leaders like Churchill, Roosevelt, DeGaulle—even Stalin.

Organizational Visions

What about the role of premodern vision on a smaller plain—in a group or organization? I would propose that the same challenge exists. The vision must remain viable. Organizations are often in crisis when they achieve some success and have realized a dream. What do we do now that we have completed this five year plan? We have obtained this grant and have initiated our new programs, but nothing has really changed and we are still hustling for more funds. It is critical that a new set of goals be established before the old ones are realized; it is equally as important, however, that achievement of the old goals be honored and celebrated. An organization that simply moves from one five year plan to a second five year plan is just as vulnerable to exhaustion and disillusionment as an organization that never realizes its dreams (because they have been set too high). We must appreciate the achievement of current goals and must linger for a moment to honor the old dream and vision before moving forward to a new sense of the future.

At times, the old visionary leader must step aside for the new vision—given that he or she has finished the task and awaits a period of rest and reflection back on what has been achieved. At other times, the old visionary leader becomes the new visionary leader and finds renewed energy and commitment while collaborating with others in the formulation of the new vision. As in the case of the old, wise leader and the warrior who has spent many years battling an ancient foe, the visionary leader and his or her followers must decide when “enough-is-enough” and when the mantle of leadership must be passed on to the next generation. This is perhaps the most important decision that a premodern leader can make – whether wise, courageous or visionary. When do I move on and how do I help the next generation succeed? In many instances, this “moving on” centers on the shift to a modern or even postmodern style of leadership. It is to these styles that I turn in future blogs.

As I did in the previous blogs, I conclude by proposing that it is not uncommon for us to still live in premodern organizations. At the very least, we are living in the back of our minds and hearts in a world that may no longer exist—if it ever did. This is a world filled with men and women of vision (as well as courage and wisdom). We don’t’ differ in this regard from men and women who lived at much earlier times. The Greeks of antiquity, for instance, believed that their myths were the “realities” of a previous time in their history—when Gods acted upon and in the world and when exceptional men and women (called “heroes”) lived in the world. Then one day, according to many Greek writers (such as Homer and Sophocles) this Golden Age came to an end. The Greeks were left, as ordinary men and women, to live ordinary lives and reflect back through myths and ceremonies on this previous world of Gods and Heroes.  It is important—perhaps essential—that we recognize the fact of this same premodern perspective exists in 21st Century life. We must acknowledge that we, like the Greeks before us, yearn for a certain type of premodern leadership. We find ourselves disappointed in our leaders. They are, after all, only human. They are neither Gods nor Heroes. At other times we are profoundly thankful for and appreciative of these leaders—and in particular of the moments when these leaders are truly heroic as they face (with wisdom, courage and vision) the challenging world of 21st Century complexity, unpredictability and turbulence.

 

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20- The Premodern Leader: Style Two. II. The Challenges

December 8, 2008

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II. The Challenges

In my previous blog I described some of the steps that must be taken in preparing for the “enemy” in ones’ premodern role as Courageous leader. The premodern leader who is honored and respected for his or her courage needs a viable enemy. One of the great challenges for this type of leader emerges when the enemy has been defeated. If there is no longer an enemy, then why do we need a courageous leader? We can point to Winston Churchill as a notable example of this decline in collective support for courageous leadership. While most historians agree that Churchill was a disagreeable chap, he is widely acknowledged to be a man of extraordinary courage during war time. His speeches and actions during World War II may have been critical in the failure of Nazi Germany to invade Great Britain. Yet, soon after the end of the war, Churchill was out of office. When he came back into office in the early 1950s the British Empire was in decline. While England was engaged in battles in many parts of the world (including the Mau-Mau rebellion in Africa, the war in Malaya and the Korean War), none of these wars involved England’s defense of its own homeland and, as a result, Churchill was not very successful as Prime Minister. He was the prince of War not the Prince of Peace (nor the Prince of Wars in distant lands).

From Wartime to Peacetime

I have personally witnessed this transition while working with the Taiwanese during the past twenty years. Chiang Kai Shek was identified by the citizens of Taiwan as a courageous leader—though he was “defeated” by Mao and the Chinese Communists in 1948 and had to escape from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan. Many of the native Taiwanese were not (and still are not) pleased with the “invasion” by Chiang and his followers in 1948; nevertheless, despite the defeat and the perception of unwanted invasion, Chiang Kai Shek (and his son) held a firm grip on Taiwan for many years, declaring martial law because of the threatened invasion of his sworn enemy, Mao.

With the decline in Maoist threats (or at least after many years of non-invasion), Taiwan began to look for a different kind of leadership. Martial law was dropped and multiple political parties were formed. Soon, a new government came into power and a new president was sworn in. There was major dissention in the country. Fist fights broke out in the Taiwan legislature (these fights were widely reported throughout the world). Over the years, this new Taiwanese-based party lost support and the president was not expected to be re-elected. He advocated for the independence of Taiwan and, as a result, China once again openly threatened Taiwan. The poll numbers for this unpopular president suddenly soared. Taiwan once again had an enemy and could look once again for a courageous leader. Ironically, China’s threatening behavior ensured the re-election of a man that Chinese leadership hated – or did these leaders of China at some level want Taiwan to be a threat (thereby justifying their own position as courageous leaders).

A critical point to make in this regard concerns not only the increased support for a courageous leader when an enemy is present, but also the accompanying unwillingness of this leader or the social system he or she is leading to countenance any disloyalty or dissention: “we must remain united if we are to defeat our enemy. Any dissent will be interpreted by our enemy as a weakness and will be used to defeat us!” Dissent in Taiwan exists as long as there is no viable enemy (China), but collapses when once again the enemy is threatening. I would even suggest that when the external enemy ceases to exist, we create internal enemies. The new leaders of courage are brave in battle against other factions within their own social system.

What about the United States? Did we find ourselves floundering as a nation when our long-time enemy (the Soviet Union) collapsed? Was Ronald Reagan our last warrior-king? Have we been struggling since that time to identify the new kind of leader we need—when there is no clearly identifiable enemy? Did the polarization in political parties between the Republicans and Democrats emerge because we no longer had this external enemy? While terrorist are certainly enemies, they are not easily identified (unless we wish to become bigots who identify all Muslims or all people from the Middle East and Asia as enemies). Is Barak Obama a courageous leader—or have we turned with his election to a new king of leader (perhaps the premodern leader of vision to which I turn in the next blog). What about the broad-based support for Obama’s campaign promise to promote bi-partisan search for solutions to complex problems? Is American society ready to embrace a reduction in dissent as a result not of the re-emergence of an enemy, but rather as a result of some profound shift in the nature of desired leadership for the United States? 

The Organization’s Enemy

What about the role of premodern courage on a smaller plain—in a group or organization? I would propose that the same challenge exists. The enemy must be strong and menacing. This enemy might be a competitor, in which case a win-lose mentality is likely to be prevalent. If there is no clear external enemy, then an organization can turn to internal enemies. There are many candidates: management, unions, sales, finance, or stockholders (to name a few candidates). Alternatively, the enemy can be identified in a more nuanced manner. The “enemy” can be poor quality of product or service. It can be poor management, inequitable labor policies, or ill-informed decision-making processes. If this latter perspective is embraced by an organization, then the enemy is likely to remain viable for many years—given that we can always find ignorance, injustice and poor group process in an organization!   

Just as the challenge of a wisdom-based form of premodern leadership can be summed up in two words (“succession planning”), so can premodern leadership based on courage be summed up in two words: POWERFUL ENEMY. We must retain (and never defeat) the enemy. When a courageous leader is playing a key role in an organization, then considerable discussion must occur with regard to who or what is the enemy. There can’t be multiple enemies (unless they are perceived as being part of a unified coalition), nor can the enemy be identified in some vague terms. In addition, the organization must focus on the tactical and strategic plans that will be engaged when confronting the enemy.

Perhaps the most important and difficult step involves the organization’s support for diversity of perspective and dissent. As I have already noted, a courageous style of premodern leadership often is attended by a stifling of unpopular opinions. This is unlikely to be a successful strategy.  If the enemy is truly powerful (meaning the enemy is competent and persistent), then we are best served by a tactical and strategic plan that has been carefully conceived, with all viable perspectives and opinions being considered. Otherwise, the enemy will win and we will be out of business—as seems to be the case, tragically, with many organizations during our present day economic downturn. The enemy turns out to be not an external threat, but rather our own ignorance and intolerance. We have found our enemy—and it is us!

As I did in a previous blog, I propose that we are still living in premodern organizations and are living in the back of our minds and hearts in a world that yearns for men and women of courage (and wisdom). It is important—perhaps essential—that we recognize this premodern reality and acknowledge this premodern yearning for a certain type of leadership. As I will note in future blogs, we yearn also for other types of leadership and look for other types of leaders in our hybrid world of premodern, modern and postmodern social systems.

 


11- The Nature of Appreciation in a Postmodern Context

October 6, 2008

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[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact Pacific Soundings Press, P. O. Box 70, Harpswell, Maine 04079.]

 Theme: The Postmodern Condition

 Fundamental Question

What are the paradoxes, whip lashing contradictions and dizzying changes of which our world is made, and how might an appreciative perspective assist in responding to the challenges of this postmodern condition?

Many 21st Century societies today are faced with three challenging conditions. First, they are guided by a fragmented and often paradoxical image of their present condition and their future condition. Their present condition includes both a strong trend toward globalization and an equally strong trend toward localization. We live in a world that challenges us to be aware of and interact with other people and cultures throughout the world – Thomas Friedman’s flat world—while also challenging us to retain our local customs and loyalties (a new form of tribalism) leading to what Robert Bellah and his colleagues describe as isolating “life style enclaves.”

Second, we are faced with what Frederick Jameson identifies as the condition of “troubling ambiguity.” Boundaries of all sorts are being shattered or are shifting in unpredictable ways – boundaries between work and home, between countries, between private and public lives, between being inside an organization and being affiliated loosely with an organization.

Third, leadership is being defined in new ways—the old distinction between the task-oriented leader and the people-oriented leader is no longer sufficient, given the other postmodern challenges facing contemporary organizations and societies. Leaders are successful to the extent that they can embrace a broad repertoire of strategies and serve as learners (not just sources of wisdom), risk-takers and entrepreneurs (not just fight leaders) and servants of a compelling image of the future (not just visionaries).

Given the postmodern interplay between globalization and localization, we can expect many leaders to simultaneously play on the global stage and the local stage. We can also expect them to be deeply embedded in their own organization (as a new neighborhood) while seeking to retain a viable family and community life. The boundaries between work and home are inevitably blurred, leaving little time, in many instances, for leaders to reflect or plan ahead. These postmodern conditions confront the leader with challenges that require both courage and insight. If leadership is situational, coaching and consulting programs are called upon to provide leadership development of the most customized and “just-in-time” kind.

In this essay and in the next three essays on this blog, we examine these postmodern conditions and begin to explore ways in which an appreciative perspective can help to not only illuminate some of these conditions but also provide us with preliminary strategies for dealing with the complexity, unpredictability and turbulence of postmodern life.

The Postmodern Revolution

I cannot remember exactly when I first encountered the term postmodernism. I probably reacted to it in much the same way as I did to the various other “isms” that have come and gone over the past couple of decades, hoping that it would disappear under the weight of its own incoherence or simply lose its allure as a fashionable set of ‘new ideas.’ But it seemed as if the clamour of postmodernist arguments increased rather than diminished with time. Once connected with poststructuralism, postindustrialism, and a whole arsenal of other ‘new ideas,’ postmodernism appeared more and more as a powerful configuration of new sentiments and thoughts.

 – David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity

As leaders we are entering a changing world of relationships and ideas. It is often called “the postmodern revolution.” The postmodern world is in the midst of being born. It does not yet have clear definition, other than its origins in and difference from the modern era. Hence the name postmodern. It is still defined with reference to its mother (modernism) rather than having broken off as a free and independent movement or set of ideas and images with its own distinctive name. Even though postmodernism is young and therefore still filled with superficial, facile and often internally contradictory analyses, it cannot be dismissed, for these analyses offer insightful and even essential perspectives and critiques regarding an emerging era.

In the postmodern camp there is neither the interest in the systematic building of theory, nor the interest in warfare between competing paradigms. Rather everything is pre-paradigmatic,  i.e. there is an attempt to live and function without the scaffolding of paradigms of thought. One of the reasons for such a divestiture is seemingly the sheer impossibility of “knowing.” Tom Peters acknowledges that in the early 1980s he knew something about how organizations achieved excellence. By the late 1980s, he discovered that he was mistaken. Many of the excellent organizations of the early 1980s became troubled institutions by the late 1980s.

Other theorists and social observers have been similarly humbled by the extraordinary events of the 1980s and 1990s. They just haven’t been as forthcoming (or opportunistic) as Tom Peters.

“Postmodernism at its deepest level,” notes Andreas Huyssen, “represents not just another crisis within the perpetual cycle of boom and bust, exhaustion and renewal, which has characterized the trajectory of modernist culture.” Rather, the postmodern condition “represents a new type of crisis of that modernist culture itself.” Many futurists (especially those who focus on the environment) similarly speak of a crisis-of-crises. This crisis-of-crises and the ambiguity, the paradoxes and the irony that accompany this era of grand questioning are founded in the interplay between globalization and localization and, even more fundamentally, in the interplay between order and chaos as we are beginning to understand them. We turn in our next essays to a more in-depth analysis of these crisis-of-crises.