33- The Postmodern Leader: Style Three. I. Leadership through Stewardship

September 13, 2010

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I. Leadership through Stewardship

In my previous blogs I have identified premodern, modern and postmodern versions of both Style One and Style Two Leadership. I have also introduced the premodern and modern versions of Style Three. In this blog I will describe the ways in which the third leadership style has been translated from its premodern and modern forms to the form found commonly in postmodern social systems.

While the third premodern leadership style focuses on creating a vision, the modern Style Three leader focus on creating a tangible vision and this is done through motivation, setting of specific goals and monitoring the ways in which (and extent to which) these goals are achieved within the organization. The modern organizational vision could come from the Style Three leader herself or it might be assigned to her by other people in the organization (the so-called “stakeholders”). When the third style of modern leadership is engaged in a postmodern setting, then leadership is exhibited when one furthers the vision created and embraced by other people in the organization—not just the stakeholders. This third model of postmodern leadership is truly democratic in that one becomes A SERVANT TO THE VISION of all people associated with the organization.

This concept of “servant leadership” has been portrayed in a very compelling way by Robert Greenleaf in a series of books he has written on this topic. A variant on this theme is evident in a quite different medium—the lyric of a popular song of the 1990s about “the wind beneath my wings.” This very appreciative statement offers a wonderfully poetic image of the role played by a master Style Three leader as servant to the dreams, visions and aspirations of the people with whom she works. A servant leader can provide the “wind” beneath the wings of her colleagues by first committing fully to the partnership, and then offering encouragement during difficult times.

A dedicated Style Three leader will neither hijack a colleague’s vision nor co-opt it unquestioningly, no matter one’s personal enthusiasm for the direction. While a leader may prod and provoke, she never takes over the client’s vision nor inserts her own alternative vision. As a Style Three servant leader, the value we bring is to encourage ongoing reflection on the part of our colleague regarding whether or not this is the best direction to take. We repeatedly participate with our colleague in the process of discernment—determining if the internal and external evidence that seems to be pointing our colleague in a certain direction comes from a place that is compatible with our colleague’s long-term welfare and growth. There is perhaps no more important role to play as a masterful Style Three leader than to help one’s colleague make the tough choices between the very obvious and not so obvious, between the short-term and long-term, and, in particular, between the expedient way of life and the way of personal integrity.

Clearly, this is not the “usual” form of leadership that is written about in most contemporary textbooks—even those that focus on postmodern organizations. It is a “quiet” form of leadership. It is a form of leadership that is often associated with soulfulness.

Soulfulness and Servant Leadership

Style Three postmodern leadership requires a shift from the modern proclivity to look upward and forward to attending downward and inward. This means a shift from visual to tactile modes of experience. We touch rather than look. Like the protective father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, we embrace the people we lead and hold them safe from the storm. Movement downward is a journey through embarrassment, narcissistic wounds and loneliness. This contrasts with the journey of the spirit that is filled with inspiration, uplifting motives and great public adventures. We retreat to do soul work rather than “leaping up” to do spiritual work. In moving to soul work, we take on latrine duty or clean pots. As Style Three leaders we might even engage in the corporate equivalent to cleaning pots and latrines, namely, filling in the details, cleaning up after an event or handling a “messy” employee problem. When we are providing soulful Style Three leadership our role shifts from master to servant.

A shift from spirited (and motivating) Style Three leadership in a modern setting to soulful (and less openly demonstrative) Style Three work in a postmodern setting is difficult. We see a graphic and poetic illustration of this difficult transformation in the tale of Don Quixote. Quixote makes something special of the mundane. As an aging man he was not satisfied with the everyday. Hence he looked upward (for spiritual guidance) and backward in time (for historical guidance). He looked back to the age of chivalry and valor—a romantic era that was ending at the time Cervantes wrote his epic tale. Quixote elevates the inn’s sluttish serving girl, Aldonza, to a much higher status. She is transformed into the lady of the manor. He also restores her long-lost virginity. Quixote christens her, “Dulcinea.” Windmills become foreboding ogres. The barber’s bowl is transformed into a knight’s helmet. Don Quixote is typical of a man dominated by spiritual forces. He is moved to the spirit (“in-spiration”).

We see this dominance of spirit and the compelling nature of spirit enacted with particular force in the musical form of “The Man of La Mancha.” Don Quixote asks others to “dream the impossible dream.” Like Robert Kennedy, Quixote asks “Why not?” rather than asking “Why?” Like his older brother John, Robert Kennedy was assassinated before completing his own soul work, though clearly he was beginning the transforming journey during his short presidential campaign. Quixote was similarly denied a complete fulfillment of his own dream. This is commonly the case with modern leaders who dream great dreams. Like John and Robert Kennedy, Quixote transformed the people with whom he associated in seeking to fulfill his own dream. Quixote convinces Aldonza that her name is Dulcinea: “thy name is like a prayer an angel whispers.” Even the prisoners who hear the story of Don Quixote (as told by Cervantes, a fellow victim of the inquisition) are inspired. As the inquisitors lead Cervantes away for writing conspiratorial works, the previously depressed and downtrodden prisoners exhort him “to live with your heart striving upward.”

Reality and Narcissism

The story of Don Quixote inevitably leads to a discussion of and reflection on the role played by narcissism in the creation of leaders. To some extent, all leaders have a bit of narcissism in them. They revel to some extent in the attention they have received from other people and are pleased that other people respect, trust or at least follow the direction which they as leaders provide. The extent of narcissism will, of course, vary widely from leader to leader. At one extreme we have those leaders who can think about (or talk about) nothing other than themselves. There is the old joke (that takes many forms) regarding the narcissistic leader who spent a long time talking about himself and his many achievements. There is a pause in the conversation, at which point the narcissistic leader says “well that’s enough about me, why don’t you tell me a bit about the things that impress you most about me.” This is the extreme case of narcissism—yet it sadly is widely found in contemporary organizations. It certainly does not represent the type of generativity found in effective Style Three leaders.

There is a second type of narcissism which is somewhat less obvious. This is the “quiet” narcissism to which many of us might candidly admit. At some level we envy the accolades received by other people. We are uncomfortable being on the sidelines at events where other people are the focus of attention. We smolder a bit, though soon dismiss our resentment and join in to the celebration. This too is a form of narcissism and it can serve as a barrier to effective Style Three leadership. At these moments, we quiet narcissists can learn much about ourselves and our own leadership challenges. Like Don Quixotes, we must face our own reality.

Triumphant though Cervantes is in inspiring the other prisoners (and basking in his own theatrical glow), he ultimately requires Quixote to face reality and leave the dreams behind. Don Quixote must retreat from his narcissistic fantasy. Cervantes forced his fictional character, Don Quixote, to see himself for what he truly is. Quixote was required to look into a mirror, having lost in combat to the “Knight of the Mirrors.” This shattered his illusions and his dreams. The mirror is an instrument of vision and spirit, yet the triumphant knight is using a set of mirrors to destroy Quixote’s spirit. The knight is himself an illusion. He is actually a son-in-law of Quixote who has grown increasingly impatient with the Don’s antics.

The well-intended Knight of the Mirrors demands that the Don acknowledge he is actually an aging man of modest means. Quixote is jolted into “reality.” He has become a mad man who is dressed, not for a battle, but rather for a foolish masquerade. Like many postmodern leaders, Don Quixote is particularly vulnerable to ridicule and massive ego deflation. Ironically, we are most vulnerable precisely at the moment when we are most successful. We are balancing on a high wire and have a long way to fall. Don Quixote has gained many admirers and has won many battles against fictitious foes. He desperately wants to keep the masquerade going. His son-in-law won’t allow him to continue indulging his false spirit. When confronted with the mirrors, Don Quixote’s ego and spirit rapidly deflate. He is left an old and dying man, with neither illusion nor a will to live.

Conclusions

Don Quixote is thrown into depression, having suffered what psychologists call a “narcissistic wound.” He finds no support to match the challenge that he is forced to face in the mirrors. In many ways, Quixote represents the fundamental challenge of postmodern leadership. He only recovers his “sanity,” or at least his spirit, when his “support group” (consisting of Dulcinea and his sidekick Sancho Panza) come to his rescue. They offer him appreciation and encouragement. Aldonza (ne Dulcinea) is transformed, like many important people in the lives of soulful postmodern leaders. Aldonza transforms herself from the highly romanticized (and distorted) love interest and pupil of Don Quixote to the role of female guide for him. She retains her identity as Dulcinea, yet now provides the Don with a bridge between spirit and soul. Similarly, Sancho serves the critical role of male friend and companion to Don Quixote. With the assistance of Dulcinea and Sancho, Dox Quixote not only returns to his world of the spirit, he also turns inward to the world of soul. While others have learned from Don Quixote to value spirit and dreams, Quixote himself must learn about the interplay between dreams and realities. He must learn of this interplay if he is not to be the victim once again of misdirected but necessary attempts by members of his family to restore his sanity.

Like Don Quixote, we must attend to our colleagues. If we are operating in a leadership role then we must create a container for those people with whom we work. We must provide a cradle, a bowl, a chalice. Anxiety runs amuck without a container. We must become servants. We cook the meals and host the guests rather than giving the after dinner speeches. We should more often be the “power behind the throne.” As a postmodern leader we no longer have to be “the guy [or gal] in charge” with the big office and special parking place. We might concentrate on starting a modest new project. We are given the opportunity to be patient and take delight in small things. We might nurture the next generation of leadership rather than being the leaders ourselves.

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