Leadership is the hard seat to occupy in an organization. Like any living organism or system, organizations are self-organizing and self-perpetuating. The leaders’ role is less to steer or control but more to navigate and inspire, determining what conversations to be part of and how to engage in those conversations in ways that afford the opportunity to model the mindsets you want others to adopt. Mostly it’s about positioning oneself to be able to spot moments of authenticity and personal courage, as I believe that most people perform their work with the desire to do well and do the right thing. However, these golden moments of right being often go unnoticed. Those moments are not diminished by lack of fanfare and recognition, yet they are like lone fireflies in the sky—bright, interesting, yet fleeting. When recognized (with equal authenticity and personal courage) these singular moments are more often repeated and begin to attract similar action (and attitudes) from others. At those times the collective light is brighter. The resulting collective action—acting in community—is now felt by more people.
Every one of us in organizations will at some point have difficulty seeing beyond our own view. We seemingly get trapped on a repetitive treadmill of functional competence. While performance can run high for a time, I’ll argue that it’s not sustainable and it’s hollow—divided in Parker Palmer language. Stopping to imagine your organization exhibiting wise action in community produces the question of what your organization needs most of you, whether leaders recognize it or not?
It’s tough to express and demonstrate wise action regardless of your leadership position (e.g., leadership of a unit, a division, or an entire enterprise). Can you mandate organizational right being? Can an “enlightened” leader demand her executive team adopt her mindset, achieve her motivation, and pursue her intentional practice toward right being? Seems unlikely. There will be arguments for differences and diversity of views being the source of creativity. Yet, I’m not talking about thinking the same; I’m talking about alignment of intention and attention. I’m suggesting this is more about a way of being in relation to oneself, to one another, to the work, and to the world.
What if repeated attempts to introduce right thinking to others falls flat or has only partial success because some adopt it while others block it? Do you fire the non-adopters? At what point is it counter-productive (for the organization, for the individual, and for you as leader) to continue allowing a non-adopter to distract and diminish the collective efforts of the team? The seemingly easy path is to remove those who don’t adopt. However, that action may only mask what the leader herself needs to recognize and learn about herself—say nothing of the legal and ethical ramifications of firing someone for “not being a seeker.” Guiding us toward finding true self, Palmer invites us to consider, “we must withdraw the negative projections we make on people and situations—projections that serve mainly to mask our fears about ourselves—and acknowledge and embrace our own liabilities and limits.”1
Implicitly, what your organization needs of you is to free yourself—and by demonstration, your colleagues—from organizational conceit and being so myopically mission focused that you lose sight of the whole system. Your organization needs you to model the balance of essential ingredients that the whole organization must adopt: open minds, open hearts, open will and resolve.2 More than technical prowess, this balance is key to fostering the conditions in which the “right team” can grow.
Look at the bottom of the U in the drawing. Only through the discipline to get and stay “open” will you, your teams, and your organizational colleagues uncover a shared perception and a common will to act with wise action in community.
What if the leader’s time and energy were on growing the wisdom of her team more so than pursuing the technical things (e.g., contracts, big deals, and all manner of “means to a desired end”)? Too often this technical dance devolves into a downward spiral of manipulation—unconsciously and without malice, but nevertheless every bit as limiting. The response from some will be: yes, growing the wisdom of my team is ideal but my board demands that I hit certain metrics, my compensation is tied to an achievement ladder, etc. Are these two pursuits contradictory? Can one pursue short term position-specific requirements and do so filled with loving kindness and deep intention? I believe you can and I believe that the most enlightened organizations require this balance.
1 Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p. 29.
2 These ingredients, and the graphic that follows [drawn here by Ken Hubbell] is from C. Otto Scharmer, Theory U: Leading From the Future As It Emerges, (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009).