Thursday, 25 August 2011

Leadership and a sacred heart

Earlier in the summer, The Times newspaper carried a photo of the Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, carrying a pile of books. His holiday reading. One of the books was Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading by two Harvard leadership experts, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. It’s an ambitious and inspirational book, with a wealth of practical advice and vivid stories that successfully illustrate its serious academic intent.

I’ve been thinking about what makes for good leadership - the kind of leadership that carries people through change (sometimes, difficult change where people may be asked to give up values, habits and the things they hold dear in exchange for an uncertain future). A leadership that inspires/ challenges people with new ways of acting and thinking and has the determination to make sure a “vision” doesn’t just remain an admirable idea but becomes a concrete reality that can actually be lived. I thought Leadership on the Line might help knock my undisciplined thoughts into some shape. It did.

Leading is a perilous activity – leading a team, a family, a parish, a company, etc –and is rarely achieved without some personal cost. It can mean making others face uncomfortable truths about themselves and particular situations. Asking people to question the status quo, to consider alternative models of reality and have them accept change is never easy. In fact, it can be very painful for all concerned. People may try to derail, marginalise or sabotage your ideas. Challenging an institution, corporation or society, can unleash personal criticism. You might be ridiculed, ostracised or persecuted. There is a chance that you will be branded a “troublemaker” or, worse, a “traitor”. As Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they get angry, then you win.” Although, experience suggests Gandhi’s upbeat conclusion is not always the case.

There are not only the dangers inherent in presenting your ideas to others, but the challenge of making sure those ideas are taken seriously and acted upon. Finding ways to ensure that a proposed change becomes an historic reality takes time, perseverance and grit. It is rarely achieved single-handedly or overnight.

Given all this, it’s easy to see why we many of us shy away from leadership roles in preference for the quiet life, the one that does not rock the boat and keeps us popular. I’ve heard myself use the phrase, “Let’s leave well alone”, when, in truth, I knew that all was far from “well” but that I wasn’t prepared to take a lead in trying to improve it.

Heifetz and Linsky remind us that although leadership is a risky business, used wisely, it can also have incredible value. Leadership makes a difference. It can bring about positive change and help others to live more complete, stable lives. Leadership gives our lives a potent meaning - one that is, ultimately, rooted in love and service:

…the answer to the question “Why lead?” is both simple and profound. The sources of meaning most essential in the human experience draw from our yearning for connection with other people. The exercise of leadership can give life meaning beyond the usual day-to-day stakes – approval of friends and peers, material gain, or the immediate gratification of success – because, as a practical art, leadership allows us to connect with others in a significant way. The word we use for that kind of connection is love.

To find the word “love” in a textbook on leadership is surprising. But Heifetz and Linsky’s aim is to reveal the fundamental philosophy that lies behind all forms of leadership, the “thing” that will make all the stresses, strains and setbacks of leadership meaningful. Their radical thesis is that love makes for good leadership. Only this orientation gives someone the courage to raise difficult questions and search for creative answers to them. This search can unleash all sorts of tensions and conflict. Yet, you often need some conflict in order for an issue to really surface and be considered honestly, otherwise, the issue lies dormant and nothing changes. But, it is not helpful if tensions boil over and the temperature cannot be controlled. The challenge is to find ways for people to absorb change and to make sure that new adaptations are deep rooted and not just superficial exercises with no long term dimension. Depending on circumstances, this might be achieved in a bold, radical way or by small baby steps.

At the same time, the leader must be aware of his own “hungers”, those human frailties that can so easily distort the very meaning of leadership and turn it into a vehicle of exploitation and abuse. Heifetz and Linsky name some of those hungers: an excessive desire for power and control, the desperate need for affirmation and a sense of your own importance, the use of your position to transgress sexual boundaries in a reckless search for intimacy. Heifetz and Linsky caution:

History is replete with charismatic authorities who, with their self-importance and air of certainty, galvanized people looking for certainty.

Most people who preach or teach know something of this appeal. There is a strong temptation to believe it when people say, “You’re the One.” Of course, you may indeed have valuable wisdom, but the need to be of special importance creates a dangerous condition, where leading can become misleading

What purifies the “hungers” of a leader and keeps them under control is love. We need to develop, what Heifetz and Linsky call, a “sacred heart”. They explain: “A sacred heart means you may feel tortured and betrayed, powerless and hopeless, and yet stay open…you remain connected to people and to the sources of your most profound purposes.” In other words, love is leadership’s internal dynamic:

Any form of service to others is an expression, essentially, of love. And because the opportunities for service are always present, there are few, if any, reasons that anyone should lack for rich and deep experiences of meaning in life.

Exercising leadership is a way of giving meaning to your life by contributing to the lives of others. At its best, leadership is a labor of love. Opportunities for these labors cross your path every day, though we appreciate through the scar tissue of our own experiences that seizing these opportunities takes heart.

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Harvard Business Review Press, 2002

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