A Theory for Leadership for a Human World

Leadership, according to Peter Northouse (2010, p 3), is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. So then is evidence of leadership the achievement of a goal by a group? Does the goal matter? Do the means matter?

Seemingly when we speak of leadership—at least most often in scholarly research—speak to style to the tactics and to strategy relative to goal accomplishment/performance. That is, how best to provide direction, to implement plans and to motivate others to accomplish goals. Goal accomplishment appears to be the success measure of leadership. In regards to say leaders of business organizations this translates into performance as indicated by profit or shareholder value. Thus ones’ greatness as a leader is measured by the realized material gain.

This logically follows from the predominant worldview and value system that informs this perspective which is at base mechanistic and materialistic. According to this worldview getting (material) results is what matters. Unfortunately, as a consequence of this single-minded pursuit of material gain we diminish the probability if not eliminate the possibility of us self-actualizing—bringing into manifest reality our (fullest) potential as human beings.

But this does not concern adherents of this worldview since the notion of self-actualization (or humankind’s higher nature) is not included in its theory of humankind, of what it means to be a human being. In the 17th century and early 18th century the influencers of what was known (then) about ourselves included Rene Descartes’ mind-body dualism, John Locke’s denial of an independent will or self-initiation with the notion of blank tablet (tabula rasa) upon which experience writes, David Hume’s sense experiences and Adam Smith’s three passions that guide behavior. For Smith, there is selfish passion (i.e. concern for self over others), social passion (i.e. concern for how one is viewed by others) and unsocial passion (e.g. sentiments such as hate and envy for others). This knowledge informed the conceptualization of the capitalist system of economics that we fervently follow to this day and that has subsequently been infused into (if not co-opted) the practice of democracy.

We mustn’t forget that psychology, as a discipline of study, did not arise until late in the 18th century—after the emergence of the mechanistic-materialist worldview. Thus leadership informed by this worldview could very well be tainted and thus harmful to the human spirit.

In Search of What We All Need

Thus it is no wonder that we keep searching for and talking about our need for leadership, even as it continues to go largely unmet. Experience and empirical evidence shows we persist, seemingly without end. A blog-post titled So Many Leadership Books, So Few Leaders by Jeffry Krames (former VP & Publisher of McGraw-Hill’s trade business book division) sums it up quite well. Further, based on a recent Pro Quest library search for articles with leadership in the title shows considerable attention and focus with 30,036 titles which includes 8,600 that were published in academic peer reviewed journals. This doesn’t even include the tens of thousands—it not hundreds of thousands—of books on the subject. So why the continued interest and proliferation of publications on leadership?

A huge unmet demand! A 2013 Forbes article (Why so many leadership programs ultimately fail) by Peter Bregman (CEO of a company providing services that develop leaders) acknowledges the dismal performance of executive managers as leaders. Peter claims the root cause is lack of emotional courage (defined as “standing apart from others without separating yourself from them” and “speaking up when others are silent” and “remaining steadfast, grounded, and measured in the face of uncertainty”) for which his firm provides training—surprise, surprise. Our discussion later on in this post will speak to a more fundamental challenge requiring courage for those seeking to provide helpful leadership.

We all need to experience leadership; it is fundamental to (our) life. In fact history of the human experience shows a fascination for the hero, the leader; it is fundamental to many of the stories told intended as a guide to a people, a society. But today our fascination with ‘the leader’ coupled to the tendency for either/or thinking has resulted in the bad/good dichotomy, manager versus leader. Accordingly, today few aspire to be a manager and most seek to obtain a leadership position—as if it is a possession, a thing to acquire—but not to provide a humanly productive leadership experience, rare as it is. With all the attention on and experience of leadership, you’d think we’d have a good understanding of it to ensure we’d meet our (very common human) need.

Unfortunately, experience teaches us nothing, absent that is of the guidance of theory! It is theory that provides the framework, the orienting context, by which we can understand, make sense of and interpret experience. The question is what theory should guide us if leadership is what we seek to learn and better understand?

What theory would be critical to us providing humanly productive leadership? The answer lies not with path-goal theory, situational theory, contingency theory, or even trait theory or any other theory of how to implement, motivate and direct others’ behavior toward a goal. Ideas about traits, tactics and styles while important do not provide the contextual knowledge informing insight and understanding. The answer lies not in the style but in the intent of leadership; it lies in understanding the why and what for of leadership, foundationally and fundamentally. So no, it is not simply about a (step-by-step) process of how to get others to accomplish whatever goal one chooses. Leadership is about people, not about how to use people: The intent of leadership matters!

Misguided by a not-so-humanly-oriented worldview, this is where we make the wrong turn—or more accurately that we fail to turn away from the mechanistic worldview—in our pursuit of understanding a very human-based phenomenon. Thus we must cease being guided by a worldview that turns life itself into a commodity and our focused attention on (material) results: On motivating people to deliver results or on getting people to follow as we drive for results. Thinking in such mechanistic and materialist terms moves us further away from understanding the very human need for leadership.

By the way, to this end it would be extremely helpful if those in authority at business schools fundamentally changed their curriculum and ceased producing future business executives with an (internalized) material value system—yes we do shape the leaders we get. To this point, an article (Empathy in Leadership: Appropriate or misplaced?) by Svetlana Holt and Joan Margues published in the Journal of Business Ethics (2012) reports their research in two different but related studies, the first among upper-division undergraduate business students and the second among MBA students. Their study showed empathy to be consistently rated last with drive/passion or responsibility/commitment first or second among ten leadership qualities. Holt and Margues noted their findings were congruent with a review of the current literature that demonstrated that business students and business leaders seem to have lower degrees of empathy.

Empathy, or one’s ability to empathize, necessarily requires one to take another’s perspective. That is to understand at more deeply than an intellectual level another’s feelings and emotions—to be able to fell with another, not simply for another. Accordingly those who are self-centered/selfish—with narcissistic tendencies—would find being empathetic impossible.

The beliefs and values we hold in mind guide the behavior we exhibit. Further our choice is not whether to have beliefs and values, but what beliefs and values to have. However to a large extent the values and beliefs that guide us are culturally infused and tacitly learned, most never giving any thought to them unless of course they are critically reflective and consciously choose them.

Re-Thinking Leadership

Let’s return to the Northouse’s definition of leadership, a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. Since the intent of leadership matters, what could be more common to all than the development of our humanness, the development of our potential as a human being? The development of our humanness is always in need of (our) attention and is fundamental to life itself. It can be argued this would keep us humanly productive for a lifetime—it is not a goal that can be accomplished once and for all, rather it is a way-of-being. But this requires a different worldview and value system. It requires a worldview in which getting and spending is not all there is, and one where we are self-initiators and protectors of life, not exploiters.

Obviously how we as persons relate to one’s self, to other selves and to the living world is dependent upon our worldview, which is a reflection of largely unconsciously held values and beliefs. Moreover, to understand and improve our way-of-being that which is unconscious must be brought to the conscious realm, we must critically think and reflect. To quote Erich Fromm, “if we were consciously aware of what we really know about ourselves and others, we could not go on living as we do, accepting so many lies.”

Understanding leadership and our fundamental need for it rests upon us first understanding “the relationship between the nature of humankind and the reality of experience…how human beings create reality by virtue of the underlying assumptions made about being human, the world and how the two are related in the choices made” (The Intent of Business, p 64). As social beings we have a responsibility and obligation for the wellbeing and development of each other. In short, “the I’s need WE to Be” (Etzioni, p 9).

A Little Bit About Humankind

We are not just individuals—separate and distinct—we are social beings. We don’t simply exist as individuals we exist as a people, as a society. “Man’s specific humanity and his sociality are inextricably intertwined. Homo sapien is always, and in the same measure, homo socius” (Berger & Luckmann, p 51).

The assertion (and belief) that all there is, are individuals—no collective just individuals—is a falsehood; one that some advance and exploit but a falsehood nevertheless! To continue as if this was true is to structure life in a way that is antithetical to our very nature. A script if followed that cannot possibly end well.

Not only are we social beings we are the most intelligent beings on earth. The trade-off we make for this is that we are the least instinctually regulated beings as well. The implication is that we mustn’t rely on instinct or habits of thought rather we must use our power of intelligence and capacity for learning in a humanly productive way to make our world a human world. For example holding onto the belief that we are nothing but pleasure seeking/pain avoiding beings would be quite detrimental. It would limit the use of intelligence to material productivity and gain and would undoubtedly lead to self-destruction (a.k.a. societal suicide) since such aims rest upon exploitation of people and Nature.

As Carl Jung advanced, humankind’s adaptation to its environment is dependent on the process of learning and not on instinctual determination; learning (i.e. learning anew) is humankind’s means of preserving its existence. Hence our development is inextricably connected to the development of our capacity for learning (The Intent of Business, p 70). Learning how to learn is essential to the viability of human life. Seemingly, if leadership is to be humanly productive then its intent must include the facilitation of learning—individually and collectively—in service to our development.

Humans are self-aware beings, or more accurately are capable of self-awareness if only we stopped to think critically and reflectively. In the process of being and becoming human—becoming more of what we in potential are—we necessarily must become consciously aware; hence, the importance of the quote above from Fromm. Accordingly it is a person’s choice in life to either awaken to his/her humanness or to continue his/her way-of-being as an intelligent animal where life amounts to pain avoidance and pleasure seeking—to continue as a participant in the rat race or to reclaim membership in the human race.

This is where courage as a foundational element first comes into play for leadership. It is not the reason for needing courage Peter Bregman addressed but the courage needed to look inward, to critically reflect upon one’s self. It is having the courage to overcome the fear of knowledge of oneself. Maslow, in referencing Freud, characterizes this fear as “fear of one’s emotions, impulses, memories, capacities, and potentialities of one’s destiny… we protect ourselves and our ideal image of ourselves by repression and similar defenses which are essentially techniques by which we avoid becoming conscious of unpleasant or dangerous truths” (p 71). So it is not fear of others but (the ego’s) fear of self. Speaking more directly to leading, Maslow asserted “to discover in oneself a great talent can certainly bring exhilaration but it also brings a fear of the dangers and responsibilities and duties of being a leader and of being all alone” (p 72). Seemingly the courage to lead one’s self from one’s lower (animal) nature to one’s higher (uniquely human) nature is what is most needed.

Furthermore, having the capacity for self-awareness—unlike any other living creature—we face the prospect of our life coming to an end which brings the existential question, what does it all mean? That is, the meaning of life, the meaning of my life and the meaning of our universe. Hence the inescapable need for meaning and the unquestionable and very deep inextricable connection we all have to each other.

While individual people are no doubt different in regards to the way each interprets his/her experiences, there is a striking sameness in regards to the unconscious realm to which each is inextricably connected. Carl Jung referred to the contents of the unconscious as archetypes or primordial images and Joseph Campbell in his life’s study of mythology noted the relationship of these archetypes to mythic rituals and their importance as means for putting people in touch with the spiritual potentialities of life and for representing and sustaining meaning. Moreover through participation in rituals members of a society uphold order in experience, and foster the development of a sense of community. But in today’s world there is a diminution of meaning and the sense of community. Thus we’ve lost touch with each other and our essence of our very being; so all we have are ‘I’s putting ‘ME’ first.

To put this in practical terms, who among us wishes to do meaningless work? How motivating/enlivening could meaningless work possibly be? This is directly related to the seemingly eternal question from managers, how do you motivate people? I find the best answer is informed by an understanding that people do indeed have the capacity for self-initiation/self-direction and is pointedly and concisely addressed by Frederick Herzberg in a 1968 Harvard Business Review essay: give them something motivating/meaningful to do!

Healthful Leadership

Having the capability of self-knowledge and not utilizing it is an irresponsible and ultimately a destructive way of being-in-the-world. Having a high level of intelligence without a complimentary understanding and heartfelt sense of oneness with other beings is a recipe for the destruction of humankind—history provides more than enough examples of intelligent people doing horrible things” (The Intent of Business, p 86). Most assuredly, it is not the way to humanly productive leadership and to a human world.

The world we experience is our creation; we participate in the reality we experience. Therefore the world we experience need not be a world of finance, nor a battleground for supremacy or any other thing of outer-value. Our world can be a very human world if we use our power of intelligence and our capacity for self-awareness in developing a sense of universal care and concern for people and humanly productive ends. People matter most, not material gain.

Even in light of just this little snippet of information about being human it should evident that it would be absolutely cruel, if not inhumane and a crime against humanity, to create and maintain management practices that are not intended to facilitate people’s development and a work environment within which meaning is nowhere to be found. Yet many if not most endure this each and every day while those in authority in the organization believe themselves to be ‘the leadership’—how preposterous is this! A recent New York Times article (Inside Amazon: Wrestling big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace) about Jeff Bezos’ Amazon (i.e. a hunger games workplace) provides a case in point. Revealing just how misguided our understanding of leadership Forbes listed Jeff Bezos among 2014’s top-ten greatest living business leaders. Managing absent of compassion, empathy, a universal sense of caring and concern for the development of others cannot possibly be healthful leadership for people.

At minimum, those in positions of authority must be willing and able to look inward with an inquiring mind and a critical and reflective eye. Refusing to do so is essentially an acceptance of an egoistic existence where it is all about ME. In this way-of-being, people become imprisoned by their attachment to material reality causing them to manipulate and exploit others without regard to present and future consequences upon others or themselves. Their worldview and corresponding purpose in life causes them to be exploiters and destroyers of life.

Pay It Forward

“We live and die not as separate animals but as human beings” (Georgopoulos & Heim, p 229). This means we have a dual responsibility as both an individual and a member of the collective of humankind. Because of what we are, because we are members of humankind, we have a need to live meaningfully and a responsibility to be of service to humanity in and through our life.

The critically reflective and consciously aware person realizes that his/her life must support and serve the viability of humankind. In other words, that his/her intent and way-of-being must be to develop his/her humanness and to facilitate others doing the same—to provide others a leadership experience to actualize (their) human potential. As Maslow asserted, “a person is both actuality and potentiality” (p 15). The intent of humanly productive leadership is to facilitate people realizing their higher nature, the actualization of (their) human potential. If this were the intent, only a narcissist would resist. With this intent how could one not find meaning in what they do!

Select References

Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality. New York: Anchor Books.

Etzioni, A. (1988). The moral dimension. New York: The Free Press.

Gerogopoulos, N. & Heim, M., ed. (1995). Being human in the ultimate: Studies in the thought of John M. Anderson. Atlanta, GA.: Rodopi

Maslow, A. (1999). Toward a psychology of being. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Northouse, Peter, G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and practice. 5th Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA.

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