Common But Misaligned

The common—and very popular—understanding of leadership among the business minded is misaligned with the very human needs of people. A recent HBR article Reflections on leadership from Gettysburg provides a case in point.


In this article the author spoke of 3 leadership insights—leader’s intent, decisive decision-making and inspiring others—gained during a leadership retreat to Gettysburg battlefield. No doubt having intent, being decisive and inspirational are good characteristics for people in general, not just those we refer to as leaders. However in competitive contexts such as business and war—the quintessential competition—these take on similar meaning.


Rightfully, the article made clear the importance of the leader’s intent. However, there is no discussion of the very nature of this intent—its moral/ethical grounding, its direct connection to the inherent needs of people—but rather the import or transference of the leader’s intent to those being led is essential. That is to say, it is imperative that the leader makes sure, through meetings and multiple communications, those he/she leads understand his/her intent. In business realm this is often referred to as getting buy in, which could be nothing more than getting others to understand and accept—a.k.a. swallowing the story—and then confirming that they do.


The importance of developing the intent collaboratively—one that emerges from the thinking and ideas of the collective—Is not addressed. This would require courage on the part of the leader, courage to actually listen to and respect others toward gaining perspective with the prospect of the leader changing what he/she was thinking in regard to the intent. This involves what John Wenger described in a recent post as “being with others…take the time and energy to engage with others and approach them on a human to human level.” Intent absent of authentic engagement toward gaining perspective before setting the intent of the collective leads to nothing more than a directive—understandably it can become an imposition upon others. Moreover, if the intent is a collective intent then the need for buy in is moot.


Decisiveness, as a key component, is described as the willingness to make tough decisions. This no doubt is associated with the leader’s intent. It is about doing what one intends no matter the (unexplored) unintended consequences. For example deciding to shut down facilities and/or to move them to environs with less—less regulation, less labor costs—must be made without hesitation, and all too often without wider perspective, reflection and reconsideration. The desire for gratification now and short sightedness tend to go hand-in-hand.


Especially in business, many decisions made by those in authority are quite narrow in perspective. Hence they often do in fact negatively impact the led as well as those indirectly touched by their organization’s actions. Furthermore, the impact is greater upon those further away in the hierarchy from the position of the decision-maker.


In large part because of this, it is important to be able to keep the morale of the troops high. The need to be charismatic and inspirational is never more evident in light of such limited perspective decisions. After all, no matter how hard it was for the decision-maker to decisively act in a way that affords near-term benefits and negatively impacts many in the long-term, it is imperative that the leader inspires the led to strive to do their very best in support of the leader’s intent.


Although this understanding of leadership among the business minded is nicely aligned with the precepts of egoistic capitalism—hence its popularity and persistence—it is quite misaligned with the very nature of humankind. Essentially the egoistic capitalist world assumes people “are independent self-interested hedonist”(The Intent of Business, p 122) whose purpose (in life) is maximal wealth accumulation by any means necessary. Our current system of orientation rests upon of mastery over Nature and exploitation of people in pursuit of material gain. In keeping with this system of orientation we find quite common the carrot-&-stick method of making conditional the satisfaction of peoples’ basic (living) needs—Maslow’s deficit needs such as food and shelter—as the way of getting people to behave as desired. Accordingly people are instrumental—having only instrumental value—to the intent of the organization and its’ leaders.


No wonder maintaining buy in among those led is the measure of a leader! No wonder, for many, the workplace is tantamount to a battlefield as business leaders often use the analogy of leading people into battle –the ultimate competition—to inform how to lead others in their work-a-day life in the organization.


If however our understanding of humankind was as deeply interconnected beings seeking to become what we potentially are, then we couldn’t act upon each other as we do. Human value would supplant instrumental value. Our sense of self would be inclusive and encompassing of each other. Unquestionably we would act with each other—collaboratively—toward creating a human world.


Leadership would then be about furthering what we all need, the development of each other as deeply interdependent persons. The intent of business (and one’s life) would not be material growth—as the capitalist economic system requires—but rather human development and progress. In this context “progress is about forward movement toward a higher state of human existence and thus requires enabling each person to realize and express his/her potential, as well as to enact his/her responsibility for the sustainability of the collective through their way of being-in-the-world”(The Intent of Business, p 117).


Leadership is a human need, not a position in an organization. Human development not material growth is its touchstone. Therefore we must approach it as a human phenomenon aligning its practice with our very nature as human beings. Much of the leadership experienced today is tainted and thus detrimental to our viability as a species.


Leadership in service to human value—as opposed to material value—speaks to us having a different relationship with our selves, each other and Nature. And this requires a fundamental change in one’s worldview, one’s self as a person and correspondingly a change in the intent of business (as well as the system of economics).


There are no battles to be fought only human potential to be actualized. Nothing is more valuable than this.




5 thoughts on “Common But Misaligned

  1. Well said, Gregory. What I find most interesting is that almost any wage worker I know can recite the liturgy of enlightened leadership, and yet, we see so much of the other kind yet in the world, as signified by that callow HBR article.

  2. Another thoughtful post Progressus

    A few thoughts below.

    Inspiring and motivating others is one of the key factors of leadership, but . how do we do this, how do you get people to do what perhaps they themselves do not believe they can do. Is being able to motivate and inspire a personal attribute or is it something that can be taught or learnt ? .

    On other attributes of leaders I wonder if the intent and behaviours of conspicuous portions our current crop of business leaders are actually a sad reflection of the values and attitudes of our global society as a whole.

    Was there indeed really a “Golden Age” where business leaders applied ethics and a moral code to business. If one takes a histroical 19th early 20th Century perspective of several very large British companies such as Cadburys, Rowntree and Lever Brothers, now Uni-lever. These great and successful companies were pioneers of ethical business particularly concerning working conditions for their employees and communities in which they were based. Taking another view perhaps they were the exceptions rather than the rule. Perhaps some would say these leader were authoritarian and aggressively paternalistic.

    Yet another argument concerning societal influences is that historically for a business to function there needed to be a massive element of Trust. Looking at international trade fro example, in the 15th and 16th Centuries there was huge international trading relationship between South East Asia and Europe. Given the great distances and slow sailing boats, for the trade to happen at all,required a massive element of trust.

    Do we really trust our Global Brands ?

    What role models do our future business and political leaders have ? What influences their thinking ? .

    Just a few thoughts


  3. John, I agree with your notion that “the intent and behaviours of conspicuous portions our current crop of business leaders are actually a sad reflection of the values and attitudes of our global society as a whole.”

    As a whole there is (and has been for at least 1/3 of a century) a very toxic & dangerous current that is causing a change in beliefs, values and intent among the business minded. With the capture or co-optation of government by business/economic system this wave of change has become quite strong, though unfortunately the masses for the most part are unaware of the under current surrounding them.

  4. Pingback: Work is not a curse | From guestwriters

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