Humility is the key to ‘good’ leadership and the antidote to those models of ‘heroic’ leadership that were always doomed to fail, writes Sharon Turnbull.
How does leadership serve our planet and our society? For many, this question might provoke an emotive or negative response, especially amongst those for whom the idea of leadership evokes the world of politics and big business. Tainted by corporate scandals, expense rows (in the UK) and short-termism, and tarnished by narcissism, selfishness and abuse, leadership in the 21st century has lost its appeal, and for many, this overused and devalued word has become meaningless, even dangerous.
The paradox facing society today, however, is that leadership may nonetheless be the only credible solution to the web of complex problems and urgent challenges facing our planet. And the public’s understandable rejection of leadership as a failed concept may now be stalling the emergence of a radical new model of ‘good’ leadership for the world.
Without ‘good’ leadership, we risk descending further into a materialistic chasm that ignores the needs of the Earth and its many inhabitants.
Leadership in the Anglo-American world has long been obsessed with personal traits and competencies, a holy grail for effective leadership. By defining leadership in this way, we have been unable to move away from a stultifying person-centred view of leadership that worships leader as hero. The cult of personality in contemporary Western society is everywhere, dominating our media and our literature with its insidious attraction. The vast majority of leadership books are about one man’s (or very occasionally one woman’s) leadership journey. But those we place on such pedestals are ultimately destined to criticism and perceived failure by the very people who seek such infallibility: Obama, Mandela, Gandhi, Kennedy, even Jesus and the prophets – all of these have been expected to be free of human flaws, and then later accused of human weaknesses and frailty.
It is time to admit that the expectation we place on individual leaders is unrealistic and unsustainable, and that we must all now engage in and accept our shared leadership responsibility for society and our planet.
So how can we make progress towards developing this new form of ‘good leadership’?
Firstly, we must change what we mean by leadership, and move away from the narrow idea that leadership relates to the capabilities of a single individual. Leadership can be a shared phenomenon. Indeed, for many ancient societies, leadership and decision-making is a shared process, with all members contributing a voice, from the oldest and wisest to the youngest and most curious.
In many such societies, the remit of the chief or elder is to seek ideas and consensus and safeguard the reflective process towards the best possible outcome – a stark contrast with the heroic leadership model that we have internalised in the West.
Secondly, we need to encourage a humble and collective leadership that will influence actions and outcomes in all corners of our organisations and communities. According to Joseph Badaracco’s book Leading Quietly, it is the many acts of quiet leadership at all levels and across society that will propel the societal and ecological transformation we so desperately need. For Badaracco, humility is an antidote to the heroic leadership that has dominated our mindset for so long both in the Western world and beyond.
Two of the most important omissions in Western leadership theory today are purpose and responsibility. Leadership texts often suggest that leadership is about winning over and engaging followers, but rarely do they address the crucial sense of moral purpose that is needed at the heart of leadership. Jim Collins’ book Good to Great suggests that ‘good’ is not enough: leaders must aim to be ‘great’. My view is that ‘good’ is the quest to which leaders must aspire in order to be called leaders. It is the only route to addressing the deep ecological and spiritual imbalances that we humans have created, and to a return to a sense of soul and oneness with the Earth.
How many of our apparently intractable problems would disappear if leadership simply focused on ‘goodness’? A colleague and friend of mine, Jonathan Gosling, frequently asks his MBA students: “Does a leader have to be good to be good?” This question invariably keeps the group occupied for hours in heated debate! For us, ‘goodness’ is a complex and challenging aspiration, but a worthy goal for leadership.
In his book Should Prometheus be Bound? Philippe de Woot argues that the current dominant market ideology of the firm has contributed to the crisis of ethics in today’s globalised world. The recent corporate scandals and their aftermath have, he points out, focused largely on breaches of integrity and trust within the rules that preserve the status quo of 21st-century capitalism. As globalisation advances, de Woot declares that a dominant ideology that reveres wealth creation, free trade, profit and financial orthodoxy over global sustainability and social justice remains unchallenged. The solution, he argues, is to build an ‘ethic of conviction’ that focuses on the type of society we wish to build, combined with an ‘ethic of responsibility’ that challenges the instrumental logic of today’s society. Responsibility and stewardship, both underused words in today’s society, are key triggers for such ‘good’ leadership.
Alternative mindsets found in Indigenous societies or ancient Eastern texts can offer much to those seeking to tackle the world’s problems. In our Worldly Leadership research, initiated by The Leadership Trust, we have discovered that reflecting on leadership through lenses that challenge the narrow paradigms of Western thinking has thrown glimpses of light on a path that could lead to a more connected, relational and responsible world.
Our concept of Worldly Leadership is grounded in an idea first put forward by Henry Mintzberg and Jonathan Gosling in their article ‘The Five Minds of the Manager’ (published in Harvard Business Review) that a ‘worldly mindset’ is one of the key mindsets needed for leaders today. By this, they refer to an ability to see the world from close up, understand the many different worlds within worlds that make up our globe, and take action. Our Worldly Leadership project foregrounds questions of responsibility and sustainability, focusing on the collective nature of the leadership process, and the relational nature of leadership. It also emphasises human dignity, global fairness and justice, thus resonating with de Woot’s call for a leadership ethic of responsibility and conviction.
It is time for ‘good’ leadership. Greatness is yet another ideal that must fade as we move away from the many destructive actions that have typified the 20th century. One man or one woman alone cannot change the world. We need leadership that connects and enables the many quiet acts of stewardship that will safeguard our world for future generations.
This article featured in Resurgence issue 264, January/February 2011 and is reprinted courtesy of Resurgence & Ecologist.All rights to this article are reserved to Resurgence & Ecologist, if you wish to republish or make use of this work you must contact the copyright owner to obtain permission.