Modern jargon about leadership, such as “coaching” and “servant leadership,” evokes images of a kindly leader including their people in “consensus” decision-making and providing friendly support to them as they get things done. An even more radical notion, supported by the new science of chaos theory, is to eliminate positional leadership altogether, replacing it with leaderless/self-managing teams. Images such as General George S. Patton Jr. growling as he leads his troops against the Nazis hardly seem relevant in the new kinder gentler paradigm. But General Patton, or the equally tough Mahatma Gandhi, have exactly the traits needed to lead people today, and since the dawn of time.
Patton and Gandhi in the same breath? Absolutely. Both were self-differentiated leaders, in the full spirit of Murray Bowen and Edwin Friedman’s theory of leadership. Both trusted their inner guidance systems, and took clearly defined stands which at times frightened and angered people who were allegedly on “their side,” such as Patton’s superiors, and Gandhi’s “middle-class” countrymen. In a military dominated by men who thought one should wait until they had vast numerical superiority before attacking, Patton stayed firm with the belief that “dig in and you are dead.” He repeatedly raced around the defending Nazis, and arguably could have ended the war months earlier, with great savings in lives, if he hadn’t been stopped time and again by his own superiors. Gandhi was so committed to the path of independence for India that he placed his life on the line, through fasts and other actions, with no assurance that he would succeed. Both were crystal clear about their goals, and led towards them relentlessly. Neither waited for consensus before acting.
Both embodied the second characteristic of self-differentiated leadership, as defined by Freidman, The Capacity and the Willingness of the Leader to Take Non-Reactive, Clearly Conceived, and Clearly Defined Positions. Yes , when you take a clear stand you will almost certainly face conflict from one quarter or the other. Better men than I, such as Patton and Gandhi, certainly did. But those who try to avoid conflict by avoiding clarity, or by agreeing with everyone, are doomed to mediocrity. They cannot lead. “Followers” cannot channel their energy without clarity about where the are heading. As John Dewey put it, “There is no freedom without structure.” Clear direction adds essential structure to human systems.
Freidman’s “first and foremost characteristic” of a self-differentiated leader is equally clear and straight forward. The Leader Must Stay in Touch. As another self-differentiated leader, General William Tecumseh Sherman, put it “no man can properly command an army from the rear.” The belief that “empowerment” and “systems” can create reliable results allowing a leader to sit in their office or attend meetings all day is a false hope. To lead one must fight the shackles of their computer and the meeting room and get out on the floor. To lead you must engage and learn. When you lose touch, you stop leading.
Many in positions of leadership struggle to meet this characteristic. Some are concerned that they will dis-empower the layers of management below them if they “skip layers.” Indeed, empowering middle management and front-line supervision is well worth your attention. But it doesn’t happen through absence. It happens through clear goals and behavioral expectations (such as expecting everyone to constantly be clarifying who will decide what, and by when, and expecting everyone to surface issues/create an open flow of communication), through hands-on reinforcement of those expectations, and by staying in touch without assuming authority that belongs at another level. It’s leaders that “take over” that dis-empower, not leaders that stay in touch.
Insist that others, at all levels, do the same. Don’t get caught in the trap of listening to different parts of the system complain about and blame others. Point them towards the others, ask if they want help with the conversation, and if not, insist that they let you know about how it went.
In other words, “walk the talk.” Or as Gandhi put it, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Clarify your expectations, and then live them through your interactions with the organization. Encourage your subordinates to do the same, including letting you know if you seem to be contradicting your own expectations. Encourage surfacing issues, even if, and especially if, they have “issues” with your positions or behavior. Learn to reinforce the behavior of speaking up without limiting yourself to either rejecting or acquiescing passively to what is said. Make sure you understand. If you manage to truly understand what people are telling you, you’ll be in the best position to decide what to do.
That brings us to Friedman’s third and final characteristic of Self-Differentiated Leadership, The Capacity to Deal With Resistance. Resistance is an element of human systems. In families, the members predictably focus their attention on the “black sheep” of the system. In organizations, and each work group, it is easy to do the same. When leaders get hooked on trying to convert or manage the most difficult members of their system, they actually reinforce the status of and tension with that member. Energy is drained from all. The likelihood of an impasse or ugly divorce is far higher than the likelihood of converting the resistance into true support. Yet most leaders get hooked into resistance like a moth to a flame.
Like Patton and Gandhi, the path forward is to walk the talk of the first two characteristics. Be clear about what you stand for, stay in touch with all parties, and move forward. This may not break the resistance, but it won’t allow resistance to bog you down.
This is not to say that the sources of resistance are “the problem.” Some people are simply inclined to be the vocal minority, brave enough to be overt in their discontent (search their comments for solvable problems, and let them help you solve them!). Others, of course, will whole heartedly follow you. The majority will probably “wait and see.” Insist that everyone surface issues and tackle barriers! Create opportunities and structure for engagement! The real problem is not “resistance.” The real problem is if you fuel resistance by becoming obsessed with it, losing sight of your goals, and losing touch with the rest of the organization.
So what’s the “leadership paradox?” By leading you empower. Chaos is fine in organic systems, such as a collection of cells, but in human affairs, to borrow Dewey’s words, without leadership, there is no structure, and without structure, there is no empowerment.