In our challenging times, what does leadership feel like to you?
I was a speaker at the recent Aged and Community Services WA annual conference held in late March and had the opportunity to talk about leadership, spirituality and values and disturbing the peace. My talk went something like this:
I had the misfortune, because of current study obligations, to watch an hour long presentation on leadership last week by someone from the US talking about a similar theme; and was struck with how self-serving our understanding of leadership can sometimes be when we forget to think about how we define leadership in relation to ourselves.
It seems to me we now label ourselves and everyone around us a leader as a compliment, which consequentially is reshaping our definition of leadership; and, we now glorify the belief leadership is solely grounded in personal attributes that are charismatic and which are predicated on good communication skills.
The talk I watched packaged up leadership into competencies and a belief that if you follow a particular recipe, you’ll be a leader, irrespective of what is happening around you. It is a misguided self-belief which assures me if I tell you I’m a leader, you’ll employ me as such and people will follow me because I say so. Enormous egos and strong self-image are also essential in this recipe.
There is little or no understanding of leadership being about a personal internal spiritual journey; or knowing your values or willingness to know yourself and understand how I ‘am’ in the world, which points to ‘why’ and ‘how’ I think, understand myself and behave in our world. As one recent Harvard Business Review article reminded me, with ‘authentic leadership – fake it until you make it’!
This led me to think about the descriptions and evidence on leadership and what has been emerging in our organisations that passes for leadership and its impact on organisational culture.
The lines between management and leadership are being significantly blurred, and there is a belief that performativity and management bureaucratic technocracy together with measurements, endless data collection and its control will ensure leadership supremacy; while the responsibility for delivering on KPIs is given to the least powerful people. Risk management is outsourced and this seems to be the sum total of our aspirations as leaders.
I see no larger, meta-narrative rising above the lockstep of the marching band currently comprising the community benefit sector; and, no-one is able to point to something that makes our hearts beat stronger, inviting us to aspire to a bigger story, so we feel able to put ourselves willingly into jeopardy, being courageous, faithful and person-centred. As leaders nowadays, we have become consumers of stories such as consumer directed care. We have no notion of disturbing the peace in the existing paradigm.
So let me go back to the beginning…
The focus of this reflection is on the changing culture of our organisations in the community benefit sector, and what the current character and quality of the leadership might be, as experienced by those having to follow us. Our perception and judgement of the leadership, spirituality and values and our passion for disturbing the peace, I think is still a work in progress.
So what do many of our organisations look like and how are our leaders looking? The models we see around us are not particularly inspiring.
I looked at two forms of leadership, in politics and in commerce.
The political model of leadership is broken, defective, and struggling to reinvent itself.
The business model is polarising peoples and nations around the world because it is still focussed on creating a corporatized, globalised, unaccountable, and non-transparent life where ‘greed is still good’; even though the day-to-day rhetoric has changed to consumer directed services with the rules of the marketplace apparently enabling and opening opportunities for everyone.
The reality is we should be wary of any accumulations of power wherever they are evidenced. We should be as reluctant to live under an over-reaching, greedy corporate sector as under a controlling, powerful, greedy state. When the state or the market or any other powers, claim too much and stifle human flourishing, people become divided.
We should be very wary and concerned about leaders who seek power and privilege and neglect justice and mercy for others.
Consequently I am watchful over what we can see in our organisations with our leaders.
Part of our tragedy is our politics and our business models have been incapable of holding a careful balance between differences in opinion, goods and virtues. We have emphasised individualism, consumerism and the importance of the corporate sector to the point where all relationships have become competitive individualism, consumption and the commercial contract fragments social solidarity and community benefit at all levels.
We see this reflected in every aspect of our organisations, their leadership and in the community, and consequently, it is evidenced strongly in our service offerings.
Our political life, in which we, as community benefit sector leaders are intimately involved, would be greatly enhanced if it were possible to speak about markets, business and the profit motive as an impressively effective system of distribution in a complex society and hugely liberating of human creativity – but instead, it is one which also tends to entrench inequality, diminish human sympathies and unchecked, damages the conditions for its own flourishing.
Adam Smith, the father of market economics understood that without a degree of shared morality which the market neither creates nor sustains; the market is not protected against its in-built tendency to generate cartels and monopolies which undermine the principles of the market itself and which kills of competition and silences dissent.
We are left with the impact of retail politics where everything and everybody are for sale in a completely adversarial manner, which allow no room for dissent, critique or collaboration. When it descends into tribalism, it lacks wisdom, humility or balance in our politics, communities, organisations and services.
We have become a society of strangers, a consequence of greatly increased physical mobility and improvements in communication technologies that allow all manner of superficial transactions without meeting face to face. However, we are also a society of strangers in a more worrying sense.
Consumption, rather than production, has come to define us, and individualism has tended to estrange people from one another. This causes an excessive emphasis on competition, regarded as a sort of social Darwinism. This is a perverse consequence of allowing market rhetoric to creep into social policy. It is something we no longer see or resist. It is part of our present world paradigm.
Other people come to be seen first as a threat and only incidentally as a gift with the potential to enrich our lives.
So the impact of being a society of strangers is people are disconnected from places where they feel they belong. We need to reconfigure our sense of being individuals in community, and, at a larger level, communities within a community, so our connections are seen, visible and understood.
Our hope for community is driven by the conviction that individuals flourish best when they belong with confidence to networks of relationships, institutions and communities which extend beyond the nuclear family but stop well short of the state or corporation.
Paradoxically, too much stress on the individual and on the supposedly autonomous choices of the individual as the consumer has tended to diminish rather than enhance the moral significance of each unique person. It has led us as a society to undervalue individuals who exhibit weakness, are dependent on others, or who try to live selflessly. For us in community benefit organisations, this is a significant narrative we need to challenge.
When individuality is thought to stem from autonomy and freedom of choice, a particular image of the ideal white, young, free, attractive and materially comfortable – becomes the archetype against which everyone is measured and most are found wanting. In a privileged framework, the discrimination against those who are CaLD, women, LGBTI groups, the elderly or any of the other marginalised communities, is pervasive and invisible.
Most people when asked, subscribe to some version of the idea all people are created equal, yet this is contradicted in the categories we design: for example, people who are sick, disabled, terminally ill, elderly, unemployed, homeless, the materially poor or mentally ill, anyone who otherwise is unable to live the life that a consumer society celebrates;.
This notion of equality which is supported in principle treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed and is a contradiction deeply embedded in our society. It is particularly counter-productive when it denigrates those who are in need, because this undermines the wider social instinct to support one another in the community. It means our work as aged and community service providers will always be undervalued and left behind because it points to this fundamental contradiction.
For instance, when those who are elderly are all described in terms implying they are undeserving, dependent, and a drain on resources, it deters others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden on families and instead, keeps people isolated and marginalised.
The visualisation of each person as a data set ripe for consumer directed care, in a world which we imagine will always grow giving us access to unlimited resources, seduces people into thinking they can have whatever they want, when they want it, without considering the consequences now or into the future.
We are told we own our own success; and consequently we are responsible for our own failure – our response is to deny and ignore failure as a shameful aberration that must be hidden. It is a narcissistic and selfish world with little hope or courage. It invites me to create mirror images; not unique, distinctive, diverse cultures, organisations and communities.
It is critical we see people as who they are, not simply as crude predictors of utilitarian activity in a consumer society. And as organisations, our role is as service providers, explicitly enabling the principles of mutuality and subsidiarity in our civil society. We need to think about what we are offering to those who look to the community benefit sector for leadership.
So the purpose of this reflection was to reflect on leadership, spirituality, values and disturbing the peace.
I said earlier, leadership as it stands is not positioned in a way that invites people into a future in which they might be excited and inspired to participate.
Our organisations are reflective of the society we live in – so they operate in a transactional fragmented way, with a mixture of messages that do not speak to our hearts and souls. They do not interrupt our lives. The quality of our engagement and contribution is diminished as a consequence.
I see leaders who blithely assume they have leader’s rights and entitlements always to be first, with the most, and the best, shaping organisations in their own image. As long as a good story can be told and their glory can be amplified their leadership remains assured.
Our actions speak to what is in our hearts and our way of behaving tells those around us the type of world we think we live in and what we aspire to be.
I wonder if such leaders are truly aware of what they are projecting to others.
From a spiritual perspective, irrespective of whatever faith or no faith you declare yourself to be, your willingness and capacity to look at yourself first and explore the shadow you cast over your organisation, as we all tend to create such systems in our own image, will shape our organisation’s capacity to flourish into the future. The values we as leaders declare and act out in our behaviours and language, enhance or limit our organisation’s chances of survival.
If we create organisational cultures comprising communities of strangers where people don’t belong, but are merely passing through, delivering services to people who no longer want to know us or be in any meaningful relationship with us, and see us simply as service suppliers, we only have ourselves to blame. It is long past time we challenged some of the notions being put forward and argued for a bigger debate and wider ideas that keep us connected, related and involved.
We need to start a society of ‘disturbers of the peace’, prepared to challenge the status quo, ask for a bigger and better narrative and dream for the future for our country, our society and our people. We need to question the paradigm we live in and dare to dream differently.
So finally, you may ask, what do ‘disturbers of the peace’ look like? Having explored issues of leadership, values and the impact on the culture of organisations of those who buy into the current social and economic narrative, my question is serious.
I’m a great believer in Martin Luther King’s way of thinking about disturbing the peace – which is activist non-violence. It is a way of raising the temperature of our environment to the point where people react because the context has become too uncomfortable to remain in the status quo. I think we frighten ourselves into immobility, too frightened of the consequences, or seek to please our funders by delivering what they want, rather than delivering a vision of something different.
So here are some of the characteristics you might like to consider if you want to practice being a ‘disturber of the peace’:
These are probably my biggest reminders about being an activist. You need to know you will be raising the temperature and will make people uncomfortable. When that happens, people fight back and resist change, and distract and denigrate your vision. They will be fighting from fear, or disagreement, and lack of understanding; they may fight because you are asking for their power base and the status quo to be different and not many people like that.
So I have no easy answers. My challenge to you is to understand culture in organisations requires leadership and you need to bring your own spirituality, values and your capacity and willingness to be a disturber of the peace.
Authentic engagement and values based spiritual living is the characteristic of such leaders who will take you into the future. They are the ones who will ensure our communities, services and organisations will flourish into the future.