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Leading and Being

article by Darios published May 17, 2004

 

“Lead from the front” – as directives go, this encapsulates for me the heart of meaningful leadership. The notion of leading unfortunately has frequently become tied to many negative connotations including hierarchy, vested authority and general power mongering (however trite or petty – sufferers of what has become known as ‘office politics’ will understand this well). But, just as we are all students and teachers at various points in our lives (in many cases, in various points in the same day!), we are also all at various points leaders and followers. Learning from one another and teaching one another necessarily requires the consecutive swapping of ‘leading’ and ‘following’ roles.

Do you follow me?

Hopefully you understand my meaning. But perhaps you do not. This would surely, in this latter case, indicate some failing on my part in my attempt to ‘lead’ you to comprehend my intended meaning via the vehicle of the written word. ‘Aha!’ you may say, ‘but this does not describe the typical use of the verb ‘to lead’ or the noun 'leader.’ Perhaps it does not. It does however provide a useful distinction. One might almost consider this an ordinal distinction, a literal matter of order. One person must act before another responds – a teacher must teach in some capacity first, even if it is through conveying meaning through waving their hands in the air (yes I have been taught in this manner. Haven’t you?), with the pupil ‘following’ the ‘leading’ actions of the teacher.

In this sense then, we could consider an important element of ‘leading’ consisting of ‘one who acts first’. Act rather than procrastinate. Be the change that you seek. And so on. It is easy to consider these just platitudes and clichés. It is also easy to slip, become inert and inactive and marvelously snug and comfortable in sameness and continuity of behaviour. Is there a lesson there? Yes. The body’s homeostasis comes back to haunt us again, and again, and again. This is a regular theme in my writing. I hope you do not get used to it. When everything becomes a platitude or a cliché for you it is time to seek a change – to seek some stimulation.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

- J W Goethe

‘Is this some kind of self-therapy for the writer?’. Yes indeed it is. [1] But my dear reader, as I hold your attention closely now I hope, perhaps it is worthwhile considering this a reminder to yourself too. In writing this I am remembering to act, to become and be the changes I seek, or at least a vehicle for said changes and/or the processes that lead to those changes. When does a principle become a practice? I do not know whether an answer to that question would yield anything useful other than some kind of psychoanalysis of linguistic spooks in the English language. [2] This may result in a very scholarly analysis of the mutual masturbation between the meanings and “real world” referents of ‘principle’, ‘practice’ and their cognates. I do believe that one can only become an example of what one extols by means of action. Let us leave aside the concern of what is practical and what is not. Such a question yields too many relative answers and avenues of enquiry. And that is not my intention here. Oh no. Not at all.

Consider this piece a communication. Not a treatise or careful analysis per se. Something a little alien to traditional scholarly writing perhaps. Words can invoke and evoke in so many ways I think it a tragic shame that the focus of so much artistic, intellectual and emotional talent in our ‘learned circles’ from the shores of the poet’s and musician’s temperamental wit to the dry sands of the anally retentive university department (and its ream after ream of paper incomprehensible to the “lay” reader) has led to an overly formalised, deadpan “Queen’s English” approach to imparting meaning and – inspiration.

If you have read any other pieces I have written you may have noticed that I elected not to write in 'E-prime’ here. You may consider English Prime a horrible and unnecessary mauling of the language. But if you do not, you may be wondering why I have not slipped into ‘the dialect’ for yet another Aristotelian Essentialism free excursion (see footnote 2). It is because, rather than seek a sharpness and honesty (as in psychologically self-reflexive honesty) in my language that is usually desirable for a more scholarly piece, I intend here to impart emotional meaning. And that requires a more poetic use of language.

You may or may not consider what I say as “emotional truth”. Whether it “is” or not (a perfect opportunity here for dropping into E-prime, but I promise I won’t!), is a question for the absolutists. The meaning of a communication after all is what is received at the other end. In purposely blurring some lines (using ‘essentialist’ language), I hope to make it easier to convey something in emotional terms – for the emotive part of us does not deal so well with precision (as an aside I have often wondered whether people who claim to be clairvoyant are actually people who experience emotional communications that have the acuity of vision). I am, in essence(!), using the limited means of written language to achieve a shotgun effect, spreading the umbrella as widely as I can so that, hopefully, if your ear is cocked at the correct angle, you may receive my meaning largely as I intended it. But if you do not, it need not be considered a communication breakdown. I will no doubt communicate something. I am in no position to judge accurately what that might be, because I am not you, but I hope it at the very least imparts something useful to ponder.

If then, you have continued this far, then you have certainly followed, and I have led in the strict ordinal sense in that I have written first and you have read second. At some point in the future I may be going through a period of procrastination and happen upon this piece. I will then read it and perhaps shock myself into action. This will result in the distinctly odd experience of being a future ‘follower’ of a past ‘me’ who has effectively ‘led’ with the meanings instilled in this writing. Is this, in a bizarre way, an act of ‘finding oneself’?

Perhaps it helps to consider the notion of leadership in more ephemeral terms, to disassociate the demeaning and unhealthy aspects. Consider the idea of a ‘natural leader’ versus an ‘appointed leader’. Which of these would you consider more healthy, and which type actually dominates most of our lives in most ways?

The best person for the job? Or the best job for the person? Can one reliably have oneself installed and institutionalised as a designated leader and think and act in a healthy manner without the realisation that one is not always a leader, but is oftentimes a follower? Sometimes such a designation matters greatly in one social group, but little in another (consider for example the experience of encountering someone who booms “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM!?” in response to you, or someone else not behaving in the way this individual either wants or expects you to).

People change. A cliché? Or perhaps a principle that one might find it useful to adhere to. Surely a path that can lead to many bumps, scrapes and unexpected turns. But realising that people change, and that you change and that you can not only embrace this change, but act as a catalyst for it, energising it beyond boundaries either you put up, or somebody or something (your body’s homeostatic principle) put up for you, can become a principle of life – of living. Or change can be forced onto you slowly and inexorably while you grasp onto similitude with your fingernails. This is the experience I believe most people have of change, hence why they shy away from it and allow biological urges to almost solely dictate their existence.

We are all giants, raised by Pygmies and trained to walk with a perpetual mental crouch.
- Robert Anton Wilson

Many people do not know their real reason for doing anything. Many people also remain unaware of their internally held boundaries. Don’t be one of those people. And remember not every useful gem of self-knowledge can be found by seeking inside oneself in a dark room, alone. Pushing onwards and outwards, purposefully testing oneself, as well as shocking oneself and defying your internal bodily urge towards sameness can all assist in assessing your boundaries and pushing yourself beyond them. It is relatively easy to put in the effort to discover one’s underlying reasons and motivations. I would in fact go so far as to say that practice in English Prime will assist you here, because it forces you to be precise about meanings and intentions. But once you have identified the fundamentals of your motivational psyche, reasoning processes and various behaviours, have you pushed beyond them?

As Margaret Wheatley points out so clearly in her excellent, ‘Leadership and the New Science’ : “… in venerating equilibrium, we have blinded ourselves to the processes that foster life. It is both sad and ironic that we have treated organizations like machines, acting as though they were dead when all this time they’ve been living, open systems capable of self-renewal. We have magnified the tragedy by treating one another as machines, behaving the only way we could motivate others was by pushing and prodding them into action, overcoming their inertia by the sheer force of our own energy. But here we are, living beings in living systems in a universe that continues to grow and evolve. Can we dump these thermodynamics and get to the heart of things? Can we respond to life in organizations and discard the death watch? Can we give up our clumsy attempts to keep things in balance and open ourselves to change?[3]

Just engaging in sufficient serious self-reflection to achieve detailed self-awareness certainly puts you into a (thankfully growing) minority. This knowledge works within a very definite set of boundaries, however. It is possible to push through into sometimes spectacular self-transformation through smashing at least some of those boundaries. Every time you feel yourself starting to morph into something resembling your sofa it is time to seek out one of those boundaries and give it a kick. This kind of behaviour involves a kind of going beyond. It also means, fundamentally, behaving like a leader in the healthiest and most self-integrating way. It is, in short what I call leading and being.

 

Notes

1. That is to say, the act of writing and engaging with this piece – for me – is an act of self-therapy. This is a theme of Nietzsche’s writings. [back]

2. cf for example, Max Stirner’s linguistic ‘spooks’. This refers to the use of Aristotelian ‘Essentialism’ in assigning some kind of fundamental ‘essence’ to an object or class of objects. While these ‘essences’ have a linguistic placeholder (a name), they are not necessarily directly apprehended, giving rise to the ‘linguistic spooks’ where meanings become very blurry and broad, especially when shared. [back]

3. p.77, paragraph 4. [back]

 

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page updated May 17, 2004 13:43

 

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