Can We Simply Lead?

Leading with authentic spirit means leading with love, which ultimately means leading simply. No matter how many theories we weave, no matter how complicated the tasks we must accomplish, the process is simple (but not easy). The path of great leadership, even great visionary leadership, is marked by presence, that is, leading by being, being with and being for, becoming in the process something more than just ourselves.

My life and leadership is a dance between the intellectual and the spiritual — and it’s love that makes it work. Not some sweet, evanescent dream of love, but the attentive, fierce, grounded relationships that make authentic leadership a process, not a proclamation of my self. (I’ve written before about this love as  aloha, in the indigenous Hawaiian understanding of mutual respect and deep co-creation.)

Writer/artist Anne Truitt describes this relationship, based in humility, very well:
Ann Truitt

Ann Truitt

“Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves. This indifference can be, in its extreme, a form of murder and seems to me a rather common phenomenon. We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be. By focusing on what we choose to acknowledge in them, we impose an insidious control on them. I notice that I have to pay careful attention in order to listen to others with an openness that allows them to be as they are, or as they think themselves to be. The shutters of my mind habitually flip open and click shut, and these little snaps form into patterns I arrange for myself. The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery. (Read more about her book, Daybook: the Journal of an Artist, at the wonderful blog, Brain Pickings….)

Simple but not easy. With my students, I must hold a structure within which we can listen to each other, learn together. I lead by holding the space, and when I’m at my best, asking powerful questions. Our best teaching institutions give professors the space and open structure to do this important work. In education, imparting knowledge is not leadership. Leadership in teaching must hold a space for the whole student (and the whole teacher) to make knowledge and new skills meaningful.

Simple but not easy. With my coaching clients, the space I hold is even more tender, because of transference/countertransference, what Truitt calls “the tyranny of defining people as we would like them to be.” (As in therapy, those projections go both ways in coaching. In life or leadership coaching, our stories are so powerful they sometimes obscure real dialogue about who we really are, much less about who we want to become.) The job of a coach is to lead by co-creation, not by the nose.

It’s the same in organizations, although roles and job descriptions create a more rigid institutional structure. Great leaders open a space for processes and people to work at their best, in co-creation, and that’s why their companies have the flexibility to make profits despite and because of changes in the market. It’s not only good leadership understanding (i.e. theory) or spiritual dedication or emotional intelligence. It’s that love that Truitt writes so beautifully about, it’s that space of discovery and collaboration, that makes the difference between manipulation and simple (but not easy) leadership.

Truitt’s thought is worth repeating: “The opposite of … inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.”

That’s leadership. That’s authenticity. Simple, right? Well, practical. And worth practicing — not to make perfect, but to be a better leader.

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