Monday, June 4, 2007

Leadership and Charisma

I am taking a class on Leading from Within: Spirituality and Leadership. We’re reading Ronald Heifetz’s Leadership without Easy Answers and Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers.

I was hanging out with my daughter in the Young Adult section of the library and checked out The Will of the Empress by Tamora Pierce to read this weekend, which as it turns out makes a wonderful fiction companion volume to Heifetz and Wink this week on domination. The empress in this case is in a very hierarchical empire where everyone knows their place and everyone bows to the empress' every whim (deference). Of course our heroine and her friends do not. While this is not subtle it is an excellent overt overview of power in action.

In our discussion board someone asked: How much of leadership is simply about charisma? In this book, the Empress is quite charismatic, but she's not being a good leader for all of her people, only for the ones who agree with her. Hitler was quite charismatic, they say, and I think that one can argue that he was not really a good leader, if leadership is defined as Heifetz and Wink do. I would also say I have known or read about bad leaders, but I think the word "leader" has an unspoken inference of doing good, but that is not always true.

Without allowing for the possibility of bad leadership, we have no cure, no recourse. If we have a strong leader in place, with a lot of vision, does that mean that the organization will survive? Perhaps, but it does not mean that all of the people in the organization will survive. Does leadership mean finding a solution that works for everyone or does it mean finding what works best for most people with the least harm to others? But where does it tilt, when leaders are doing what’s best for a progressively smaller and more elite subset of the organization, until leadership is perfectly selfish?

In a representative democracy, whose interests are the leaders representing? This would apply to the deacons elected by a congregation, as well as state representatives and members of Congress. Is it such an elected leader’s responsibility to speak up for one who can’t speak for herself or safeguard the rights of the oppressed or of the many? Their very charisma means that we will just assume that they’ll be acting on our behalf, because we “like” them. These are questions that we must ask those who want lead so that we are clear about what we will get from the leaders we choose.

And if we are leaders in organizations, for whom do we speak? What deference do we ask of others? What deference do we give? What good do we do? What harm do we prevent? Whom do we help? Whom do we harm?

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