Are You Able to Lead with Clarity and Calmness?

Communication, by Paul Shanks, Flickr

Communication, by Paul Shanks, Flickr

One of the “tweetable” leadership thoughts I like to share often is the following:

Followers need clarity and calmness in challenging times.
Provide authenticity and a non-anxious presence for those you lead.

There is actually a lot of thought, and research, that goes behind this call for clarity, calmness, and a non-anxious presence. Some of this research may be found in an article a colleague and I have published in the academic journal Management Research Review. If you don’t have access to this journal, you may find another discussion of the research directly here through the American Society of Business and Behavioral Sciences.

In the face of challenging times, followers need clarity, calmness, authenticity, and a non-anxious presence from their leaders.

What do I mean by this? I’ll use some quick points of contrast to explain.

This Type of Leadership IS NOT About:

  • Leaders “having it all together,”
  • Leaders pretending to have all the answers, or
  • Leaders being overly controlling.

This Type of Leadership IS About:

  • Leaders being calm… engaging with a non-anxious presence,
  • Leaders providing followers with clarity … being clear and authentic with what can be shared, and
  • Leaders guiding with conviction … leading with moral resolve and fortitude.

“Self-Differentiation”

In the study noted above, we found that leader resiliency was associated with a social science construct called self-differentiation. Self-differentiated leaders are able to maintain a non-anxious presence in the face of what often raises anxiety for others.

The reality is those who lead in the manner described in this post face challenges just like any other leader. The difference is in how they respond.

Responding with Clarity and Calmness

Rather than letting circumstances dictate their demeanor, self-differentiated leaders find a way to recognize the challenging realities and then approach these realities in a calm and non-anxious manner.

I don’t know about you, but I love to work for and follow leaders like this. I also desire to provide such leadership for others as I’m able.

So what about you? Are you able and willing to lead with clarity and calmness? Remember:

Followers need clarity and calmness in challenging times.
Provide authenticity and a non-anxious presence for those you lead!

Easter, The Gospel, & Virtuous Leadership

Peeps, Mike Mozart, Flickr

Peeps, Mike Mozart, Flickr

Easter week is just around the corner as I write this post. At the heart of Easter is the message of the gospel. In this brief post, I’d like to make some connections between the core message of Easter and leadership practice.

Ethics matter for those working in at diverse organizational levels. But ethics especially matter for leaders.

We want to know that what our leaders say is true. We want to see that the actions of our leaders are consistent with what they say as leaders.

General Ethical Approaches

Though certainly an oversimplification of ethical theory, we can argue that there are three primary approaches to ethics:

  • Virtue Ethics
  • Duty Ethics
  • Utilitarian Ethics

Here is a brief overview of these approaches drawn from an article I wrote with a colleague:

  Virtue Ethics Duty Ethics Utilitarian Ethics
Key operational question Who ought I to be? What ought I to do? What brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number?
Definition of Happiness Fulfilling one’s purpose or function Adherence to moral absolutes Maximization of pleasure, absence of pain
Focus Character of the individual Rules and resulting obligations of the individual Outcomes and consequences
  • A utilitarian approach to ethics bases decisions on what brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number.
  • A duty-based approach (or deontological approach) to ethics bases decisions on what one ought to do.
  • A virtue-based approach to ethics bases decisions on who one ought to be.

The Priority of Virtue Ethics

While there are supporting arguments for each of these ethical paths, I find that the most effective form of ethical practice is grounded in virtue-oriented approaches. Why is this?

In times of crisis and ethically challenging circumstances, people will tend to do what is natural to them. They will act in accordance with who they are. Because of this, the most powerful approach to ethics is one that takes seriously the formation of ethical people at a level of virtues and character.

Though we need moral guidance (a deontological and duty-based approach), the capacity to act on this comes from moral fortitude (an ontological and virtue-based approach).

Virtuous leadership requires virtuous leaders. Ethical leadership requires ethical leaders.

Because of this, a foundational question in this discussion is how does one become a virtuous person/leader?

The Gospel and Virtue Ethics

I don’t want to imply that only Christians may be virtuous leaders. Certainly we can all think of Christians we know who have not acted virtuously and those of other non-Christian commitments who do act virtuously.

I do want to emphasize that the Christian gospel provides a powerful answer to the question of how one becomes a virtuous person/leader.

At the heart of Easter is the gospel. The gospel centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death on the cross, remembered in the heart of Holy Week, is at the center of the Christian faith. Jesus died on a cross to pay the penalty for sinful people and to restore wholeness to our broken world. Those who trust in Jesus’ work on their behalf are offered forgiveness for their sins and are welcomed into both God’s family and God’s mission of restoring and healing a broken world. At Easter, we celebrate not only Jesus’ death, but also his being raised to life three days later to demonstrate His power over sin and death.

So How Does this Relate to Virtue-Based Leadership?

The gospel is not about good, moral, or virtuous people offering themselves to God. The gospel is about sinful, immoral, and broken people being made new by Christ’s work in their lives.

We can never be good enough, moral enough, or righteous enough to make ourselves right before God. Only God’s work in us by the gospel can do that.

What does this mean for a Christian approach to virtue ethics?

Rather than seeking to be virtuous in order to make ourselves right before God, in the gospel we yield to the God who is able to make us right before him.

The gospel does not lower the ethical bar. The gospel does not say that sin and unethical leader behavior doesn’t matter. Rather, the gospel gives us a pathway for changing us from the inside out. The gospel gives us a hopeful path on which we can start to see change. The gospel gives us a credible answer to the question of how one may become a virtuous person/leader.

The answer is not in our own virtuous behavior, but rather in looking to the God of Easter who is able to do in us what we are not able to do ourselves.

Why I Blog: Fostering Healthy Leadership

Be the Change, Feggy Art, Flickr

Photo Credit: Be the Change, Feggy Art, Flickr

“Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.”
– James MacGregor Burns

James MacGregor Burns’ quote resonates with most of our experiences. We see leadership occurring all around us, but rarely take time to reflect in a systematic way on what makes this leadership helpful or unhelpful—effective or ineffective. Further complicating our observations, at times we see people leading well who have no formal positions of leadership within our organizations, and at other times we see people in positions of leadership who really are not providing the necessary leadership direction for our organizations as we move into the future.

Lingering Questions

And so we come back to Burns’ comments: Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth. But must it be this way? Is leadership simply a mysterious reality? Is it something that we simply know when it is going well or poorly, but will never really understand what makes it work? Or might we be able to provide some basic descriptions of the form and shape of good, helpful, and effective leadership? Might we be able to get at some minimum factors that characterize both what helpful leaders and leadership look like?

Leadership Can Be Learned

Part of my vocational calling is providing thoughtful responses to such questions. I believe leadership can be described and studied. I believe it can be learned. Not every person is wired to be a capital “L” Leader. However, just about everyone embedded in an organization, group, or family can grow in and learn how to positively influence and guide the people around them.

This is the heart behind why I’ve started blogging at purposeinleadership.com. Although I’ve been observing leaders in action most of my life, I’ve spent the last 15 years in focused study on the topic through various degree programs, organizational roles, research agendas, and teaching opportunities. I want to start sharing some of these lessons learned with a wider audience.

A Passion for Ridding the World of Bad Leadership

Harvard Business Review’s editorial mission is “to rid the world of bad management.” I have a similar passion in the area of leadership. Though I won’t be able to personally rid the world of bad leadership, I’d love to make a dent in this ambitious agenda. I want to spread a message…

  • …that leadership is more about serving others than being served,
  • …that people are the priority even in profit-driven sectors,
  • …that leaders need to create organizations and societies that are not only productive, but also are fit for human beings,
  • …that purpose in leadership is of central importance,
  • …that leadership is vital in organizations that create value for those they serve,
  • …that people will endure great hardship and sacrifice when they believe in what they are doing and feel their work and leadership has meaning and purpose,
  • …that leaders have a God-given responsibility to care for the people they lead,
  • …that core leadership characteristics and behaviors can be described,
  • …that leadership is vital in working toward human flourishing in organizations and societies.

Thanks for Joining Me in this Pursuit

Although I don’t believe that everything rises or falls on leadership, I do believe that the pursuit of effective and healthy models of leadership is a first-order priority in our day.

Thanks for joining me on this journey toward good, helpful, and effective leadership. Our organizations and the people we serve as leaders deserve our very best!

Tolstoy on Leadership

Leo Tolstoy, Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Leo Tolstoy, Wikipedia

I recently came across again an interesting essay by Tolstoy in The Leaders Companion by Wren. Tolstoy’s treatment of rulers and generals as historys slaves started the journey and caught my attention. The following excerpt of Tolstoy seems to capture the heart of the argument he makes:

In historic events, the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connection with the event itself. every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity.”

Tolstoys Challenge to Leader Autonomy

In terms of my response to this, on the one hand I want to quickly dismiss this as an overly deterministic view of leaders embedded in history. On the other hand, when I sit with this a bit longer, I find it helpful to consider Tolstoy’s challenge to look beyond the leader as individual to the larger system of which the leader is part.

Factors beyond the Leader

There are not only leaders—the “great men” to which Tolstoy refers—there are also followers. On this point of followers Tolstoy writes, “It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real powershould consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals [the great men], and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.”

In addition to leaders and followers, as Tolstoy alludes, there are “an infinite number of diverse and complex causes” that make up the organizational, societal, and global contexts within which situations of historic magnitude are carried out. Leaders are not islands unto themselves—they are surrounded by followers and wider systems that influence them whether they recognize this influence or not.

The Limits of Autonomy for Prominent Leaders

Although I do not immediately like the overly deterministic interpretation of history, Tolstoy’s challenge is an important one to consider. His primary argument is that those of higher social standing—and those of more prominent leadership responsibility like the Napoleons and Alexanders of history—have limited personal determination that may be exerted outside of the “predestination and inevitability” of their actions.

Public Leadership in Historical Perspective

This goes against the grain of contemporary notions of leaders setting their own course. However, it is accurate to acknowledge that when a leader has a substantially broad scope of leadership responsibility, there are exponentially more factors that influence the decision making processes of that leader. Many of these factors are outside of the leader’s own personal wishes and determination. As Tolstoy notes, even when leaders appear to “act of their own will,” the reality may often be that leader decisions become involuntary “in an historical sense.”

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What do you think of Tolstoy’s argument about public and historic leaders? Do individuals actually lose some freedom, autonomy, and self-determination when they assume large-scale and global leadership responsibilities? Have you observed this as you read about large-scale and/or historic leadership?

Power to the People — Leaders and the Ethical Use of Power

Vuisten (fists) - Power, by Bolwidt on Flickr

Photo Credit: Vuisten (fists) – Power, by Bolwidt, Flickr

Power to the People

The public exercise of power is often disliked, mistrusted, or undermined in our society. Roots of this suspicion of power are deep, but this suspicion is often grounded in the exercise of positional power that is not founded upon personal power. It is distasteful to see people occupying positions of power without also embodying the personal credibility to support and enact this power effectively. In contrast to resistance that is often the result of excessive use of positional power, personal power helps to develop followers and their commitment to organizational goals.

Asking the Right Questions

In terms of when and how power can be used most effectively and more acceptably, I would point to the importance of the ethical use of power. On this point Richard Daft identifies key questions leaders need to ask. Some of these questions ask whether the action and use of power…

  • …is consistent with the organization’s goals,
  • …respects the rights of individuals,
  • …meets standards of equity and fairness, and
  • …is consistent with how one would behalf if the action would affect them personally.

These guidelines for ethical action help in thinking through how power is being utilized. To engage power effectively, acceptably, and ethically, leader’s need to be comfortable that the answers to such questions are focused on the good of others and the organization rather than simply serving themselves as leaders.

A Commitment to Serving Others

On this point, I appreciate the emphasis of people like Robert K. Greenleaf who write on the theme of servant leadership. Greenleaf emphasized that the servant leader was to be servant first. In other words, Greenleaf emphasized that the most acceptable or beneficial leader for a community is the one who at their core is a servant, and who then expresses this servant-oriented heart through a leadership role. Greenleaf emphasized that true power rested with followers who recognize a servant-oriented person and then attribute personal power to them. From this personal power, the servant-leader may then lead effectively and ethically.

In my view, this is the best place from which to use power—using it from a place that recognizes the best power is that which has been freely granted to the leader by the personal trust of followers.

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What do you think of Greenleaf’s point? How do you see leaders using power ethically and responsibly?