Reflections on Leadership

Posted on May 18, 2019

There are many flavours of leadership. And context determines which flavour is called for. George S. Patton’s attitude to leadership was extreme: “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way!” This attitude made him the allied general the Germans feared the most. His kind of leadership was appropriate for the times, in the context of war. After the war, Patton suffered from depression. He knew he was not a man made for peace. His qualities and style of leadership were only called for in the extreme circumstances of armed conflict.

Look up his speech to the Third Army to find out what kind of leader Patton was:

I don’t want any messages saying ‘I’m holding my position.’ We’re not holding a goddamned thing. We’re advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding anything except the enemy’s balls. We’re going to hold him by his balls and we’re going to kick him in the ass; twist his balls and kick the living shit out of him all the time. Our plan of operation is to advance and keep on advancing. We’re going to go through the enemy like shit through a tinhorn.

He could sound almost like Shakespeare’s Henry V, on the eve before the battle of Agincourt. Patton had the same style, only more vulgar.

Then there’s one thing you men will be able to say when this war is over and you get back home. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting by your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks, ‘What did you do in the great World War Two?’ You won’t have to cough and say, ‘Well, your granddaddy shoveled shit in Louisiana.’ No sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say ‘Son, your granddaddy rode with the great Third Army and a son-of-a-goddamned-bitch named George Patton!’

Surrendered leadership is at the other extreme of the spectrum. This is a style of leadership where the leader gives up using control, and instead surrenders to something beyond him- or herself. It is similar to religious self-surrender: Not my will… Only, it is not religious. It is not about surrender to God, but to something that, like God, is hard to define. Surrender to the common will, or the volonté generale of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, perhaps. If this is a reasonable characterization, then it follows that surrendered leadership is appropriate in contexts where there is no pre-given direction, and where people have made an agreement to find a direction together.

Here I take the spectrum defined by the dimension of task emphasis. In Patton’s leadership style the task at hand - twist the enemy’s balls and kick the living shit out of him all the time - is paramount. In the thinking of CEO leadership coach Mike Myatt, agreement on the common task is not taken for granted, so the task emphasis is low:

Surrender is the mindset which creates the desire for leaders to give credit rather than take it, to prefer hearing over being heard, to dialogue instead of monologue, to have an open mind over a closed mind, to value unlearning as much as learning. Control messages selfishness, while surrender conveys selflessness – which is more important to you?

Taken from Mike Myatt, The Most Minunderstood Aspect of Great Leadership

This precedes by a number of years what the leaders of Circling Europe have to say about surrendered leadership in their circling (relational meditation) training, and about what is surrendered to. The following is taken from the Circling Europe website.

The surrender is into the truth of what is present between us and our willingness to connect and be open with each other. It’s a leadership that weaves together the multiple perspectives that are arising and draws out the truth and beauty at the heart of each expression. It supports connection in the places we usually disconnect and penetrates beneath the surface level in to what really matters in us and between us. It involves a radical letting go and trust that calls forth our inspiration and creativity and opens us to the mystery and natural flow of what ‘wants’ to happen between us.

Of course, there is a hidden assumption behind this. It is that what ‘wants’ to happen in a group is always beneficial for all the members of the group.

This assumption is very questionable, it seems to me. Group energies can be extremely dangerous. Think mob justice. Think pogroms. Think hooliganism. Group energies can be observed in football stadiums every Sunday. In a peaceful country like The Netherlands, police officers with dogs have to be present in great force to keep the football fans of the two clubs apart after what are called risico-wedstrijden (risky matches), to prevent bloodshed.

And “a radical letting go and trust” are by no means guarantee of a pleasant outcome. The zealots who tie an infidel to the stake while chanting holy prayers also believe, no doubt, that they “open to the mystery and natural flow of what ‘wants’ to happen.”

Circling can unleash powerful group energies, and these energies create a direction. And there is absolutely no guarantee that this direction is always wholesome for every participant. Circles can unleash power. Where there is power there has to be responsible use of that power. And what we can see is that the temptation to be in denial about this responsibility is colossal.

I have often wondered why in the spiritual community so many people wish to take on the roles of leaders. Or why in academia, so many professors drop out of research and become managers. Or why, in software engineering, it is considered to be more prestigious to manage software developers than to develop software oneself. To me, there is something fishy about wanting to be a leader or a manager. Why do people promote themselves as leaders on their websites? Why would anyone say “I am a leader”? You are not a leader because that is what you call yourself. You are a leader only if you have developed a vision of your own, and your leadership in turning that vision into a living reality is recognized by others, and you are willing to take the blame if things go wrong in this process.

Leadership is first and foremost about responsibility. That’s why most of the self-proclaimed leaders in the spiritual community are not leaders. That’s why most schools or universities would be better off with less management staff. That’s why most so-called opinion leaders are not leaders. That’s why most of our politicians are not leaders. What all these fake leaders have in common is their starting point. They start with figuring out what their potential followers want to hear, and then they try to provide precisely that. That is not leadership. That is what sales people and confidence tricksters do.

Everyone wants to be a manager, but what is the use of having managers if nobody wants to work? To quote Bertold Brecht’s brilliant image of system breakdown: Keiner will mehr Pferd sein, jeder Reiter. Nobody wants to be horse anymore, everyone rider.

What real leaders do is figure out for themselves what direction is needed, and then convince people to follow them in that direction. So if you are deeply convinced that climate breakdown should be our greatest worry, and you want to be a leader, then you should share your worry, you should try to make others worry, you should devise a plan for action, you should team up with others who agree with your plan, and you should convince people to march, together, in the right direction. That’s what leaders do. Now ask yourself: how many real leaders do you know?

Joan of Arc was a real leader. She had a vision. Greta Thunberg is a real leader. She is taking all our so-called political leaders to task for their lack of leadership.