Becoming A Leader

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Kennedy, through whom he met Truman - Kissinger replied, “Presidents don’t do great things by dwelling on their limitations, but by focussing on their possibilities. "They leave the past behind them and turn toward the future.

Just as Roosevelt and Kennedy made themselves, new, and therefore independent and free, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter were used goods, no matter how far they got from their pinched beginnings, no matter how high they rose, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy invented themselves and then invented the future. Johnson, Nixon, and Carter were made by their pasts. They imposed those mean lessons of their pasts on the present, enshrouding the future. Good leaders engage the world. Bad leaders entrap it, or try.

The Greeks believed that excellence was based on a perfect balance of Eros and logos, or feeling and thought, both of which derive from understanding the world on all levels, from “the concrete contemplation of the complete facts.” True understanding derives from engagement and from the full deployment of ourselves. As John Gardner has said, talent is one thing, while its triumphant expression is another. Only when we are fully deployed are we capable of that triumphant expression. Full deployment, engagement, hone and sharpen all of one’s gifts, and ensure that one will be an original, not a copy.
Leaders, Not Managers

I tend to think of the differences between leaders and managers as the differences between those who master the context and those who surrender to it. There are other differences, as well, and they are enormous and crucial:
  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his eye always on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his own person
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing. 
To reprise Wallace Stevens, managers wear square hats and learn through training. Leaders wear sombreros and opt for education. Consider the differences between training and education:

inductive deductive
tentative firm
dynamic static
Understanding memorizing
ideas facts
broad narrow
deep surface
experiential rote
active passive
questions answers
process content
strategy tactics
alternatives goal
exploration prediction
discovery dogma
active reactive
initiative direction
whole brain left brain
life job
long-term short Term
change stability
content Form
flexible rigid
risk rules
synthesis thesis
open closed
imagination common sense
The SUM: leader manager

If the list on the left seems strange to you, it’s because that isn’t the way we are usually taught. Our educational system is really better at training than educating. And that’s unfortunate. Training is good for dogs, because we require obedience from them. In people, all it does is orient them toward the bottom line.

The list on the left is of all the qualities that business schools don’t encourage, as they opt for the short-run, profit- maximizing, macroeconomic bottom line. Bottom lines have nothing to do with problem-finding. And we need people who know how to find problems, because the ones we face today aren’t always clearly defined, and they aren’t linear. Modem architects are moving away from the divinity of the right angle to rhomboids, to rounded spaces and parabolas. For a leader to develop the necessary competencies, he must start to think about rhomboids.

Leaders have nothing but themselves to work with. It is one of the paradoxes of life that good leaders rise to the top in spite of their weakness, while bad leaders rise because of their weakness. Abraham Lincoln was subject to fits of serious depression, yet he was perhaps this country’s best president, guiding this country through its most severe crisis. On the other hand, Hitler imposed his psychosis on the German people, leading them through the delusions of grandeur to the vilest madness and most horrific slaughter the world has ever known.

What is true for leaders is, for better or for worse, true for each of us: we are our own raw material. Only when we know  what we’re made of  and what we want to make of  it can we begin our lives  -  and we must do it despite  an unwitting conspiracy of  people and events against us. It’s that tension in the national character again. As Norman Lear put it, “On the one hand, we’re a society that seems to be proud of individuality. On the other hand, we don’t really tolerate real individuality. We want to homogenize it.”

For Oscar-winning movie director Sydney Pollack, the search for self-knowledge is a continuing process. “There’s a sort of monologue or dialogue going on in my head all the time, “ he said. “Some of it’s part of a fantasy life, some is exploratory. Sometimes I can trick myself into problem-solving by imagining myself talking about problem-solving. If I don’t know the answer to something, I imagine being asked the question in my head. Faulkner said, ‘I don’t know what I think until I read what I said.’ That’s not just a joke. You learn what you think by codifying your thinking in some way.”

That’s absolutely true. Codifying one’s thinking is an important step in inventing oneself. The most difficult way to do it is by thinking about thinking - it helps to speak or write your thoughts. Writing is the most profound way of codifying your thoughts, the best way of learning from yourself who you are and what you believe.

Newspaper editor Gloria Anderson added, “It’s vital for people to develop their own sense of themselves and their role in the world, and it’s equally vital for them to try new things, to test themselves and their beliefs and principles. I think we long for people who will stand up for what they believe, even if we don’t agree with them, because we have confidence in such people.”

Scientist Mathilde Krim agreed. “One must be a good explorer and a good listener, too, to take in as much as possible but not swallow anything uncritically. One must finally trust his own gut reactions,” she said. “A value system, beliefs, are important so you know where you stand, but they must be your own values, not someone else’s.”

If knowing yourself and being yourself were as easy to do as to talk about, there wouldn’t be nearly so many people walking around in borrowed postures, spouting secondhand ideas, trying desperately to fit in rather than to stand out. Former lucky Stores CEO Don Ritchey said, on the need for being oneself, “I believe people spot CEO phonies in very short order, whether that be on an individual basis or a company basis. As Emerson says, ‘What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.’
Once Born, Twice Born

Harvard professor Abraham Zaleznik posits that there are two kinds of leaders: once-born and twice-born. The once born transition from home and family to independence is relatively easy. Twice-born generally suffer as they grow up, feel different, even isolated, and so develop an elaborate inner life. As they grow older, they become truly independent, relying wholly on their own beliefs and ideas. Leaders who are twice born are inner-directed, self-assured, and, as a result, truly charismatic, according to Zaleznik.

Once-born, then, have been invented by their circumstances, as in the case of Johnson, Nixon, and Carter, while twice-born have invented themselves, as in the case of Roosevelt and Truman.

A couple of studies underscore the benefits, even the necessity, of self-invention. First, middle-aged men tend to change careers after having heart attacks. Faced with their own mortality, these men realize that what they’ve been doing, what they’ve invested their lives in, is not an accurate reflection of their real needs and desires.

Another study indicates that what determines the level of satisfaction in post-middle-aged men is the degree to which they acted upon their youthful dreams. It’s not so much whether they were successful in achieving their dreams as the honest pursuit of them that counts. The spiritual dimension in creative effort comes from that honest pursuit.

There is, of course, evidence that women, too, are happier when they’ve invented themselves instead of accepting without question the roles they were brought up to play. Psychologist and author Sonya Friedman said, “The truth of the matter is that the most emotionally disturbed women are those who are married and into traditional full-time, lifetime homemaker roles. Single women have always been happier than married women. Always. And there isn’t a study that, has disproved that.”

Staying single has historically been the only way most women were free to invent themselves. Nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson, a reclusive woman who never married and who surely invented herself, is supposed to have said to one of the rare visitors to her room, “Here is freedom!”

Fortunately, the changing times have meant changes in relationships, too. Many of the women leaders I talked with have managed to invent themselves even though married — as has Friedman herself.

I cannot stress too much the need for self-invention. To be authentic is literally to he your own author (the words derive from the same Greek root), to discover your own native energies and desires, and then to find your own way of acting on them. When you’ve done that, you are not existing simply in order to live up to an image posited by the culture or by some other authority or by a family tradition. When you write your own life, then no matter what happens, you have played the game that was natural for you to play. If, as someone said, “it is the supervisor’s role in a modern industrial society to limit the potential of the people who work for him,” then it is your task to do whatever you must to break out of such limits and live up to your potential, to keep the covenant with your youthful dreams.

Norman Lear would add to this that the goal isn’t worth arriving at unless you enjoy the journey. “You have to look at success incrementally,” he said. “It takes too long to get to any major success.... If one can look at life as being successful on a moment-by-moment basis, one might find that most of it is successful. And take the bow inside for it. When we wait for the big bow, it’s a lousy bargain. They don’t come but once in too long a time.”

Applauding yourself for the small successes, and taking the small bow, are good ways of learning to experience life each moment that you live it. And that’s part of inventing yourself, of creating your own destiny.

To become a leader, then, you must become yourself, become the maker of your own life. While there are no rules for doing this, there are some lessons I can offer from my decade of observation and study. And we’ll turn to those lessons now.


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