The Arch and the Path

Introduction

Think about the leaders who have touched your life in important ways. What made these leaders ‘great,’ in your eyes? Did they have a vision? With these leaders, did you learn more about yourself than you ever had before? Did these leaders have a way that made the impossible seem possible, and so you didn’t mind the pains along the way?

My answer is this: Great leaders inspire success by shaping their lives in dedication to a vision they offer to others, in the spirit of collaboration and mutual aspiration.

“So,” you might ask, how do they do that?”

This question launches us into The Arch and the Path: The Life of Leading Greatly.

When great leaders attempt to reveal their “secrets” in speeches on the rubber chicken circuit, or in hagiographic autobiographies, they offer this typical advice: “Find the best people and let them do their work.”Well, how do you know in advance who the best people are? Once you have them in your organization, then what? Answers like these just show that leaders themselves may be the worst people to ask about their secrets.

So they certainly aren’t telling the pundits the real secrets. A major focus of the pundit’s approach to the question is to characterize a successful leader’s style. But if you ask one of these experts to enumerate which aspects of a leader’s style makes for success the answers sound like something out of LaoTsu. “Be yourself,” they say. Good. True. But what does that advice do for you when you are struggling to get a handle on who you are as a leader in the first place?

Another approach is overkill. A recent issue of a business magazine I subscribe to was devoted to leadership. In that twenty-page issue (that is merely 20 pages) I counted up 95 major bits of advice, to which were added 45 minor and supporting bits of advice. That means in twenty pages, aspiring leaders were given 140 bits of advice to follow in order to succeed. In addition to it being completely impossible for anyone to remember 140 bits of advice, no less follow them (no matter how good they are), I know of no successful leader that uses a cheat sheet of behaviors to check off in order to determine if they are leading well, properly, excellently or greatly. Even with that cheat sheet in hand, which bit of advice are you going to follow today, young leader?

THE REAL ANSWERS

Aspiring leaders really want to ask great leaders: “What is it that you seem to know, intuitively or consciously? What wisdom do you use every day, all the time, in every leader engagement you undertake, that helps you most? How do you inspire others to overcome their fears and habits in order to succeed? How do you act with such ease, in the face of such daunting challenges? Can we do that?”

Why can’t we get answers to these questions? On one level, leaders just want to get the interview done with and get out the door. But a deeper reason is that the real answers to these questions are contained in nothing less than life practices that leaders engage in, as a matter of course, in response to what they deeply care about.

To answer those questions, leaders would have to describe the everyday activities they “religiously” engage in so as to be able offer wisdom, patience, insight, humility, and courage to their followers. They would have to: catalogue the habits of study and observation that they use to grasp the brute essence of a situation; explain the need leaders feel to keep current with trends and ideas; describe their practices of keeping fit and shepherding energy; enumerate the time and money spent on courses that help them hone their skills of expression. And so on. And, sadly, in all probability, most people, especially the interviewing pundit, wouldn’t see the connection between all of these “activities” and that leader’s “charisma.”

The premise of this book is that there are certain patterns or “practices” of living - thinking, feeling, behaving - that are conducive to leading greatly, and that some people, and not others, engage in those activities with the express purpose of being fit, ready and able to lead. In other words, there are certain ways of living, there is an “ethic” so to speak, that leaders subscribe to, that others don’t subscribe to. These “practices,” or ingrained patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving, result in a particular quality of engagement with the world such that they create followers who together strive to succeed in accomplishing large collaborative endeavors.

CREATIVE LEADING

Now another question arises: What do we mean by leading? Does anyone who gains power or attains authority, wins an election, or is appointed by a designated process, qualify as being a leader? I don’t think so. I doubt that you would answer the question, what makes a leader great by saying, “Gee, this boss of mine could really cut costs.” Greatness isn’t attributed to people because they design efficient production processes that get good results. Neither does greatness follow on from an outsized, “Iacocca” personality or a “Six Sigma,” Jack Welch mentality.

To make matters even murkier, not all those who are acknowledged as leaders are people who we would want in such positions. One need only think of Adolph Hitler. He was supremely capable of rousing the energies of his people. And he led them, along with the rest of the world, into hell. He and his ilk are not the kind of leaders we want, no less want to help others become. So, just because someone is in a position of authority, reaching that office by whatever means, does not mean they are leaders as we understand the term. Throughout this book, we are envisioning a kind of leading that excludes all of those deficient or daemonic expressions of persuasion, coercion or power that have been called leading.

Our aim is to help readers foster the attitudes, behaviors, and ethic of “Creative Leading.” First, there are some qualities that don’t meet our criteria. Undertaking a leader role for the purposes of ego gratification, self-aggrandizement and personal enrichment, especially at the expense of others does not meet our criteria. Destructive (sectarian, racist, territorial, power-hungry) attitudes, such as arrogance, control (for its own sake), anti-social aggressiveness for the sake of gaining and maintaining one’s power, are antithetical to what we mean by creative leading.1

When we think of “creative leading” we envision how so many of our clients work hard and conscientiously to:

  • Touch many people, really changing their lives, for the better.
  • Demonstrate qualities of friendliness, respect and appreciation for other people’s accomplishments in both successes and failures.
  • Enable people to envision and then fulfill their own aspirations while fulfilling the mission at hand.
  • Accomplish goals that to others genuinely seemed impossible –from turning around failing companies, to creating new technologies or changing whole societies.
  • Willingly mentor others so as to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders
  • Actively seek out potential leaders and nurture their talents.

So, putting these observations together, we offer this definition of creative leading:

Creative leading is one of the roles 2 to which some people commit their lives, laboring in and with organizations, in order to take what was once merely a vision of new, more expansive and encompassing possibilities into actual products, services, relationships and actions that people experience in their everyday lives. They do so by creating followers – informed and capable people who freely and consciously devote their individual talents and energies in collaborative endeavors – and then guiding their experiences as they strive toward their goals.

If we look at that definition more closely, we can make these points about the endeavor of being a creative leader:

“Commit their lives...” Creative leading is a lifetime commitment, not a nine-to-five job. Those leading in this way do not leave the job at the office. They think and work on the issues of the endeavor all the time, with much, but not all, of their energies.

“… a vision of new, more expansive and encompassing possibilities into actual products, services, relationships and actions that people can experience in their everyday lives…” Creative leading is not about incremental process improvements. It comprises actions dedicated to change – changing attitudes, behaviors, living conditions, people’s sense of capability and well-being – in the real world. Creative leaders want the world to be different. But they want it to be different in a specific way. They want nothing less than transformations – large scale, sustainable changes in whole ways of engaging our lives – that enable more people to be more able to express their own talents and energies; they want to nurture diversity in the world – within the human community and between the human and non-human worlds; they want to support actions (including some limitations) that foster the next generation of leaders, who, in turn will foster diversity themselves. These leaders do not need enemies to establish themselves as worthy of leading, and do not need to abuse instruments of power and/or office to accomplish their vision.

“By creating followers – informed and capable people who freely and consciously devote their individual talents and energies in collaborative endeavor…” 3 The followers upon whom creative leaders rely are not sycophants or blindly obedient knaves. They are not fearfully responding to bravado in the face of real or hyped-up dangers; they are not sadly dispirited people who are grasping at illusions for hope; they are not ignorant conformists looking for a mob to join or a guru who will ply them with pat solutions. They are people who decide to devote their talents and energies to the endeavor, and open themselves to the risks and learning that will be put upon them. Future leaders emerge out of the group of those who have followed and now see how they too can be creative leaders.

“Guiding their experiences as they strive toward their goals.” Creative leading does not only entail, “getting results,” or “getting the job done.” The people who undertake this endeavor realize that failure does happen. The outcomes of their efforts may not be predictable. But people will be affected by the effort. They will have experiences in which their aspirations are informed and made more palpably real. Everyone affected by the effort will feel more alive for having participated.

CAN CREATIVE LEADING BE TAUGHT?

The first step into leading begins as though one were called. This call manifests itself in many ways. Some people just find themselves being asked to lead, or find that it is already assumed that they are the leaders. Others find themselves caring so much about certain situations, they really want to do something about it. No one asks them to lead, but their internally driven need to do something proves to be too irrepressible to deny. Or, for those who are asked, the invitation itself is a surprise. Other people just feel the need to engage the world in the company of others. They feel the need to take on endeavors of such a scale that they cannot do it by themselves. These people find themselves leading, almost whether they want to lead or not. For many, leading a large-scale collaborative endeavor is just the perfect thing to do; for others, leading is a responsibility of weight and difficulty, but no less compelling for those travails.

The call can be easily missed however. So, usually the call also comes with a mentor – someone who helps potential leaders sort out all the signals and realize that the unrest they feel is the call to lead. Another reason mentors are important is that getting the call is only the beginning. Because some people suddenly, unexpectedly find themselves leading, does not mean they will subsequently (when they realize what they have gotten themselves into) consciously decide to shape their lives as leaders. They are, actually, more likely to get the hell out – retire, or become a consultant – than take on the next, larger, more encompassing challenge. Mentors help potential leaders step into the role and actually lead. Mentors then help leaders become great leaders. Finally, mentors help to keep great leaders in the game.

Then, once the call is accepted, leaders need to learn certain skills.

Accordingly, the purpose of this book is to foster that learning, to act as a surrogate mentor. We provide a guide, a companion for those who have been thrown into the experience of leading, by helping them to focus energies and attention on the inner experiences and relationship skills that guide creative and effective leading. This is what we have called the “path” for developing one’s self in a way that is appropriate and constructive for becoming a leader.

THE PATH

As in many mythical stories or fairy tales of self-actualization, we follow a sojourner, an aspiring leader, through many years, as she passes through successively more difficult challenges. It seems that, however vast the range of the leader’s experiences, there are always higher hurdles to vault, forcing the leader to decide whether or not to take on the next challenge. The young novitiate needs to consider how to respond to the discovery of a talent and ability to lead. For the experienced CEO, a different level of learning is going on. This leader has to decide whether or not this is the kind of life he wants at all.

To depict the outline of the journey undertaken by the creative leaders, and the path on which their learning takes place, we offer two characters: an imaginary leader who we call Beth, and a fictional mentor, Matt, in whom she confides. Beth’s story spans many more years than we have spent with any one client. But because we have worked with so many different leaders, at all stages of their careers, Beth represents the common threads of a story we have seen played out by many leaders as their story in leading unfolds. And then, by combining the work done by myself and the other mentors in our firm, our fictional mentor can be portrayed as a resource to Beth over the span of her entire career.

THE IMAGE OF THE ARCH 4

The idea of leading conjures up vivid images: the commander up in front of the troops beckoning them to follow; the figure atop the pyramid, elevated above all the others on a platform, glorified in lights and dignified with trappings of office is another. Creative leaders need a different image in order to conceive and picture the relationships they project and coordinate. To meet this need we created the image of the “The Arch of Leadership.”

The arch symbolizes a structure of all the energies, talents and knowledge the leader calls upon in order to lead. Thus the spires, the keystone at the top of the arch, and the space defined by the arch combine into a picture of the leader’s psyche. 5 We envision a leader as one who guides certain experiences of competent people (who hardly need an authority figure to make their lives worthwhile). The leader is thus not an august figure above and beyond followers, but rather exerts structured, focused energies into a defined area, in which there are others as well as the leader, in order to provide a place apart, a place in which those special things, once only dreamed of, can take shape into collaborative actions.

THE ARCH OF LEADERSHIP:

THE STRUCTURE

With its four vaulting spires and binding keystone, the arch is self-supporting. There is no need for mortar; no fasteners hold the structure together. The spires stand upright, their weight anchoring them into the earth, the keystone breaking their propensity to topple over. The keystone is held in its lofty position by the vaulting strength of the spires. Energy from each spire comes to rest and is stabilized by transferring into the mass of the keystone. This is where the energies of the arch converge and are integrated into a single structure. The spires thus represent specific structural elements of the leader’s psyche that must be present for the arch to be an enduring presence amidst the larger, already established environment. The keystone symbolizes the leader’s binding and unifying strength that give the arch its coherence and integrity and thus represents that dimension of self that anyone who leads must have, and must have in a highly developed form that is easily accessed. All the energy people within the arch feel from a leader emanates from the integrating element represented by the keystone.

The interior of the arch also symbolizes how the leader’s energy and spirit, marks out a special place in the world where the energies of the leaders and followers interact. Within the arch’s area flow energies of interconnecting communication, information-sharing and focused attention generated by the leader’s character and the followers’ enthusiasm as they collaborate in pursuing the goals of the endeavor.

OPEN STRUCTURE

The arch remains open to the outside world so everyone within the arch remains connected to the influences and events occurring beyond its perimeter. Even with its openness, however, the arch marks off a defined space such that there is a difference between the interior it demarcates and the larger world in which it is situated. Within the space marked off by the arch, leader and followers are connected by a binding energy not present (in concentrated form) in the general environment that surrounds them. Within the arch, the leader’s energies are directly experienced as being ordered and structured. Outside the arch, well, anything goes.

At this point, it is enough to say that the whole purpose of the arch and each of its components is to produce this energy for others. The arch is not a symbol of self-consciousness or of one’s isolation from the world. It is an open structure, gathering energy and information from its open spaces as well as from the ground on which the spires stand and from which they draw their energies. It is a structure that channels, forms and structures life energies so as to help others move into new actions and uncharted territories.

The arch’s open structure also signifies the completely voluntary and free flowing nature of followership. A leader creates followers, who, in our definition, are always in the act of choosing to be a part of that relationship. There is no coercion – whether that be a matter of political force, or the threat of withdrawing wages – in the leader-follower relationship as we envision it. It is a mutually propagated relationship that is, at all times, of mutual and holistic benefit, or it withers and dies. Followers choose to enter the arch, and so long as there is energy from which they draw sustenance to act and risk and move into the unknown, they will stay – and no longer.

OVERVIEW

The book thus envisions the unfolding of the story by which people who are leaders become great leaders. The story has four parts. Each of these parts constitutes a learning moment, an occasion for pausing and reflecting, as we journey on the path to great leading. During these moments, we check in with Beth and reflect on the experience that is bringing her to a point of needing new realizations. Then we discuss what those realizations spark in terms of new insights and new openings into the practices that enable great leading to take shape. At each of these pauses on the path we find a marker that helps us sort out what is occurring for Beth at this time and place. The markers take the form of the arches. The components of each of the arches remains the same – four spires and a keystone – but at each point in the journey, what those components represent evolves. They have to evolve because each of these occasions makes an occasion during which the leader realizes new dimensions of herself and of the endeavor. The lessons learned at the previous arches are retained, and are actually expanded and enriched. Thus at any point in the journey, the leader is learning at most five (not 140) lessons. After the third arch, we might imagine, the leader can venture forth with no need of any learning device, any “arch,” at all.

PART ONE, “The Arch of Effectiveness,” describes the unexpected turn of attention that the decision to lead entails. If our clients choose to step onto the leader path, they are surprised to find that, rather than focus on job skills, they develop “Skills of Character” and “Self-Trust.” We introduce the idea of “Leader Brand” – the special relationship in which followers have a reliable gauge their leaders’ expectations, and in which leaders are appropriately available to meet followers’ needs.

PART TWO introduces the second arch, “The Arch of Vision and Organization.” The impetus to lead begins with a vision of what can be different, better, more expansive and inclusive for others. The leader’s unique qualification as a transforming agent is that he takes the vision into the form of an organized, collaborative effort to change interactions among people, rather than into an art object or a pronouncement of some prophetic or mystical sort. In this section we also consider a whole new way of looking at organization under the rubric of “Complexity Theory,” or “self-organizing systems.” This new view of organizations envisions open systems, in which leaders capture emergent possibilities and formulate attractors that gather energies and organize them into living entities. This science, in our view, gives us a way to treat leading concretely and dispel some of the unhelpfully mysterious qualities that are ascribed to it.

IN PART THREE we talk about leading greatly. In the “Arch of the Leader’s Ethic,” we introduce the notions of how leaders learn about themselves and the world at the most basic and profound levels, raising themselves to the levels of challenge they and their followers take on. We introduce terms such as “Moral Learning” and “Moral Imagination,” and we see how the leader’s decisions comprise the guiding dialogues and narratives that constitute the vision as a shared and lived occasion for everyone in the organization (and arch).

IN PART FOUR we conclude our use of the Arch of the Leader’s Ethic by considering its keystone, symbolizing the leader’s ethic, which we call the ethic of “Attentive Responsibility.” Here, we find that the leader’s practices take on the characteristics of humility and humanity, engagement, challenge, growth, alertness and vitality. In this context we introduce the fourth spire: “Flow,” a special quality of the learning experience, which both is produced by and engenders support for the leader’s practice.


[1] In fact, we wish people would start to form crisper, more refined descriptions of the people in power. They may be officers, authorities, executives, officials, administrative heads, bosses; but because people occupy positions of authority or act in dominating, controlling or power-wielding ways, does not qualify them for the mantle of being considered what we call a leader. Eskimos have scores of terms for snow, reflecting the quality of attention Eskimos pay to that fluffy white stuff. I wish we’d pay the same attention to the way we differentiate leading from other forms of exerting authority or power. There would be far fewer people who we would name as being leaders, or we’d find ourselves in really important discussions as to whether or not a given authority figure is a leader.

[2] There are four transformational roles: mystic, artist, prophet and leader. All of these roles entail being called to discern and craft a life that is in tune with deeper and/or more transcendent currents of life. Mystics shape their individual existences to be a solitary instrument for experiencing those energies and attesting to their reality. prophets translate these messages into insights and lessons that carry urgency sufficient to stimulate others’ new thoughts and actions. Artists feel these currents and translate them into a form of expression that others can see or hear. Leaders take these insights into practical action that entails collaboration and sustained effort. All of these roles are necessary for the kind of meaningful, expansive and encompassing change we envision taking place. Leading organized action is actually the last step in a succession of psychic, intellectual and emotional changes that transformation entails. For more discussion on the four transformational roles go to our website, www.archofleadership.com.

[3] We will have a great deal to say about followers in Chapter Three, so I will be brief here.

[4] A full explanation of the arch and its development during the course of our journey can be found in the Appendix.

[5] “Psyche” is a word I use to designate the physical, mental and emotional activities out bodies undertake in order to coalesce all the factors in play, at any given moment, to arrive at a coherent decision and/or course of action.