Feature

Leadership and Illusion

To see through the mirage of power and control, leaders must connect with followers through values and common purpose by GEORGE A. GOENS


From the Wild West to the streets of Dirty Harry’s San Francisco, the leadership icon in America is tough, controlled and remarkably resourceful in going against the odds, all with a tinge of isolation because it’s lonely at the top.

The popular culture that spawns these illusions plants seeds of frustration because the world does not operate according to a script. Chaos, complexity and serendipity can stymie the John Waynes and frustrate the Indiana Joneses.

Illusions can be dangerous because they can divert us from the hard questions about ourselves as leaders, whether in politics, the corporate arena or public education. These illusions concern the context of work, relationships and behavior.

  • Illusion 1: The world is a logical place that succumbs to the power of logic.

    Some superintendents think Sir Isaac Newton is alive and well because they adhere vehemently to Newtonian part-to-whole, cause-and-effect thinking that fits a mechanistic view of the world. The language used today--"If everyone did his or her part ...," "as smooth as clockwork ..." or "let’s grease the gears"--indicates a bureaucratic, rational and machine-like view of organizations.

    The world is not a machine with cause-and-effect gears and hands. It is chaotic, confusing, immune to linear analysis and often playful, self-organizing and surprising. Even though it does not always respond to concrete action, there are patterns and connections in the universe. Fields are at work that cannot be seen or measured.

    Even though they are unseen, fields are real and can be felt. When I was a superintendent in Wisconsin, an associate high school principal was shot to death in the hallway at 2 p.m. during the school day by an unknown perpetrator. While chaos, terror and uncertainty loomed, people responded and got the things done without being told or directed. We let down the barriers that divide us; we stopped playing organizational roles and we connected on a human level without the games and power plays of conventional organizations. A field of caring, compassion and concern engulfed us.

    While this was a dramatic case, positive or negative fields surround us and are created by us in other contexts. The fields of suspicion, fear or manipulation, however, are sometimes the unintended consequences of command-and-control approaches to leadership and to our desire to direct and rule an unpredictable world.

    Chaotic systems are not predictable. Life intercedes, unforeseen things happen and science fiction becomes reality. The world does not surrender to reason. Linear views of the world doom people to tinkering with procedures to produce better results, ignoring the fact that people frequently act on emotion, belief, perception or intuition.

  • Illusion 2: Leaders control and make things happen.

    In this Newtonian illusion, power and control make things happen. They are the cause for the intended effects where leaders exercise power and drive change, even though the world doesn’t react to controlling forces consistently or uniformly. This illusory power leads to domination through command-and-authority structures designed to regulate workers by breaking work into bits and pieces and establishing standard operating rules.

    Control is a mirage. If it were a reality, logic would rule and rational plans would work with clockwork precision. Force moves people, but it does not motivate them. Power can cause people to do things but it controls them only as long as the force continues.

    As superintendents, we all have been weary of having to monitor people so they do the job the way we would like the job done. It is tedious because moving people is a lot like the cliché of herding cats: frustrating, tiring and infuriating. Yet we have seen principals and teachers produce wonderful results because they acted upon ethical or philosophical principles and found creative, stable solutions to issues without being threatened or monitored by anyone. Their actions had integrity of purpose and were in harmony with the values of the school.

    Leaders who scurry for control miss what makes organizations successful in a tumultuous world order. The order growing from commitment to purpose provides direction and hope in uncertain times.

  • Illusion 3: Important things can be quantified, measured or benchmarked.

    Scientific management worships objective data and measurement. If it cannot be measured, it does not exist. But to paraphrase Albert Einstein, all that is important cannot be measured. What quantifiable number can you place on teachers’ creativity? Their imagination, passion, caring? How do you quantify love or compassion? Yet these elements are important to successful schools. They are difficult to assess, but easier to feel.

    In social systems, logic does not always prevail. Feelings intervene. Destiny calls. Heart conquers mind. People wander off from high-paying jobs and two BMWs to find something meaningful in their lives. The abstractions of justice, beauty, equality, truth, liberty and goodness create waves of change as people sacrifice and, in some cases, give their lives for them.

    Beware of those soldered to tangible proof, benchmark data and tables of numbers. If they were right, we would have won the Vietnam War and Truman would have been defeated by Dewey in 1948. Subjective judgments, intuition and hunches sometimes overcome the limitations of logic. People accomplish great things when conventional wisdom dictates it is not rational. Leaders move beyond tangible measurement and help people believe in the richness and poetry of human spirit, imagination and heart that lifts people to great heights.

  • Illusion 4: Power is finite and should be hoarded.

    We read about the powerful and are mesmerized by them. Some people thirst for power and perceive it as being limited in abundance. We jump to grab it and try to hoard it. But what is power?

    Historian James MacGregor Burns stated in his book Leadership: "At the root of bureaucratic conflict lies some kind of struggle for power and prestige. This struggle pervades the bureaucracy … ." Max Weber, the German sociologist, wrote that he believed power "enables a person to carry out his own will despite the protestations of others," emphasizing involuntary compliance, supremacy and command.

    Typically power is associated with strength: To be powerful is to be strong. But Irish poet John O’Donohue said, "Frequently, people in power are not as strong as they might wish to appear. Many people who desperately hunger for power are weak. They seek power positions to compensate for their own fragility and vulnerability. A weak person in power can never be generous with power because they see questions or alternative possibilities as threatening their own supremacy and dominance."

    Admittedly, there were times, particularly early in my career as a superintendent, when I resorted to power plays or manipulating people because of my fear of being perceived as weak, indecisive or incapable.

    Another view of power exists. When electricians say, "Turn on the power," they refer to energy. Leadership and energy are tightly connected. Creative energy. Imaginative energy. Collaborative energy. This "power" is at the root of successful people and organizations. Leaders who perceive power in this way energize, rather than dominate, people. Creative energy is unlimited if the conditions are there to nurture it.

  • Illusion 5: Structure concerns roles, role expectations and organizational charts.

    Schools have been restructuring their organizational arrangements for years. In most cases, restructuring refers to how work gets done and how decisions are made. While organizational arrangements are important, they do not trigger change if roles and procedures are built on bureaucratic control or task and authority relationships.

    What structures people’s behavior when they are not at work? They don’t have job descriptions or bosses in their personal lives. Administrative regulations, procedures or master contracts are nonexistent. Yet people are productive because they shape their lives around a core of values and ethics, beliefs and principles and ideas and philosophy. These are the "strange attractors" around which people act and make sense of the world, particularly through times of change and turmoil.

    The same is true in organizations. Companies that are tight around their values, beliefs, principles and ethics but flexible around processes generate creative autonomy and organizational integrity. They have a sense of identity.

    Companies in existence for more than 100 years have a strong sense of values and a keen sense of self, according to Arie de Geus, a former Dutch Shell Oil executive and author of The Living Company. He defines the concept of introception, which means that companies "must find their place in the world; they must develop a sense of relationship between their own persona’s ethical priorities and the values in the surrounding world. … a living company is always engaged in questioning its own value system in relation to the ethics of the world in which it lives."

    Core values and ethics are not mission or vision statements. They are like the basic tenets of a religion, which are essential in difficult times. In his book, de Geus says: "[I]n deeply troubled times when nobody knew the answer to totally new problems, the sharing of common values helped companies make choices to which individual employees could subscribe. They were sailing blindly into an uncertain future, but they could have confidence and belief in each other."

    In the churning, dark seas and heavy winds of uncertainty, public schools confront complex problems, while politicians and others demand quick solutions. But quick fixes do not provide order in blistering times. Values and ethics, beliefs and principles and ideas and philosophy pay dividends in commitment, creativity and security in good and bad times.

  • Illusion 6: Risk taking concerns decisions about programs, money or political strategy.

    We hear that leaders should be risk-takers. What is the risk? There are hazards to proposing changes, allocating money or traversing the slippery rocks of policy. But risk taking is more than proposing and disposing of programs or resources. Leaders, who expose their values, ideas and philosophy, take a risk because doing so is self-revealing.

    Joseph Jaworski, author of Synchronicity, believes leaders need an authentic presence--being open and passionate from the depths of their souls, allowing people to see who they are from their heads to their hearts. Having an authentic presence means connecting words with behavior. Leaders must risk living their values in their relationships, openly sharing those values with others and being true to them. Ghandi believed people should live truthfully and said the level of "personal commitment in the search for truth will determine your commitment to truth in dealing with others."

    The risk of leadership is feeling vulnerable and exposed. That is why leaders fear removing the veil of position and revealing their ideals. Being vulnerable does not mean exposing your personal foibles or private life. It does mean having the courage to tell the school board, the staff and the community your professional values, philosophy and principles. It calls for taking a stand and defining who you are as an educational leader. Having your openness rejected cuts deep and personal, striking at the essence of your true self and causing far more pain than the rebuff of a budget or program proposal. Authenticity takes courage because it calls for the risk of being you.

    People who play the role of superintendent are trapped into following illusions about how leaders are supposed to "act." Leadership is not about acting. It is about being.

    What It Means
    Piercing the mirage of illusions means:

  • Leaders touch the heart and spirit, as well as the mind.

    Great leaders capture people’s hearts and minds. They foster commitment when they demonstrate the full essence of what being human means and recognize the connections each us has with others as we journey through life. People want human connections in their search for purpose and meaning.

  • Leaders recognize the world as a place of disequilibrium, chaos and nonrationality that is also playful, serendipitous and self-renewing.

    Leaders deal with the chaotic world--that vast portion of life that does not respond to rational thinking and linear logic. Principled leaders help people get through the confusion of untenable times. These leaders are powerful when facing adversity or turmoil because they maintain integrity to their life’s values and the ethics of their profession.

  • Leaders understand the intangible and invisible forces pervading organizations.

    Intangible forces are at work in the web of our personal and professional relationships, creating fields that attract or repel people. For example, people committed to justice create a field. Passionately loyal people pursuing a great cause generate a field. Collective thinking is an intangible force, according to David Bohm, the British physicist and author of Thought as a System, which can produce change through the power of its focus, synchronous events or subconscious impact. Shared meaning coming from the flow of meaning can create change.

  • Leaders recognize that strong connections and relationships between people are essential for creativity, productivity and commitment to surface.

    Bureaucratic organizations separate people into roles, departments or status, building walls and artificial barriers. Information gets hoarded, mistrust develops and the Plexiglas shield of status and roles create systems where people see each other but cannot touch each other’s imagination or hearts.

    People desire relationships based on authenticity and common purpose, bonded by values and meaning. When crisis strikes, these connections shine, providing strength, security and creativity.

  • Leaders take the true risk to be their real selves.

    Leaders are not aloof, superhuman, super-intelligent loners. People want integrity and effort, honesty and genuineness and contact and competence from leaders. Leaders who are transparent in their feelings, ideas and passion can mobilize others through their humanity.

    Illusions about leadership delude and distract from the real work of helping people find meaning and purpose. Leaders unite people through the power of ideas and values. That is how challenges become victories.

    George Goens, a consultant on leadership development, is a former district superintendent in Wisconsin and associate professor at the University of Hartford. He can be reached at P.O. Box 270768, West Hartford, CT 06127. E-mail: ggoens@vermontel.net
  •