Leadership in Two Worlds

Operating in disparate realms, one that pushes ego and ambition, the other that promotes personal values and principled acts by GEORGE A. GOENS

Two superintendents were having a discussion over lunch. “You know, Luke,” said Claire, “I’ve got the board over a barrel on my contract. If they don’t cough up what I need, I’m out of here.”

“Claire, you’ve got a great job,” Luke replied.

“I’m not going to stay long,” said Claire. “There are bigger fish to fry. I want out of the district. Besides, I’m worth more than they can pay.” Claire looked at Luke intensely. “What about you? You could go to a bigger district with more prestige, visibility and money. That’s what I’m aiming for.”

“I’m enjoying myself here,” Luke replied. “Yeah, I could make more money, but they’ve been good to me. Besides, I like what I’m doing. I think I’ve made a difference.”

“Oh, you’re such an idealist, Luke. Don’t you realize you’re an interchangeable part? We are totally expendable. You might as well get all that you can and move on.”

“Sure the politics and people’s egos get tiresome. But that’s why I got into this business to begin with — to get through that stuff and change the conversation about what’s important and what can improve education,” Luke responded. “Actually, Claire, I love the job. It’s meaningful work.”

“God, Luke, you are a blithering dreamer.”

Opposite Arenas
We live in two worlds. The first is the external world of competition, ego, ambition and power. Here we chase the brass ring of success through control and standardized procedures designed to stave off failure. In this context, leaders face politics, conflicting expectations and bottom-line metrics.

But in quiet moments of solitude, these same leaders drift to the second world and think about why they became leaders in the first place.

This second world is where compassion and wisdom are revered, where our passion and spirit live, and where values and principles support our conscience. Stewardship, not bureaucratic maneuvering, is the force of change. Relationships are primary, and we celebrate the mystery and wonder of life.

In the second world, we walk the path to self-knowledge of who we are, why we do what we do, and what we want to do with our lives. We ponder the age-old question “Why are we here?”

Each day we live in both worlds. We face all the pressures, pretenses and allures of the first world, while simultaneously examining our own life’s work against the ideals and values we hold dear. We must come to terms with how faithfully we live those principles in both worlds.

As Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” In a sense, we should do an integrity check as to whether we are the person we want to be in the face of first-world competition and materialism. Did we sell out?

The Real World
We frequently think the first world is the practical one, the “real” one. The second world appears idealistic and abstract. But the reality of a life well lived resides in this second world. This is where we find meaning and motivation to pursue our passion.

As our lives ebb, we yearn not for one more board meeting or receipt of another wall plaque, but for a final moment in the second world — to delight in a child’s laughter, to embrace a loved one, to share time with family.

There are contradictions in life, and one certainly works here. Leaders are perceived as independent individuals who are their own person, who see things not as they are but what they could be. Yet to win favor and survive in the first world, what’s valued is molding ourselves to “propriety” and the expectations of others. In the external world, superintendents face expectations from school board members, teachers, politicians, parents, citizens, colleagues and a host of others. Many of these expectations are conflicting and incongruent. Leaders also have expectations for themselves that can clash with the political climate and external demands.

These expectations can press them to conform to others’ standards and desires. “The surprising realization is that our friends try to make us conform as much as our worst enemies,” according to poet and writer David Whyte in his book Crossing the Unknown Sea. Fitting a predetermined mold set by others can douse the creative flame of meaning inside of us.

Hidden Rules
In addition, the unspoken protocols of the first world are dysfunctional and contrary to what leadership is. Some include:

We go along to get along. As a consequence, we censor ourselves and play it safe. We don’t speak our truth in order to be accepted and avoid upsetting influentials. We go along with conventional wisdom by staying in the box of standard practice and accepted viewpoints. In the process, we may compromise our principles and integrity.

We play the game. We do this by manipulating people, currying favor and deflecting blame. Winning is important. We place ourselves in the best light and present selective data to show success and curtail the impression of any failure. Competition (not cooperation), analysis (not synthesis), dominance (not collaboration) and tangibles (not abstract pursuits) become the focus. Wheeling and dealing make up the landscape of the first world, where inside connections matter and pandering to the prominent counts.

In playing the game, it’s better to be feared than loved. We play Machiavellian hardball, keep score and believe what goes around comes around. Getting to the bottom line is all-important, regardless of the road we take to get there. Retribution (not forgiveness), fear (not affection) and revenge (not reconciliation) are the major emotions. Life on this emotional edge is lived in anxiety and disconnection. Maybe that is why some leaders feel it is lonely at the top.

Out of Balance
In this environment, people become deceptively clever game players, doing anything to get to the top, which can lead to more serious issues. Corruption is the grandchild of deception. One form of corruption is painfully obvious in society in the shapes of bribery, “cooking the books” and selling inside information.


A less obvious form of corruption is when leaders place personal good over the common good. The common good is not discussed much today, drowned out by talk of entitlements and rights. “If you don’t watch out for No. 1, no one else will” is the slogan of the times. The commonweal seems alien to our materialistic and ego-driven first-world culture.

Feature_Goens1George Goens, a retired superintendent, consults on education matters.

Leaders driven by egocentric narcissism are not stewards. True stewards do not act arrogantly in their self-interest at the expense of the greater good. They look to what is good for all and move beyond their own parochial interests.

Stewards leave their relationships, community, organization and world in better shape than they found them. We can fall out of balance living in the allure of the first world with its penchant for status and power. As leaders, we find peace by defining ourselves by our ideals and behavior. To do so, we must identify those internal principles that are not negotiable. To the extent principles are compromised, there is no principle. Knowing where to stand — what ground we intend to claim — takes inner strength and courage.

Inner Strength
Inner strength is more profound than bureaucratic or political power. History demonstrates that brute force cannot overcome passion and noble purpose. People have faced the world with all its harshness and survived by the inner strength of principle. Many great leaders were threatened by powerful forces and yet prevailed. They created movements that mobilized people to persevere in the face of violence because these leaders appealed to the ideals of freedom, justice, equality and human goodness. The world has been moved and changed by these seemingly abstract ideals because they ring in the very heart and soul of humanity. Symbolism and ideas are powerful, silently overwhelming physical forces that give sustenance to the human spirit.

Those who fight the good fight do not become impotent victims in the maelstrom. They accept those conditions beyond control and work within those circumstances — even against the odds. Acceptance does not mean agreement, quite the contrary. It means not cursing the darkness and throwing up our hands in defeat.

Conflict is a reality in both worlds. First-world disputes frequently are about power, position and money. When faced with resistance, some leaders become dogmatic and use formal power to stymie opposition and curtail further dissonance.

Second-world conflicts take a different complexion. Leaders have the courage to face realities, confront and even create conflict and raise moral and ethical questions. The clash is over our aspirations and performance, our values and our actions and our work and our quest for meaning. It concerns who we are and what we aspire to be, living a life of integrity and not acting in the interest of expediency over principle.

Making our inner selves known to the world is the biggest risk leaders take. School leaders confront paradox. Leaders want to be popular, but they must make unpopular decisions. Leaders who stand on principle may jeopardize their job security.

A Detached View
Along with paradox, there is irony. Despite our longing to have our leadership accepted and belong, business schools and leadership programs promote detachment under the guise of objectivity and impartiality. It’s as if we believe the more detached we are, the more competent we are and the more respect we garner.

This curious logic has its roots in the mythology of the leader as an independent, go-it-alone hero. But isolation is psychologically destructive to both leaders and organizations. Does it really have to be lonely at the top? Isn’t that a dysfunction that eventually causes leaders to succumb to fear and self-destruction?

The Irish poet and writer John O’Donahue stated, “No one was created for isolation. When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness; we became vulnerable to fear and negativity. The sense of belonging keeps you in balance amidst the inner and outer immensities. The ancient and eternal values of human life, truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love are all statements of true belonging.”

To lead is to be connected, to belong to something larger than ourselves. It is part of our second-world longing to use our talents and energy to do what is good and right. Our calling lives in our spirit and haunts us when we steer a course in opposition to our standards.

When we find our place in the world we are in our element, we find satisfaction and a sense of efficacy. We discover our voice and place in the world — there is a grace about us. If our first-world ego pushes us out of our element, then we awkwardly lumber and weave like a swan out of water. We are not authentic. We are in the wrong place, and the fit between who we are as people and our role or environment is strained.

The Fearless Leader
The fearless leader is a figment of our imagination. Fear is a normal human emotion; actually, the most fearsome images come from deep within us, not from the outside world. Inside each of us is fear.

Feature_Book_GoensGeorge Goens' new book, Letters on the Promise of Living

Even the great prophets expressed fear, not of powerful physical forces and governments but anxiety from within. In quiet moments when we hold a mirror up to our life and compare our first-world image to our deepest selves and values, there exists a fear of not living our calling. We fear being in the wrong place or role, unable to contribute or use our talents in our work.


On the first-world stage, we fear public perception of not measuring up to the challenges. Sometimes we fear confrontation and alienation and going on record on controversial and divisive issues. Some of us fear not doing the right thing under pressure and losing our security and standing.

We live with conflict in both of our worlds. But conflict is not all negative, because creativity and innovation are born from the womb of struggle and difficulty. We gain insight and understanding, and our failures provide us with the urgency to learn, grow and persevere.

In conflict, leadership is about conversation. We have an obligation to engage people in a conversation about the meaning and purpose of our work and the challenges we face. Through respectful and dignified conversation can come wisdom. We don’t overpower other people’s voices, and we don’t substitute others’ voices for our own. We listen and speak with veracity and do not become puppets or mouthpieces. Sometimes we have to have a conversation with ourselves to resolve discrepancies between our actions and our words.

Bill Bradley, the former U.S. senator, sums it up when he says leaders should “say the things that everyone else is afraid to say. Ask the uncomfortable question. Tell your own story. Listen to the stories of others. That’s leadership.”

And when the burden of the first world is heavy and fears chase you in the quiet of the night, remember that peace can be found in the quiet reflection of the second world, where we can be totally free to have a candid conversation with ourselves.

George Goens, a retired superintendent, is the author of a new book, Letters on the Promise of Living. He lives in Litchfield, Conn. E-mail: gagoens@snet.net