Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Voice and Touch: Leadership wisdom of Max De Pree

Leadership is a serious meddling in the lives of others, states Max de Pree in Leadership Jazz (my edition was published in 1991.  ISBN 1 86350 101 0)

Reflecting on some of the more recent literature on leadership, and the many contributions on social media to the discussion, I find myself continually drawn back to de Pree and his engaging narrative.

In his final chapter, he tells a story of arriving at his tennis club after a group of high school student had vacated the change rooms, and without thinking he started to collect up the towels abandoned by the students and putting them in a hamper.  A friend observing this asked: “Do you pick up the towels because you’re the president of a company, or are you the president because you pick up the towels?

The following are reflections by de Pree on what traits and qualities, besides picking up the towels, that “qualify us to accept the job of leadership?   He contends that:  Leadership is a position of servanthood. Leadership is also a posture of debt; it is a forfeiture of rights. You see! One quality of leadership implies another, where does one stop.  Here is his list (paraphrased in several places).

INTEGRITY:  The leader works publicly. Behaviour is the only score that is kept. Lose integrity and a leader will find herself in a directionless organisation going nowhere.

VULNERABILITY: The opposite of self-expression. Vulnerable leaders trust in the abilities of other people; vulnerable leaders allow the people who follow them to do their best. Otherwise you are only as good as your own performance. One caveat: there is no safe vulnerability.

Discernment:  Lies somewhere between wisdom and judgement. Leaders are required to see many things – pain, beauty, anxiety, loneliness and heartbreak. Two elements to keep your eye on: the detection of nuance and the perception of changing reality. What kind of antennae do you have?

Awareness of the human spirit:   You need to understand the cares, yearnings and struggles of the human spirit. In organisation speak – person skills always precede professional skills.

Courage in relationships:  Followers expect a leader to face up to tough decisions. When conflict must be resolved, when justice must be defined and carried out, when promises need to be kept, when the organisation needs to hear who counts – these are the times when leaders act with ruthless honesty and live up to their covenant with the people they lead.

Sense of humour:  Sometimes the best humour is deadly serious. A compassionate sense of humour requires a broad perspective on the human condition – and accountability from many viewpoints it is essential to living with ambiguity.

INTELLECTUAL ENERGY AND CURIOSITY: If you lead you have opportunities to consistly learn from your people. Leadership is learning frantically. And learning from them allows them to achieve. When followers are allowed to do their best, they make leadership infinitely easier, and you’re free to learn even more. A wonderful cycle, don’t you think?

Respect for the future, regard for the present, understanding of the past: Leaders move constantly back and forth between the present and future. Our perspective of each becomes clear and valid if we understand the past. The future requires our humility in the face of all we cannot control. The present requires attention to all the people to whom we are accountable. The past gives us the opportunity to build on the work of our elders.

Predictability:  To their followers, leaders owe predictability as a human being. This differs from predictability in strategic planning or decision-making, something leaders also should pursue. Leaders must be calculable forces in organisations; they are not free to follow a whim. Attending a vision/purpose is as difficult as conceiving one.

Breadth:  A vision of what an organisation can become as room for all contributions from all quarters. Leaders are people large enough to contain of multitudes.

Comfort with ambiguity:  “Leader” is not always a position. Whatever one’s position, the amount of ambiguity is directly proportional to the amount of leadership required. Healthy organisations exhibit a degree of chaos. A leader must make sense of some of it. The more comfortable you can make yourself with ambiguity, the better you will be. Organisations always delegate the job of dealing consistently with ambiguity to their leaders.

Presence:  The ability to stop is an important trait of leaders. Leaders stop – to ask and answer questions to be patient to listen to problems, to seek the nuance, to follow up a lead. Leaders quietly and openly wait for information, good and bad, that enables them to lead.

“Leaders stand-alone, take the heat, bear the pain, tell the truth.”


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