Leadership Perspectives

Max DePree, the retired Chairman of Herman Miller says, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” How a leader defines reality is contingent on the lens through which she sees reality: her perspective. Philosophers and anthropologists talk about “worldview” as “a point of view on the world, a perspective of things, a way of looking at the cosmos from a particular vantage point.” In philosophy, “worldview” is perceived mainly in cognitive dimensions, leaving out the affective and moral scopes. Anthropologists cast “worldview” as “culture” which is “an integrated coherent way of mentally organizing the world” and includes the more personal aspects of interpretation. These mental grids will be the basis for a leader’s decisions and behaviors. Perspectives provide context to frame events so that meaningful interpretations can emerge to inform decisions or responses. They also shape assumptions and presuppositions that guide our reasoning and conclusions. We shall discuss two of such lenses that determine our perspectives that influence leadership behavior.

The “Being” Lens

Three important “Being” questions shape a leader’s perspectives.
“Who Am I?” reflects on the identity of the leader. The answers to the question will disclose if the leader has assumed responsibility for how he has turned out in life. They will determine how he relates to others, if he readily initiates solutions or blames others when things go wrong. Whether the leader will be secure enough to empower or honor co-workers and subordinates, whether the leader can be himself without pretensions; these are contingent on his answers to this question. To be true to oneself will bring fulfillment, making a leader’s honest answers to this critical question a predictor of his “contentment quotient.” The response to this foundational question will raise the ultimate concern to the leader: “What is most important to me?” To win at all cost may be the stance of some leaders arising from who they are, while the perspective of others may demonstrate a “win-win,” “share-the-benefits” disposition.

The second question, “Where Am I?” reveals the leader’s understanding of process and posture. It shapes the leaders’ consciousness of her role and the limitation of her time in the position of influence and responsibility. It helps to define the leader’s contribution in the context of past achievements and future challenges. It allows the leader to interpret success and difficulties in short term and long term perspectives. It also gives hope to possibilities of improvement, knowing that where we are now need not be where we can be tomorrow. It encourages the posture of lifelong learning.

The final query, “Whose Am I” plumbs the emotive and affective depths of the leader. It explores the elusive domain of meaning, reaching for an answer to “Who am I working for?” “Why am I doing what I am doing?” The question helps leaders understand the importance and place of significant relationships; that people are not minions or inconvenient extensions of arms needed to perform work or means to profit. Without the relational dimension, personal success may end up empty.

The question also provides perspective when relational conflicts and intractable people-situations require forgiveness, generosity, and the possibility of second chances. The late Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop” aptly iterated, “If you enter this world knowing you are loved and you leave this world knowing the same, then everything that happens in between can be dealt with.” It is in the relational dimension that meaning and purpose in life can be found, that hope in finding a way out of intractable situations can be discovered. It is in the “being” of the leader that core values reside. These values are convictions that “hold” the leader to responsible and predictable behavior and decisions. “Kingdom values” will be at the core of leaders of faith which will lead to behaviors and practices that are consistent with biblical values.

The Vision Lens

Leaders are frequently described as people of vision. How they perceive and define reality will determine appropriate actions or directions to be taken. Vision can be expressed as:

Leaders have the ability to look beyond the obvious to discern implications, beyond the actions to the motivations, beyond the words to the intentions. Visionary leaders seem to be able to see beyond the existential to understand what events mean to people. They frame actions in terms of what they mean to the hopes and aspirations of the organization, and to people. They have the insight to see the seeds of success in the feeble frames of failure, the potential of a leap in the frailty of a fall or the promise of the bottom half of a rainbow that is hidden by the unending horizon.

The capacity to project beyond the present into the future, the imagination of what could be and the courage to take steps towards a dream that defies the gravity of reality. Martin Luther King, Jr. personified such a capacity when he articulated his dream that is still on the way to full realization. In his “I have a Dream” speech, delivered August 28, 1963, King’s visage of an ideal future rose from the ashes of deplorable realities that created agitated dissatisfaction. But the dream is still in process of being fulfilled. The election of the first African-American President of the United States of America marked a significant milestone in the realization of the dream of a leader with great foresight. The inspiration of such a vision of the future is what leaders bring.

The effective leader realizes that all aspects of reality are part of a larger context and the result of changes over time. She recognizes that she stands in the stream of history and she is humble enough to acknowledge that what she encounters may have also challenged others in the past. In the search for solutions and meaning today, the leader can learn much from how others in the past arrived at answers. In a willingness to learn from the past, we will develop a wiser understanding of who we are, of the potential we have, of what dangers threaten us, of possible avenues out of a maze, and finally help us make the most fulfilling meaning of life and work.

Success may tempt us into an arrogant belief that we are the only ones in history ever to achieve our level of accomplishment. A lack of hindsight encourages a self aggrandizing hubris that entertains the notion that we are the specially “anointed” ones who are entitled to privileges and exceptions denied to others. On the contrary, a wider perspective of time keeps us humble in our place in the flow of history. If the leader does not learn from the past, he is condemned to commit the same mistakes again.

A Lifting Sight
A leader’s vision is not only an exercise in self awareness or a reality check. Vision connects reality to possibility, the dissatisfaction of “what is” to the potential of “what could be.” It inspires a plan of action that will bring about change. Ultimately, the leader lifts the possibility of a dream to action. It arrests despair and motivates aspiration and achievement.

Jesus inspired his disciples, “Do you not say, ‘Four more months and then the harvest?’ I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life…” (Jn 4:35-36).

When eyes are open and the vision is clear, the needs are immediately obvious and urgent so that action is called for without delay. A compelling vision urges an immediate response. Resources are summoned to effect an immediate and important result.

A clear perspective also focuses attention on what is truly important. The leader’s resolve will be strengthened and her mind uncluttered as her sight is lifted from programs to people. It becomes evident to the leader that stakeholders are people more important than shareholders in organizations. The leader’s sight will be lifted from local to global, a widening of the horizons. He will be able to see that any local action has far reaching ramifications and rippling effects. A visionary leader’s sight will also be lifted from the human to the divine, the ability to discern the finger of God in human affairs, acknowledging a higher accountability for any leader.

Peter Drucker observes that leadership involves “the lifting of a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, and the building of a person’s personality beyond its normal limitations.” That is possible only if the lenses that frame the leader’s perspectives are in clear focus.

This is an adapted excerpt from Peter’s upcoming book on leadership.

The New International Version Bible has been referenced.