Leading From Being

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 lenses through which he sees reality: his perspective. Philosophers and anthropologists talk about a “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, a “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 are the basis for a leader’s decisions and behaviors.

The most intimate context that influences a leader is his self-perception.

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.

The most intimate context that influences a leader is his self-perception. This is the “Being” lens that will inform his decisions and direction. 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, and 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 him “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 leader’s consciousness of his role and the limitation of his 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. This question invites the leader to understand and appreciate contributions of past leaders in the organization, so the incumbent can build on past achievements and recognize the shoulders on which he stands. It allows the leader to interpret successes and challenges 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 will be tomorrow. It encourages the posture of life-long learning.

When a leader is conscious that he will not be in office permanently, he will understand his responsibility and the necessity to nurture younger leaders. He realizes he will not be where he is now perpetually. Perhaps a most toxic character of strong leaders is their reluctance to vacate their position or office. Whether in nations, commerce or church, the legacy of strong leaders intent on staying in office for life is the death of what they have sought to build. When leaders are oblivious to the transitory nature of their tenure, they expend energy in preserving their power rather than building values and nurturing emerging leaders. Understanding “where I am” not only helps a leader seize present opportunities, but also build a stronger future.

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?” This 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.

Who Am I? Where Am I? Whose Am I?

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.

The implications for leadership behavior are significant when a leader understands he belongs to God, who has loved him in Jesus Christ. Philosopher Geddes MacGregor points to God’s infinite power that springs from creative love: “That is the power that is infinite, being infinitely creative and therefore infinitely sacrificial…God does not control his creatures; He graciously lets them be…divine almightiness consists, not in God’s possession of an unlimited ability to do what he pleases, but of unlimited capacity for creative love, so that not only does he bring creatures into being to let them be; he creatively restores whatever seeks such restoration, so that the redeemed might indeed well be called a new creation, that is, a re-creation…God has “no ambitions to fulfill or goals to attain…for his aggrandizement… The only way he could go in his creative act would be a way of self-limitation, self-emptying, self-abnegation.”

The leader who is embraced by God’s love is self-giving rather than self-serving and he is redemptive rather than dismissive. The leader has power and authority, but not to destroy an underperforming employee’s future or manipulate people to fulfill his ambitions. Instead, he seeks to redeem mistakes and create opportunities for subordinates to find their “sweet spot” so they may succeed and flourish. Only a secure leader can be self-giving and not be suspicious and self-protective. Only one who knows whose he is can be secure. As MacGregor concludes, “Self-sacrificial love would then be an inalienable character of being.”

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.