Leaders and Leadership… More Thoughts

Some More About Leaders and Leadership

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While some people believe leaders can be made I am of the ilk that holds that leaders must be called – almost in a biblical sense. Those who wish to lead need to first have a passion for the task. Yes, leaders can be trained, developed, improved, but first they have to be called – they must have “fire in their shorts” to teach, develop, and help others grow. Why is that?

I think Parker Palmer says it best. In his book,  Let Your Life Speak,[1]  Parker tells us that  leaders can either project light or shadows on others.

I was determined to select leaders who projected light. On the other hand, leaders who projected shadows had:

  • Deep insecurity about their own worth.
  • Perception of the universe as essentially hostile to human interests (e.g. life is fundamentally a battleground).
  • Belief that the ultimate responsibility for everything rests with them.
  • Fear of the natural chaos of life (and organizations).
  • Denial of death (both individually and organizationally).

Palmer’s work tied in with another person who greatly influenced me, Ed Friedman. Friedman was a family systems man. His life as a rabbi, psychologist, teacher, and governmental official prepared him for his deep analysis of work as well as families as systems.  I ran into his book when I was undergoing clinical pastoral training after my retirement from the police.[2]  The understatement here is that shadow-projecting leaders are no fun to work with. In fact, they literally suck the motivation and creativity out of you.

Friedman, like Palmer, condemned organizational “darksiders;” those leaders who did not mentor and foster the growth of those whom they led.  As an example, Friedman recommended that leaders be selected for the following abilities rather than their administrative skills:

  • Differentiation — those who have the capacity to be separate from the institution they lead — yet still be connected.
  • Emotional maturity — those who can regulate their own emotions vis-a-vis the emotions of others.
  • Self-awareness — those who know who they are and where they are going.

A couple of years ago, just before my book was published, I was asked to talk about leadership to a large audience of politically active people.[3] My topic? Leadership. I defined certain characteristics about the leader we not only needed in the police, but also throughout our society in our corporations and governments.

My definition of leadership is just about the same as John Quincy Adams, our nation’s second president, defined it:

             If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more —  you are a leader. 

In other words, leadership is enabling others to dream, learn, and become more than they once were — to improve. Leadership is not an easy task – in fact it often can become a lonely one.

When I came Madison as their new police chief in 1972, I already knew things had to change in the department.  That’s why I was hired.  I was expected to bring in reform and change in many areas: hiring, training, and especially in the way the department was handling public protesters. The basically all-white and all-male police department was fighting students downtown and facing charges of racial and gender insensitivity in other parts of the city.  Things needed to change. However, I quickly came to realize that my primary problem wasn’t in the community — it was inside the police department.

Having strong belief that I was called to do this work, my challenge was would I have the strength to implement what I believed was the right things to do? Or would I succumb to the police subculture which I was, up to this time, a willing, and comfortable, participant?

I was recently put in touch with a powerful talk given by William Deresiewicz of Yale University to the incoming class at West Point class in October, 2009. It was about this kind of problem – doing the right thing and experiencing the solitude of leadership.[4] 

Deresiewicz identified the danger to those who attempt to do the right things and lead with their values – especially those in large bureaucracies like the military, corporations, churches, financial institutions – and police departments. He said to those incoming cadets,

Many people you will meet as you negotiate the bureaucracy [will have] no genius for organizing or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going…

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that… you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going. 

A strong indictment of our status quo — a situation in which you no longer know who you are or where you are going.

I have spent most all of my life in three large bureaucracies – the military, the police and the church. I have spent a lot of my energy questioning, challenging, trying to improve how things are done, and taking risks. The danger of mediocrity becoming the norm in such institutions is very troubling.  In fact, it is down-right disturbing! Is that what is happening to our nation’s police? Mediocrity? Kissing up and kicking down?  And in such an environment, will any leaders have the courage to do what is right?

Because when you do so, when you stand up and say, “No, I refuse,” when you challenge a wrong-headed policy or illegal or immoral organizational direction, when you say “this is not right and I will not do it!” there is a cost. You may lose loyalty, support, or the approval of those both above and below you in your organization. You may lose your job or even your best friend.

And that is where solitude comes in. And that is why it is important for you, if you think you are called to lead, to know WHO you really are, WHAT you stand for, and can tolerate the solitude of not being “one of the boys or girls.”   To be able to do the right things when almost everyone will think you are either wrong or a trouble-maker!

If doing the right things result in loneliness rather than in the spiritual strength that can be found in solitude, then making the right choice, the right decision, will be difficult, if not impossible. And to Deresiewicz, the very essence of leadership is solitude — not loneliness but solitude; the former results in negativity but the latter in personal growth.

            The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary…  However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.  

Will you be enough when the time comes to do the right thing in the face of all the pressure and sanctions your organization can throw in your face – and your career.  That means thinking about and through what you are going to do before your values are challenged.

Here are some preparatory tips on being or becoming the kind of leader that is needed in our nation today — a value-driven leader:

  • Cast a bold vision!  Work incessantly to have your bold, breathtaking vision shared by others.  Without a vision — leaders, ideas, momentum and organizational spirit flounder and perish. Some of the oldest wisdom literature in the world says essentially that: “Without vision the people perish.”[5] 
  • Know who you are!  Know yourself – and continually work on your self-knowledge and self-improvement.  Help others to grow and develop. Mentor them, help them to also be self-actualized.
  • Work in teams!  Most organizations are too hierarchical and oppressive for human habitation. Your job is to make work habitable.  Push decision making down the chain whenever you can and work in teams whenever possible.  Work can and should be fun and fulfilling.  Build effective, growing, and sustainable relationships with others.
  • Lift ‘em up!  Workplaces should be places of celebration, renewal, energy, and enlightenment!  Encourage and coach.
  • Keep fit!  This means at home as well as at work.  Work on your emotional health; see yourself as a whole – body, mind, soul and spirit. All four. Unhealthy leaders infect those around them; unhealthy top leaders and can cause the entire organization to be sick.
  • Stick around!  Stay the course.  Short-term leadership is no leadership at all.  Organizational growth takes time.  Be prepared to spend eight to ten years if you wish to leave your organization  strong, healthy, and effective.  Excellence takes time – more than you may think.
  • Just love ’em!  Some of the best advice I ever got was this.  It has to do with all leadership jobs – the advice was “All you gotta do is love ‘em, the rest will work itself out.”  When I came to love the men and women with whom I was privileged to work with and lead, the problems did work themselves out.  When leaders honestly and sincerely care for the people they lead, the good they hope and pray for happens whether it is leading a platoon, police department or parish.

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Is this you?

 Is this the kind of leadership to which you aspire?


[1] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, Jossey-Bass Inc., 2000.

[2] Edwin J. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue.  Guilford Publications, 1985

[3] “Leading Values,” an address at the “Fighting Bobfest,” Sauk County Fairgrounds, Baraboo, Wisc., September 11, 2010.

[4] William Deresiewicz, “Solitude and Leadership,” The American Scholar,” Spring 2010. For the entire article see: http://theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership.

[5] Proverbs 29:18, King James Version of the Bible.