We often see assertions about what good leadership entails.  Recently I got a marketing email from someone claiming to help leaders develop “mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion.”  These are certainly good qualities, but leaders may also have to be, depending on the situation, perceptive, astute about whom to trust and for what, strategic in prioritizing initiatives, decisive, and in some ways ruthless.  

What such claims about essentials in leadership miss is that leadership doesn’t operate in a vacuum.  A leader creates a culture, or comes into a culture that already exists, in an environment in which the group or organization has to survive and accomplish goals.  The success of the leader will depend on her or his ability to configure or reconfigure the group or organization’s culture around the dynamics, characteristics, relationships and economics that are relevant to its current challenges, opportunities, and necessities.  The leader exercises leadership on the fly; while the group or organization is doing whatever it’s doing.  And in the action of leadership there is a moral dimension; the question of which value priorities the leader expresses in goal-setting and decision-making.

This is so fundamental that I would expect it to be widely acknowledged in theories and discussions about leadership, but I don’t find that it is.  Instead, people tend to talk about leadership as if it were a single ability or skill set.  The great psychologist George Kelly, back in the 1950’s, noted that different kinds of groups and situations require different kinds of leaders, but I don’t find that insight to be widely acknowledged, even today.  

What, for example, about being “mindful, selfless and compassionate?”  

Sometimes leaders have to be more mindful, sometimes less.  It depends on what they have to be mindful about, in the current situation of the organization.  If they are mindful about the wrong things, the focus won’t be where it needs to be.  A lot of leadership coaching (and therapy for that matter) is about helping people to be more mindful about some things and less mindful about others.  

Sometimes leaders have to be more selfless, sometimes more selfish.  The narrowly selfish leader needs to be more selfless, to identify with the organization’s well-being rather than seeing it as serving himself (or herself).  The leader who is so selfless that necessary goals are lost sight of will not be effective.  As psychologist Robert Ornstein said, the mystical-minded person who, upon being approached by a man-eating tiger, thinks “Here’s one of God’s creatures about to eat another of God’s creatures,” will probably not contribute to the gene pool.   

Sometimes leaders need to be more compassionate, more aware of the experience of people around her and of those whom the organization comes into contact with.  But sometimes leaders need to be less compassionate; for example, avoiding difficult conversations and personnel decisions out of compassion for people who may be hurt by them can result in weakening and undermining the organization. 

In his “Reflections,” the Sufi author Idries Shah wrote:  “Right time, right place, right people equals success.  Wrong time, wrong place, wrong people, equals most of the real human story.”  If we look at leadership from this perspective, we  may be able to see more of what is really happening.

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