Tag Archives: courage

3-Dimensional Leadership

In the discussion around leadership, a good deal of attention is given to behavioral, ethical, and relational qualities that effective leaders possess and demonstrate. Great books and programs on excellence in leadership are abundantly available, and some of us are retrieving them from the shelves just now when good leaders seem harder to find. I recently coined a term – “Trumpence” – which I define as doing whatever it takes to put yourself first. Most of us would probably agree that putting yourself first is not the highest and surest mark of genuine leadership.

What makes a leader? Are leaders made? Or is leadership more about the auspicious timing between a situational vacuum and the right set of talents, vision, courage and determination in someone who senses in it a calling to make a difference? Can a society cultivate leaders from among its membership, or does it have to wait, more or less passively, for them to rise up of their own accord?

Human beings carry the genetic instructions for living creatively, courageously, and compassionately – a combination of virtues (not mere moral values but productive powers of life) that I equate with that otherwise elusive idea of the human spirit. In our nature we hold the potential to be aggressive or sympathetic, sensitive or willful, reactive or tolerant, observant or intrusive, curious or intuitive – or I should say, more or less these things, as each pair constitutes a spectrum of possibilities for expression.

In this sense we might say that an individual is a ‘born leader’, meaning that he or she seems to be a product of nature, a gift for our times from the generative depths of our species. The above-named traits are not inventions of culture but endowments of nature that nevertheless can be ‘nurtured’, shaped, or suppressed by social conditioning.

It’s helpful to distinguish between temperament and personality when it comes to leadership. Whereas temperament refers to an individual’s genetic inheritance (the various spectra of heritable traits), personality shifts our attention to the social project of ego formation. From the Latin persona, personality refers to the unique way that one’s temperament is filtered through the restraints, bypasses, and outlets of behavior deemed appropriate by society. What we see in a newborn is not personality but temperamental expressions, and from the very beginning we are shaping what gets expressed, and how much, through the mechanisms of social feedback.

Gradually what emerges from all this social conditioning is a separate center of personal identity, also known as ego. A human being has been formed into a cooperative member of the tribe, a ‘somebody’ who both fits in and stands out in appropriate degrees. As products of social engineering, leaders are fashioned and appointed to positions in society where they are needed. It stands to reason that times of strife and hardship might motivate the social selection and reinforcement of genetic traits that make for more aggressive, willful, and intrusive leaders – those who will ‘take the lead’, overcome obstacles, and defeat enemies. When they are effective and successful, we honor and celebrate them as tribal heroes.

So far, we have considered two dimensions of leadership: temperament and personality, genetic inheritance and social conditioning, natural endowment and cultural instruction. A good part of the contemporary discussion on leadership stays between these two horns of ‘nature versus nurture’. Are leaders born or are they made? Both ‘born and made’ seems the right answer, but there’s another dimension we need to consider.

In many posts I have argued that the formation of a separate sense of identity can either be our neurotic end or the critical passage to our fulfillment as a species. As long as ego remains inside the cage of tribal expectations and orthodox convictions, an individual cannot attain to that level of personal maturity named ego strength. This is where a stable and balanced personality, unified under the confident self-possession of a fully-formed ego, is finally capable of taking creative authority in his or her own life.

Two-dimensional leaders are functionaries of the social order, performing in roles that the tribe deems necessary. They aspire to be heroes, or at least recognized by others for their praiseworthy performance. Awards, promotions, honors, and degrees are just the social conditioning they need to persist in their efforts. Many aspire to be role models for up-and-coming leaders, demonstrating excellence in their field.

With the rise to creative authority, an individual begins to live out of a higher center. Not only natural endowment and cultural instruction, but self-determination increasingly becomes a driving force in how he or she lives. Before we explore what is unique to this third dimension of leadership, I need to qualify the idea of character.

I am using the term in its narrative sense, as when we speak of a character in story. In my post Personal Myth and the Anatomy of Character I identified four traits of a strong narrative character. Grounding refers to the degree in which a character seems to belong in the narrative setting rather than hovering above or merely drifting through it. Memory is how consistent a character is through the scene sequence of a story. Integrity is a spatial equivalent to memory, referring to the way a strong character holds its identity across different situations in the narrative. And a fourth trait of character in fiction, volition, identifies the extent to which action proceeds from its own center of will instead of just happening in reaction to circumstance.

Narrative characters who possess grounding, memory, integrity and volition are not only strong elements of great stories, they are what we find most interesting. What I call creative authority is essentially the ‘rights of authorship’ that an individual must eventually assume in composing his or her personal myth: a story of identity, meaning, and purpose.

The developmental achievement of ego strength is the leading indicator of an individual’s readiness to assume this authority. This is the point where 3-dimensional leadership begins, as the individual makes choices, takes action, and accepts responsibility for the life he or she wants to live.

We should keep in mind that just because a person may be acting in an apparently self-determined manner, a conceited, brazen, and undiplomatic character style almost always belies insecurities deeper down. Trumpence, in other words, is really an attitude of entitlement embrangled in an insatiable craving for self-importance. The counterfeit leader compensates his (or her) neurotic ego through self-inflation rather than transcending self in service to the maximal benefit of all concerned.

Our times call for leaders who are 3-dimensional: human beings who are socially attuned, whose intuition of wholeness and creative courage can inspire the highest in all of us.

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Posted by on March 18, 2017 in The Creative Life


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A Theology of Twisters, or a Twisted Theology?

At the latest count (according to several news sources), as many as ten children were killed on May 20, 2013, when a category EF5 tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma and destroyed the school where they were seeking refuge. Everyone agrees that it was a tragedy of horrific proportions, not only in the loss of life but in the estimated $2 billion in damages to the city’s buildings and infrastructure.

But those children …

In the aftermath of the May 20 storm, probably the most widespread reaction was that people were horrified at the violence and devastation. Horrified, not outraged.

The public was outraged when, on December 14, 2012, a young man entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and shot to death 20 children and six adults. “Horrified” would have been an appropriate description of how we felt (and still feel), but “outraged” just seems more fitting. Why? Because the Newtown children were victims of a moral crime, whereas the Moore children were victims of a natural disaster.

There’s no one campaigning for tighter weather control or background checks of low pressure fronts. It was simply a random event where atmospheric conditions were just right to spawn a twisting convergence of crosswinds. The tornado didn’t have a “purpose.” Just because we can explain how it happened, there’s really no answer to the question of why it happened.

Well, I take that back. There are some folks who claim that the Oklahoma tragedy was a moral event. God directed that tornado with the purpose of working out his vengeance on the sins of sexual indulgence, religious pluralism, and compromising the sanctity of marriage. That professional athlete shouldn’t have come out of the closet, and the rest of us shouldn’t have commended his courage. Big mistakes. Really big. Now God is punishing us.

According to this way of thinking, the citizens of Moore, Oklahoma paid for the sins of a few moral reprobates. And the children who died under the rubble of school buildings were … what, collateral? God killed them to make our lesson all the more costly, painful and personal? God can’t stand sin, right? Can’t be around it. Whenever and wherever it happens, he must condemn sin and punish the sinners.

God has, as we might say, a reluctant obligation to condemn. He loves everyone, and maybe even wants to save everyone, but he is constrained by moral necessity to suspend his compassion or mercy in delivering what we deserve. This logic must hold – it simply has to. If life is meaningful, it must be moral; and if life is moral, there must be someone in charge of the carrots and sticks.

My readers already know that I’m not a theist, either in the classical or conventional sense. The notion of a supervising deity who sets things up in the beginning (Genesis), closes the show at the end (Apocalypse), and monitors human behavior in the meantime is widespread. Historically it seems to have been the next step in the evolution of religion after superstition, where people believed in an invisible web of coincidence stretching over human affairs.

Planting your crop precisely when that bright light in the sky is positioned just above and to the right of that outcropping of rock would ensure a good harvest. It wasn’t simply that these things happened to be in visual proximity from a particular vantage point when the orbiting earth was starting  its seasonal tilt toward the sun. No, the star-and-rock alignment was a critical causal factor in successful farming.

A holdover from this earlier mindset and worldview – stemming not only from our distant past as a species, but from early childhood when magical coincidences seemed to happen all the time – is when you pick up your lucky ball cap on your way out the door to the big game. Will the lucky cap give you the win? Maybe not this time, but it did once!

Psychologically we now know that wearing the cap (and not just any cap; this one) probably improves your performance by virtue of the confidence it instills in you. Something bigger is in play here, and when you cooperate with it your outcome tends to be better than if you don’t. Those occasions where you do play well and end up winning the game reinforce your superstition and keep it alive for the next time you head out the door.

Theism emerged when this invisible web of coincidence became centralized and personified in a committee of supervisors. Now a bountiful crop would be the answer to fervent prayers and sacrifices to the deity-in-charge of planting and harvest. Of course, everything would still be taking place at the precise time when the star and rock were in position. The real causal factor, however, was the grace and generosity of god, not some magical coincidence.

Despite what is depicted in the stories, no one has ever come across, interacted with, or peeked in on a deity doing business. Like the earlier “lucky cap” worldview, theism is a belief system that stays in effect so long as it gets reinforced by events – and random reinforcement schedules are more enduring, since they are unpredictable and keep us hanging on hope till the next time.

But anomalies and discrepancies gradually add up. Children can be killed in violent storms just so many times before people begin wondering about this god who’s supposed to be in charge of things. Either god made it happen – perhaps to punish Moore residents for their sins. Or he stood by and let it happen – which tugs at the integrity of our belief in a god who loves and cares for us. In either case, the event stirs up either really bad theology or some serious doubts.

Post-theism is another step beyond superstition and conventional theism. Contrary to the criticisms from orthodox defenders of theism, post-theism is not motivated by scientific materialism, secular humanism, or the depravity of human sin. It is not the same as atheism. It emerges at the progression threshold of a spiritual courage, a broader compassion, and the willingness to remain present to the pain and loss of meaningless tragedy.


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