Sunday, January 25, 2009

Higher Ground: The Zeitgeist of New Leadership


told by Sky Hedman who traveled to DC with her partner Lynn (all photos from Sky & Lynn)

Although the Metro started running at 4:00 a.m. 4:30 was our agreed upon wake up time, so we dutifully rolled out of bed when the alarm went off Tuesday morning. The four of us from Kentucky were out of the house on our way to the Metro at 5:15 a.m. Our local hosts had decided that TV coverage was good enough. The train was only partly full, but with every stop, more happy people poured in, so by the time we reached downtown, it was shoulder to shoulder with excited Obama supporters. I alternated between riding high on the enthusiasm of everyone around me, and flashbacks to trainloads of people naively packed into trains in the dark days of Germany. I was in the back of the crowd when the train doors opened to let us out at the L’Enfant plaza, and I almost couldn’t get off the train because the platform was so crowded. The four of us held on to each other as we climbed up the (not working) escalator to street level. We were swept along in the dark for several blocks with an enthusiastic crowd of thousands. At one point, we had to go down a narrow space next to the Hirschborn Museum and the press of the crowd was a little scary, but then in a minute we spilled out onto the grassy Mall. The first ¾ mile of the Mall was already packed with people, so we walked to the middle of the Mall, and close to a Jumbotron, and put our blanket down. Within minutes we were surrounded by more attendees, standing shoulder to shoulder as far as we could see. We couldn’t move from our spot—partly because there was no room to walk, and because we wouldn’t be able to find our group again if we left it. It was about 6:15 a.m. and 19 degrees, with a cold wind. Five hours to wait…

What is a leader?

The answer has been changing for some time now, because the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, has been shifting ..our new awareness of the interconnected nature of all things and the value of relationships changes our definition of “leader.” This week, it became manifest.

Margaret Wheatley writes in Leadership and the New Science, “As scientists fill us with images of this participatory universe… I wonder how we can continue to support authoritarian approaches? Can we survive as command and control leaders?... No one can hope to lead any organization by standing outside or ignoring any of the relationships through which work is accomplished.”

Leaders are no longer authoritarian demagogues, but co-founders of a new reality, a participatory reality that echoes our new apprehension of the self-organizing universe. This is the zeitgeist.

Listen to how some UUCL folks responded to my online survey, capturing this spirit:

Sean writes: Mr. Obama's position on issues, manner of speaking, and public behavior has to me always radiated high intelligence, compassion, and determination…. when these three things come in abundance to any prominent position, the result for me is tremendous hope for a new unity…

Sandy says: And he is one of us… He knows what it is like to be on the outside and he has overcome that personal struggle and turned it into a very welcoming, transformative empathy.

Debra adds: We need to be united as a people yet tolerant of differences of opinion. I wish for all to come together and work together towards a common goal.

And Jim simply reminds us: “We are the people we have been waiting for.”

Here are some new metaphors for leaders:
· Gardeners
· Stewards
· Jazz Musicians
· Midwives.

But I like Adam’s: Quarterback. He captures the zeitgeist as he writes:

Rather than divide and conquer, rather than demand that people submit to his will, we are bringing forth a new kind of leader. Someone who unites. Someone who can see that there are advantages to each viewpoint on an issue. Someone who can see the value in each person around him. He has proven himself to be just and compassionate. He walks the walk in matters of equality and acceptance of others, as reflected by his familial history. He has always emphasized the importance of using the democratic process. And then he has followed through. He chooses peace over war. He understands the importance of the health of our surroundings and Mother Earth in general. Gone are the old ways that have served to help those in power at the expense humanity. We look forward with great anticipation at a new era in Homo sapiens. We look forward to this new quarterback to lead us forward… Mr. Obama, here is the ball. Game on.

The postmodern leader must be relational and authentic. He or she (and by the way, this is almost immaterial, because the new leadership is androgynous in the way Jesus was androgynous, encompassing the best of feminine and masculine strengths) makes everyone feel included. Unlike Newtonian style leadership (which was also once “scientific” but is now outmoded) new leaders focus on strengths and possibilities rather than problems. No longer will problem-focused, mechanistic and hierarchical methods suffice. Now, humans are at the center rather than flow charts; relationships matter more than bottom lines. We feel this if we have been paying attention, in the campaign and transition of President Obama.

In “Claiming The Light,” Paul Chaffee writes: “in terms of values, genuine, credible, and respectful best describe these leaders. In terms of practices, an appreciative leader challenges, encourages, enables, coaches, inquires, and dialogues… And characteristics the leaders associated with worldview were envision, inspire, and holistic.”

Here are the qualities of leadership that will make this new era radically different:

· Communication ~ President Obama is a listener. You can tell from watching him that he knows how to engage and be engaged. But this is not the artificial listening most politicians engage in, using charm to gain votes. We know he listens because he has acted upon and promised to act upon what we asked for! Listening, in the new leadership, is about “establishing ‘higher ground’ for the dialogue, a ‘place’ where what is most important to us allows the irritations and arguments of life to fade into perspective or just disappear. A safe personal discussion of our most cherished values and experiences, focused on matters transcending disagreement and conflict, bonds people together.” This is key to new leadership. People who feel included, acknowledged, will participate. Things get better. As Amy says, “There is finally someone to look up to again.” That’s higher ground.

· Self-awareness, self-differentiation, and non-anxious presence. President Obama is the first “cool” President. That means more than that he looks good in his shades and he plays hoops and carries a Blackberry. It means that he has learned to be non-reactive, calm, and unruffled in the face of high anxiety. What a difference this will make, in foreign policy, domestic disputes, and tense Congressional votes. He can stand above the battlefield, as it were, while remaining engaged. This is Higher Ground.

· Clarity & Boundaries ~~ I remember when Pres. Obama had had it with people attacking Michelle and he simply said, “That’s enough.” I knew then that this was a man who had clarity, boundaries, and integrity. HIGHER GROUND!

· Leaders inspire. Inspiration comes from the same root as spirit. This is all spiritual, because it has to do with our deepest values and our core selves. Why else did almost two million suffer bitter cold to be there in DC on Tuesday? Why else did hundreds of thousands go out and volunteer on Monday? Michelle says, “I hope President Obama will give us direction on what each of us can do to help our country recover and move forward.” Higher Ground.

· Good leaders, finally, are playful, have a sense of humor, and are humans who make and admit mistakes. Putting humanity at the center means not only that humans can be a part of leadership, but leaders can be human. Thank God. We feel this. When Obama gave the Hawaiian sign meaning “hang loose” during the Inaugural Parade, when he joked while helping to paint a classroom on Monday that he would be moving into a new house and might have to do some painting, we saw humility, humor, and playfulness. Hallelujah!
Higher Ground!!

Charles wrote:
The impression that most overwhelmed me was that of hundreds of thousands of people on the Mall, expressing their enthusiasm, joy, and the hope for America that Obama inspired in them. In the midst of reading, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, I remembered something this exceptionally literate historian had written about how Lincoln had inspired hope in his followers even in the darkest times. She quoted someone as saying that having hope means that one will not give in to overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude, or depression in the face of difficult challenges. It is not the sunny view that everything will turn out all right, but believing that you have the will and the way to accomplish your goals. I saw that hope in the faces and actions of the throngs on the Mall. I think most Americans recognize the tremendous challenges our nation is facing, but have a hope, perhaps even a faith, that we will overcome them. The election of Barack Obama is evidence that we have overcome much in the past, even though the road ahead of us is not smooth.

I love Sky’s story about the experiences she and her partner Lynn had on Inauguration Day:
As I told Lynn, it’s a story about relationships, discovery, surprises, and cooperative endeavor. So is the new leadership. So will the new followership be! Their willingness to be “disturbed.” Their walk through chaos and darkness, even fear, going forward with common purpose and inspiration, but not really knowing the steps. Emerging from the dark tunnel, humanity self-organized without violence. No arrests were made .

This is how we shall go forward.. beginning, perhaps, in what Peter Steinke, in Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, called the “germinating darkness” .. learning to walk, together, through uncertainty and indecision. “Impatience has its source in anxiety..” writes Steinke. “Being hasty is low-road functioning.”

Higher Ground!

Finally, the story of our UUA President, the Rev. William Sinkford:
The language in Washington, Sinkford said, “has changed, almost overnight. We are now in a conversation about how to bring people together, not about what keeps us apart, and it is dramatic, and powerful, change that we need to pay attention to. Years from now the question of ‘Were you there?’ will become a question on everyone’s lips….."

On January 20, Sinkford had the experience of trying to get to the National Mall to see – at least through Jumbotrons and speakers – the inauguration ceremony. While he and his spouse, Maria, held tickets, they found themselves unable to enter their assigned area. Even so, Sinkford said, “The most striking thing is the sense of community that I, and we, have experienced here. On the street, in the hotel, on the Mall, the attitude is one of friendliness, of people trying to help one another. It’s as if we allowed our hopes to come true, around a different way of being together.” Sinkford also noted: “The presence of people of color here is different… .Whole families have come with their children. People have come representing generations long gone, all wanting to be able to say, ‘We were here.’ The importance of Barack Obama as a symbol of those hopes is not to be denied.”

Steve wrote: I'm not sure I see President Obama as someone who will do great things, as much as I think we will be able to work hard, together, and do great things with him (moderating? facilitating? inspiring? leading? - can't find right word).

Maybe… quarterbacking?