Sunday, January 16, 2011

Martin & Gilbert: Reflections on Leadership

Martin Luther King, Jr. in front of his childhood home, Atlanta.

Thoughts on leadership

“Let us remember that space is never empty. If it is filled with harmonious voices,  a song arises that is strong and potent. If it is filled with conflict… we don’t want to be there. .. What if we adjust our eyes to the invisible?... For such a little act of faith, space awaits, filled with possibilities.”           Margaret Wheatley
      My father would have been 102 years old on January 15th, the same birthday as Martin Luther King Jr, who would have been 82 had he lived. At least for a few years my dad had a national holiday on his birthday. It struck us as very ironic for any number of reasons; one, my dad was racist, not in the Archie Bunker way, but in the subtle elitist way most educated whites born south of the Mason-Dixon line were raised to be. Two, he worked for his entire career for the military, procuring weaponry for an arsenal, while MLK promoted non-violence and finally, not long before he was assassinated, came out against the Vietnam War. I think we shrugged it off as a big funny coincidence and gave it no further thought.
            But the two men, Martin and Gilbert, had something in common besides their shared birthday. Both were people who “led” organizations.

Marjorie & Gilbert Cain c. 1960

            My dad’s favorite way to start a disciplinary lecture was to remind us that he was the supervisor of six hundred (or maybe it was four hundred) people at Frankford Arsenal.  “I have 400 people under me…” he’d begin. And we knew what was coming. Somehow all of those people followed his commands, respected his authority, and trembled in fear at his reprimand. Ergo, so should we. My dad never hit us; in fact I don’t remember any sort of physical punishment from him, ever. And we were rapscallions! With no mother and just our housekeeper to discipline us, we were far from well-behaved, at least until my very strict stepmother came on the scene.
            I doubt my father ever did understand why his kind of leadership, what I’ll just call the authoritative style, didn’t work as well at home as it did at the office. He came up in a world where kids unquestioningly recognized the authority of parents, but had children very late in life, so he was trying to rear us in the sixties and early seventies, a very different era. 
The late fifties and early sixties were precisely the time into which Dr. King stepped, and during which he exercised a completely new (unless you count Jesus) style of leadership, one that still has echoes today, and which helped change our understanding of life in general, and what it means to be religious in particular.
How so?
It’s hard to talk about leadership without discussing change. True leaders are advocates for change. They welcome change and know it is inevitable. Those who want to control and maintain the status quo are managers, sometimes dictators, but not leaders. Leaders are people who know how to guide, inspire and communicate with their people as they walk together through change.
The new science of leadership tells us that Newtonian models no longer apply. Instead, in an interconnected, participatory, self-organizing universe what matters most is relationships. A certain amount of chaos is necessary for genuine change. Leaders remove obstacles, improve communication, and instill confidence and trust rather than manipulate, direct, make top-down decisions, or dictate. Starbucks and facebook are two highly successful examples of companies that are being run with at least some of these new models. Like entering an amusement park, it’s exciting and scary for erstwhile leaders, and for their followers.
Let’s get back to our birthday twins and isolate a few of these qualities of leadership, to enforce the point:
·        Faith/TRUST- King’s entire vision was based upon his Christian Faith augmented by the Gandhian principles of satyagraha  which in turn were inspired by the Thoreauvian notion of civil disobedience. Each is rooted in faith that good will prevail over evil, be it through humanistic leanings or theistic beliefs.

It was a faith, not only in God, but in his own destiny—and a belief that in the end, justice would win out. “No lie can live forever,” he said in quoting Thomas Carlyle. “Truth crushed to earth will rise again,” he recalled William Cullen Bryant saying. (Phillips, 301)

 As for my father, I never met a person who had less faith and almost no trust. He lived expecting the worst, imminently, finding the negatives in almost every person and situation, and was utterly and permanently disillusioned by the untimely loss of his wife and his only brother. He failed to observe his extensive vegetable gardens and landscaped lawns, where he could have found reassurance that some things do thrive, that Nature has built in regenerative systems, and that miraculous things are as likely to occur as disastrous ones.

Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science;
I believe that Nature offers abundant displays of order and clear lessons for how to achieve it… the world is inherently orderly. It continues to create systems of great scope, capacity, and diversity. And fluctuation and change are essential to the process by which order is created. (19)

·        Courage – both King and my dad were courageous but for very different causes. Martin risked his life and ultimately lost it for a cause that was colossal, much larger than his own concerns. He made a conscious decision that a sacrificial ministry was needed to advance civil rights, and he saw that he was the man to go out in front. He was actually humble in many ways. He spoke with and about the common people; he took very little money. His courage was rooted in certainty.
I have a job to do. If I were constantly worried about death, I couldn’t function. I must face the fact that, as all others in positions of leadership must do, that something could well happen to me at any time. I feel though, that the cause is so right, so moral, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause.” 1965
  My father was stoic. He white-knuckled his whole life but was beset by fear and anxiety.

Most of the organizations I experience are impressive fortresses… Fear that is everywhere must come from somewhere… Three centuries ago, the concept of entropy entered our collective consciousness… this is a universe, we feel, that can not be trusted… by sheer force of will, because we are the planet’s intelligence, we will make the world work. We will resist death. (Wheatley, 18-19)

 The courage born of faith and especially of love casts out fear. True leaders are fearless.
·        Inclusive – It’s possible to criticize King for not giving women a more important role in the movement. Still, given the times and the tradition from which he emerged, he was remarkably open in his leadership. One of the ways we picture Martin is sitting and listening, at retreats, in hotel rooms, in conference. Communicating through letters and speeches. Relationships are key. Listening is key. Toward the end of his life, King spoke out in favor of being even more inclusive, not only of white allies but of GLBT folk and of women, of non-believers and people of non-Christian faiths.

      My dad was a loner. He was an engineer. He was always right. He had many, many good qualities: he kept our five acres and our very old house immaculate and pleasant. He had a wry sense of humor that crept out at odd times. He could be spontaneous. He was responsible and honest to a fault. He was a wonderful cook and an artist. He fixed everything that was broken. If he didn’t know how, he learned how. He was a gentle spirit beneath his bluster and high expectations. He was a successful manager – of a large enterprise and of a household -- but not a leader.
The church needs true leadership now more than ever. Think of it as a human body; it has been called the body of Christ. As new medicine is holistic, so is new leadership. We can no longer think in parts. All of the systems that compose this enterprise are intricately connected, so a cancer here, a disease organism there, affects all. Likewise, healing can be as counterintuitive. Traditional Western medicine is a science; healing is an art.
Traditional authoritarian/Newtonian “leadership” is based upon outmoded science. Leadership is an art; based upon new science. What may be needed to fix the financial woes may not be begging & pleading, but vision. What might be required to get the roof done might not be endless meetings, but mentoring by long-time members.. Most of all, instead of asking what’s wrong, we ask over and over what’s right, and where are our strengths? We are learning that the human body has remarkable healing abilities that we have barely begun to understand. We are learning as a people to trust and have faith in our instincts and to listen to our bodies and their wisdom. So it shall be with our organizations as we see more examples of the new leadership take hold.

Two years ago I spoke about how I believed that President Obama exhibited many of the same qualities of leadership I am now describing in Martin Luther King, and how he represented the new appreciative leadership.  In spite of the obstacles that have been placed before him, and the heavy burden of politics in our times, I still think he has these basic gifts. They come through when he is at his best, in a crisis, sometimes when we have almost given up: Humor, non-anxious presence, collaborative style, ability to listen, rapport with the people, communication, self-differentiation, ability to be playful. Also, androgyny of spirit   as was Jesus. As was MLK.

Yes, the changes in racial justice that began with King and his movement are still underway. But so are the changes in how we lead and follow, how we are going to be with one another, and how we are going to accomplish the tasks of this century, if we are willing to learn, sometimes to lead, sometimes to follow.

* For more on King & Obama, read Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a Princeton prof. &UU:

BOOKS mentioned:
Margaret Wheatley, The New Science of Leadership, 2006.
 Donald T. Phillips, Martin Luther King, Jr. On Leadership, 1999.