Of hope and havoc
Q: Has the recent success of the Tea Party come because of, or in spite of, the movement's lack of a formal leadership structure? Along with Wikipedia, open-source software and organizations like moveon.org, is this another example of the power of distributed leadership?
I have spent a great deal of my career advocating for shared leadership and for redefining leadership as more than position, title, status or the exercise of power. We've developed models that integrate character, trust and integrity into our understanding of leadership, and equipped thousands with resources and tools to effectively lead regardless of their perceived station. We believe that leaders exist at every level, and, as Parker Palmer reminds us, they are often "hidden in plain sight."
The shift from top-down, autocratic leadership to a more inclusive, "first among equals" approach provides the possibility both of hope and of havoc. The hope is increased involvement of more people in decision-making, a valued attribute of good governance and good leadership. More citizen involvement in a democracy is a good thing, and the continuum of involvement spans a range of activities and behaviors, not all of which can be characterized as leadership. The practice of protest is integral to a democracy. The right to free speech is a cherished freedom, but havoc can result when some forget that freedom exacts a price. In the case of what is being called "distributive leadership," the price is an educated, informed citizenry with the capacity to engage in civil discourse, and who are able to achieve a balance between self-interest and a larger common good.
Power is necessary in the exercise of leadership, but let's not equate power to leadership! Leadership is based on values, which do not give license to lie in order to get what you want. It requires a certain level of moral development and maturity to deal with complexity and anxiety, and to not permit raw emotions (no matter how legitimate the reasons for them may seem) to dominate our public discourse, dictate the norms for behavior or to redefine our national character. The right to speak and to protest belongs to all Americans, but it is not a permit to spew hatred, distort facts, manufacture reality to your liking and to incite physical violence.
Leadership, whether distributive or not, must be guided by a compass inscribed with the basic moral code of "first, do no harm." The real issues and concerns of movements are delegitimized when the values and behavior are not attached to such a foundation. The Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King was driven by the values articulated in the documents that gave birth and form to this country. Through civil and peaceful protests, the reality of unequal treatment for some Americans was graphically revealed. We were all called to live according to higher values, and the country moved closer to its founding vision, leaving us a better people.
Whether at the helm of a movement or an established institution, those in positions of authority who cultivate a culture of deceit, distrust and fear are irresponsible and causing great harm. Those who exploit the frustration and "survival anxiety" of the emotionally vulnerable, and who use the mode of distributive power to spawn even more anger and hatred toward others without any constructive alternatives, undermine the freedoms we have. They are exercising power, not leadership. Responsible leadership will harness the potential for havoc and direct the energies of distributive leadership toward the real work of discussing ideas and generating responsible solutions. In doing so, this is the kind of leadership that can bring us closer together as a nation; rather than splintering us further apart into ideological islands of insularity. The exercise of power without the constraints of such leadership produces mob-like behavior, hardly a win for the country.
Katherine Tyler Scott
September 21, 2010; 11:09 AM ET
Category: Government leadership , Political leadership Save & Share:
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