In the wake of the last week’s New York Times article detailing the Russian theft of our democratic sovereignty, the SEC’s lawsuit against Elon Musk, and Kavanaugh’s hearing, it’s hard not to be especially mordant about leadership of any kind.
The public, across the entire political spectrum, is beginning to question and argue about the qualities that equate to leadership. Should a person with a dubious moral compass be selected to lead? Scratch the surface of almost any heated headline, and it is leadership that is ultimately in question. What is leadership? What qualifies good leadership? How do we know? What postures as so-called leadership is often just what grabs media attention. Additionally, its overuse as a generic term in place of words like management or administration has rendered it impotent. Many are jaded about the very word itself, and for good reason.
‘Years ago, Mrs. Bartlett, my third grade teacher, put a moratorium on the word nice in her classroom,’ writes Nick Turner, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Distinguished Chair in Leadership at the University of Calgary. ‘Mrs. Bartlett’s lesson that day was the importance of clear and precise language to say what we mean and to take responsibility for the words we use,’ he continues. ‘Thirty-five years later, I would like to apply the same moratorium on the word leadership — at least until we are willing to say what we mean by leadership, and take responsibility for doing so.’
The decline of a society could be measured, perhaps, not only by the increasing number of animals of the endangered species list, or the melting of icebergs, but by the increasing number of words that have become meaningless. What makes a word meaningless? Overuse, inaccurate use, abuse, misuse. Words like democracy, sacred, love, friend, beautiful, and awesome are examples of words that have gone to seed.
In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote that the decline of a language has political and economic causes. “It is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer,” he says. “But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” Meaningless words “do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader,” he continues. “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.”
The very mention of the word leadership can spike the nervous systems of many, and induce cynical eye rolling in others—symptoms of a word become meaningless. Following Orwell’s line of thought, this begs a question: what effect is the meaninglessness of leadership having on us as a society?
When I was a teenager, my stepfather had a book that he kept on the bookshelves of our family room. It was entitled Why Sons of Bitches Succeed and Nice Guys Fail in a Small Business. This is an example of the misuse of the definition of leadership pervasive in our culture. Many are taught that to lead you had to not care. Actually…to lead you had to be cold, hard, removed and calculating, dishonest…even a jerk.
Where did these twisted rules come from? Theories abound from military influences, to the patriarchy, to various social influences such as the Great Depression, both World Wars and the Industrial Revolution. Gen. George S. Patton became the first military leader officially tagged as being a jerk (and worse), by both his men and his superiors. By all accounts, this was well deserved. Patton was a brilliant tactician, but he could also be a prima donna, a martinet, and on occasion extremely abusive.
Does a leader have to be a jerk? If you just start checking off the leaders in the wake of Patton, one would think so. Steve Jobs, Michael Eisner, Larry Ellison, Martha Stewart, Meg Whitman, Sam Zell, Carly Fiorina, Bob Nardelli, “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, Richard Fuld, Mark Hurd, Jeffrey Skilling. And in a class all his own is Donald Trump.
But maybe these folks merely reveal our collective confusion about leadership, and do not truly represent it.
“Most of the would-be masters of the universe who take Patton or Jobs as their personal models aren’t choosing assholism as a career expedient, they’re looking to justify their predilection for it,” aptly writes Geoffrey Nunberg in The Washington Post.
Yet we are fascinated by jerks. While lots of C-suites abound with good, kind, compassionate, dignified and masterful leaders, it’s the nasty ones we remember. “Year in and year out, candidates for the A-word made up about half of Barbara Walters’ list of Most Fascinating People,” continues Nunberg. “And the spectacle of people acting like jerks to one another has become a reliable business model for reality TV, talk radio and ‘news’.”
Given the allure and skew towards ‘not true leadership’, where do we go to find and learn real leadership? What oracle can save leadership from its extinction? How about nature…Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature's time-tested patterns and strategies.
Toby Herzlich is the Founder of Biomimicry for Social Innovation. Her organization applies nature’s 3.8 billion years of evolutionary success to leadership, social change, and organizational innovation. According to Herzlich and her colleagues, nature gives powerful and practical insights into leading our organizations so that they operate more like ecosystems. And I agree.
It just so happens that the oldest, most successful leadership system today is the horse herd. Fifty-five-million years of remarkable leadership makes horses the most successful mammal on earth. Perhaps we can look towards their model, to learn how to retrieve leadership from the brink.
Why have they thrived? There are several evolutionary reasons, but for the purposes of this article, let’s focus on one of them—their leadership culture.
Besides the basic survival needs of food, shelter and water, the herd is organized around five core pillars: safety, connection, peace, joy, and freedom. The leader, therefore, is chosen based on his or her ability to maintain these five pillars within the herd system, in care of the whole.
Counter to conventional folklore about herd leadership, horse bands are governed by the opposite of what seems to intrigue Barbara Walters. This servant leadership position is usually assumed by a mare, or a team of mares. In domestic settings, where there may be herds with few to no mares, leadership is sometimes assumed by a gelding and / or mare.
Remember too that the females take care of the young…in this case, the foals. So if you think about this for a moment, it makes sense that the mares wield the scepter. Because they know how to not only take care of the adult members of the band, but the babies too. This isn’t sexism here, it’s just true. So of course nature would design it that the leader would be the one who could best ensure the survival of its young, its very legacy.
Like our colorfully jerk leaders in the public arena, gladiator stallions have received a lot of attention because they are flamboyant and dramatic. Leadership qualities have been attributed to their dominant and brutish ways. But they are not the leaders of the herd. They have a specific role to play in specific circumstances, however it’s not in overseeing the daily governance. In fact, the lead mare or mares will see to it that a badly behaving stallion is exiled from the herd until he can participate inside the clan with good manners.
A similar scenario played out in our initial encounters with First Nations Peoples. Often we assumed the war chiefs were the tribal chieftains of their associated tribe, and engaged with them politically accordingly. We were wrong. Interesting how we associate war with leadership.
How exactly does a lead horse govern, and keep those five pillars intact? Through two superpowers: care and presence. Care is that genuine desire to attend to the needs of others. Synonymous with love, care is unconditional love with responsibility. And presence, is the ability to be wholly here in this present moment, in this limitless sense of totality here and now. Presence enables care to be acutely responsive to the moment, in each moment. Without presence, care can be inaccurate, or ill-timed. Without care, presence can remain abstract.
Through this elegant ecosystem of safety, peace, connection, joy and freedom—maintained by care and presence—a natural and dynamic democracy ensues. The other herd members are constantly, moment by moment, testing their leader’s ability—does she still care? Is she still present? If for some reason, due to illness, wounding or age, she should show up less than present, or not able to care, a new leader would take her place. But not with a clashing of hooves and gnashing of teeth. Instead, with an acceptance of giving and receiving care. Out of care for the outgoing leadership (who now needs care), and care for the whole herd, a new authority will take her place.
Let’s pause here. Imagine—just for a moment—if we were to select our leaders based on these principles. Imagine if our schools, our government, our financial institutions, our Fortune 500s, selected leaders based on their ability to be caring and profoundly present, to serve safety, connection, peace, joy and freedom – for the whole.
What a different world it might be.
It’s not such a far reach. Take for example New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who recently used her debut speech to the United Nations General Assembly to directly challenge the view of the world outlined by Trump in his speech there just a few days earlier in September. Accompanied by her three-month-old baby, she called for a different world order - one that puts "kindness" ahead of isolationism, rejection and racism. "We can use the environment to blame nameless, faceless 'other', to feed the sense of insecurity, to retreat into greater levels of isolationism. Or we can acknowledge the problems we have and seek to fix them," she said.
A senior executive client of ours is currently amidst his own metamorphosis—transforming from a dominant, tough commander, to a powerfully present servant leader. Make no mistake…this is a journey that requires enormous integrity and courage. After one particularly poignant call, a penny dropped for him. ‘You know,’ he said in relief, ‘All these hard-nosed attributes I had…they were learned. I learned them from books, and other leaders, and business school. So I can unlearn it. But caring? Caring is something I’ve known how to do since I was just a small kid. Caring is something I just am!’
Yes, so this kind of caring leadership is not so elusive – endorsed by 55 million years of success. You don’t need to drag yourself through endless webinars or read a hundred best sellers on the subject (even if they existed). You need only, as poet Mary Oliver puts it, ‘let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ Care and presence is your intrinsic true nature. It’s simply just a matter of leaning in (to it).