The professor crashes through the door and throws his coffee mug across the faculty breakroom. “Oh, these students! These students are killing me!”
“Whoa, whoa. Calm down, Joe. What’s wrong?”
“I pour my energy into the classroom, and what do those useless slugs do? They just sit there! Passive little pains in the, . . .”
“Asterisk is the word you’re looking for.”
“That wasn’t the word I had in mind!”
“Just once, I’d like them to bring the same passion to the topic that I do.”
“It’s never going to happen, Joe.”
“Well, why not?”
“These kids these days. They’re just not leaders.”
A pastor is crying in his office. It’s been a tough week—three funerals, a wedding, and VBS. “Oh, those kids. Somedays I hate those kids! Some days I hate all my congregants!”
“What’s wrong, John?”
“Um, . . . oh, . . . um, I didn’t know you were there.”
“Yep. I’m right here. Being your assistant pastor, we share the office.”
“Why? Why can’t our members bring the same passion to the church that we do?”
“You know many of them are working hard to help build the ministry.”
“Sure, sure. But, the weight of everyone’s burden always falls on us. And, as senior pastor, it always seems to roll up hill. Everyone looks to me to carry their burden. Why can’t they carry their own? And, why can’t they carry each other’s? Why’s it always fall on me?”
“It’s just the day we live in. No one is a leader anymore.”
The creative director closes the door of his office. “Why? Why can’t these people come up with ideas? Do I have to do everything around here?”
There’s a rap at her door. “Who is it?”
“It’s me, honey.”
“Come on in.”
“You looked stressed. What’s wrong, beautiful?”
“These people are driving me crazy.”
“Well, that’s what people do.”
“Once! Just once, I’d like them to bring the same creativity to a meeting that I do. Why? Why can’t they do that?”
“I guess there’s just a lack of leadership in the advertising field.”
On the surface, it seems like there is a lack of leadership. But, maybe that analysis is flawed. Maybe the problem is there is too much leadership. Seems like a weird thing to say, because anyone that’s been a leader at any level knows the torment in the preceding examples. They’ve been there. They’ve lived it.
Let’s begin by how people normally defined leadership. A leader is someone that has followers. Leadership is setting the direction—creating a vision that others will execute. In our Western mindset, we tend to view leadership in an over-under relationship. The leader is the head—the top, the chief, the Big Kahuna that makes the Big Decisions. Followers are the employees, the students, the little cogs that do the small chores.
Behaviors are merely an outgrowth of the roots of self-perception. Followers perceive themselves as the little cogs. As long as that perception exists, they simply won’t have the same gumption as the leader.
Two lovers sit on the park bench, fingers intertwined. It doesn’t have to be lovers. It could be a student and teacher talking in the cafeteria. Or, a clergy and laity having lunch after service. Or, a boss and employee having a chat by the water cooler. The relationship will ultimately be defined by how each person views and treats themselves and the other person. In order for both parties to bring the same energy to whatever topic at hand, both parties must view themselves as a person of great energy, enthusiasm, abilities, and worth. Low self-worth never produces positive energy.
Other conditions must also exist. Both parties must view the other person as an equal. And, both parties must treat the other person as an equal.
As we go back to our initial scenarios, here is where the problem begins. People in authority want their way—the final say, the last word, the power of veto. But, they also want those underneath them to bring the same energy to the table as they do. They want an inequality of authority, but an equality in terms of both parties taking ownership. But, inequality and equality mix as well as oil and water.
I used to teach college. I wanted an equality in ownership—with my students bringing the same energy to the table as I did. I didn’t want to poke, prod, stand on my head, and bend over backwards just to pull effort out of them. Honestly, I didn’t even want an inequality of authority. I’ve taught outside the classroom, where I was merely an equal with others. That type of teaching is so satisfying. But, inside the higher education system, I could never have that satisfaction. There came a point where I had to assign a grade, enforce an attendance policy, or tell a disruptive student to quiet down. The system was a hierarchy, with some people above others, and some people below others. In a hierarchy, the system dictates an inequality of authority. This always leads to an inequality of effort. I’m going to use the term “exertional ownership”. By that, I mean someone that is fully engaged—both psychologically as well as physical and mental effort. It is possible to exert effort without having one’s heart in it, and the lack of psychological engagement always eventually leads to apathetic performance.
It is possible to increase effort through reward and punishment. However, this never produces maximum involvement. Because such systems increase fear, they wreak havoc on the creative process. Fear puts the brain into flight or fight, and under such conditions, the brain’s focus is on survival—not creativity, innovation, or even maximum effort (because survival dictates conservation of resources).
I’ve only been involved in two settings that approach the ideal of equality of authority combined with the equality of exertional ownership. One is a writer’s group I’ve been involved in over the last couple years. The increase in creative output I’ve seen from the group has been enormous. The environment is fertile for growth—and, growth is happening quickly.
The other setting I’ve seen is in a small, house church I’m involved with. I’ve never experienced spiritual growth as quickly as I am with this group. It’s a fertile environment, and great things are happening.
Let’s say I decide to teach a college class in the future. I walk into the classroom, and I renounce all my authority. Say I let students decide what they’re going to do, how they going to do it, and how the grades will be assigned. I then walk out and never return until the final day of class. What will happen? I can say with a great deal of certainty, that on that final day of class, no one will be in the classroom. No one will have written any papers. No projects will have been completed. No group presentations will have been performed. And, I’m going to be having a less than cordial conversation with the dean.
Imagine if the pastor or creative director were to try the same thing? If we remove a person of authority, people turn into directionless Jell-O. Is it because people don’t have any internal drive? No! We could do the same thing with two-year olds, and things would happen! Two-year olds exercise exertional ownership over their environment—often in destructive, self-serving ways, but left to their own devices, they do have an internal drive! A two-year old is an example of someone who combines exertional ownership with a desire for authority.
What happens to the two-year? Over time, they lose their exertional ownership. Anyone who teaches college freshman knows what I’m talking about. What a college freshman really wants to know from their professor is, “What do you want me to say, and how do you want me to say it.”
Our Western society constantly puts people into hierarchies—over/under relationships, where most attempts at equality of authority are squashed. Attempt to deal with your boss as an equal—in an honest, open fashion, and you’ll likely see the door. Try to do that with a member of the clergy, and you’ll likely be looking for a new congregation. Try to do that with your college professor. He might be open to some of your ideas, but the system doesn’t allow complete equality. Society constantly puts us in the position of being under as opposed to being equal. A two-year old fights it. A five-year old fights it. But, by eighteen, most either conform or are headed to prison.
There may be certain situations where inequality in authority is necessary. A young child that doesn’t submit to their parents may end up burnt, bruised, or even dead. “Don’t play in traffic!” If a building is burning, I’m going to listen if a firefighter barks an order at me. There are times where one person knows more than the other, and the less-knowledgeable person is wise to heed instruction. I mention this, because I know how people will react when I make the argument I’m making. Rather than considering what I’m saying, they’ll try to push me into an extreme position that doesn’t see any use for authority. I’m not promoting anarchy. However, as a whole, our society is far too dependent on hierarchal organizations and relationships.
Over time, too much hierarchy ends up producing an unhealthy addiction to leadership. People become dependent on someone else telling them what to do, and when separated from that, don’t know how to act. It’s the authoritarian equivalent to the Stockholm syndrome.
Our society doesn’t have a lack of leadership. It has too much leadership—at least if leadership is defined in over/under relationships, with the corresponding concepts of leaders and followers. Too much of this kind of leadership has produced a society that as a whole view themselves as followers.
Groups and organizations can exist and thrive without hierarchy. In facts, groups and organizations are often capable of far greater accomplishments when hierarchy is removed, but there are caveats. That state of existence is impossible without both an equality of authority and an equality of exertional ownership.
But, here’s the rub. Groups and organizations cannot exist without leadership. People need to take charge to get things done, and others must follow. This might seem contradictory to what has previously been discussed, but it’s not.
Let’s assume for every task a group must complete, or obstacle they face, there is always one person in the group that is the most capable of understanding that situation. The logical conclusion is the most knowledgeable person needs to lead. Here’s what’s important to understand. Since situations change, it isn’t always the same person. In one situation, it might be Joe. In another situation, it might be Brittany. For another situation, Susan may need to step forward. But, how do we know who is most qualified? Each person must have a great deal of self-awareness (knowing strengths and weaknesses), and each person must also deeply know the other people in the group. A group without hierarchy cannot accomplish much unless deep relationships exist between the members. Without this deep relationship, no one can know who should lead or who should follow in any given situation.
Can you see this type of leadership is far different than hierarchical leadership? Hierarchical leadership is authority based on a position. Hierarchical-less leadership is authority that is situational—based on the talents of the group, and the needs of the situation. In this type of group, over time, everyone ends up exercising authority and also submitting to authority, so there is equality.
I’ve been involved in two settings where I’m seeing things approach this ideal. Both of the groups I’ve been involved in have been extremely fulfilling, and both have seen great growth. But, do these groups just happen? Or, can they be created?
Let’s say ten people were randomly thrown together to start a group. To give myself a fighting chance, let’s say these people all shared similar interests and a common purpose. Maybe they all enjoy writing and want to publish their writing. Given those ten random people, could I achieve my ideal, hierarchical-less group, where everyone shared: equality in authority, equality in exertional ownership, self-awareness, and a deep relationship with others so we all knew our strengths and weaknesses? It’s pretty obvious the relationship part of the equation would take some time. So, let’s say two years pass. Everyone is good friends. We all like each other, and we all know each other’s talents. Will the magical group all of a sudden appear? In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the answer is a resounding no!
There are two pulls that will lead the group to hierarchy. One is selfishness. People want to be in charge. The second pull is the unhealthy addiction to leadership. Let’s start with the second one. As a teacher, I’ve dealt with that one more frequently.
Let’s remember that behavior is an outgrowth of the roots of self-perception. People develop an unhealthy addiction of leadership, because they view themselves as a lesser cog. The way to change that is to see them through other eyes. I must look past the externals, and see the hidden gems (gifts, talents, personality traits) within each person that makes them special. I must nurture those gems—by speaking them, encouraging them, and challenging them. I must see people not for who they are, but for their most glorious potential. And, I must love them—not a directionless love, but a love that shepherds them towards that potential. Until the members of the group begin to view themselves through the eyes of their most glorious potential, they will never see themselves as worthy of equality in ownership. Correcting the unhealthy addiction of leadership starts and ends with love.
Dealing with equality of authority is more difficult—particularly when one wants power. It also requires love. The Napoleon in the group is also capable of glorious potential. I must see, express, nurture, and love them to that potential. Sometimes love is enough to melt their heart. Sometimes the person needs to be asked to leave—or, in the worst of cases, forced to leave. This is never ideal and should always be the last resort, but sometimes there’s no way around it.
As I describe the mythical hierarchical-less group or organization, it does break my heart. I’ve only seen anything approaching what I’m talking about twice. And, in both cases, there was a synergy, creativity, and potential that is so far beyond anything that I’ve seen exist within hierarchies. Honestly, I want to create such groups and organizations. But, here’s the rub. I can’t create the magic. Once I try to create it, I’m trying to control others, and inequality of authority begins to creep in from my end. The best I can do is become a person of such great love, that barriers begin to break. I must become a person that views others—not just as equals, but through the lens of God—seeing people not just for who they are, but for their glorious potential. I must know myself—with a deep understanding of both strengths and weaknesses. I must form deep relationships with others—loving them unconditionally. Hierarchical-less groups and organizations aren’t something we create. The best I can do is become a catalyst—and, when the right conditions exist, the spark will ignite.