THE LEADER WHO POINTED A FINGER…
Do you remember Steve Covey’s seminal Seven Habits?
There was a time during the 1990ies when that was one of my favorite management books. And if you happen to remember it, you might also recall his memorable quote about leadership:
- [Whilst MANAGERS are busily trying to - very efficiently — get a path cut through the woods…] “The LEADER is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, ‘WRONG JUNGLE!’”
This was one of my all-time favorite leadership quotes, right up there with J.Q. Adams’s “If your actions inspire others to dream more…”; and Jack Welsh’s “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself…”. (Yes, I know, I’m forever tainted by Anglo-Saxon business education!)
By the way, that quote continued: “… Busy, efficient producers and managers often respond… ‘SHUT UP! We’re making progress!’” (Boy, did we, the alleged ‘future leaders’, feel good about ourselves!)
Alas, what’s the big deal, you might say — it’s only a few innocuous quotes… Well, I tend to disagree. I believe our narratives and metaphors matter. Those collective stories and myths that we tell ourselves shape fundamentally how we think, how we make meaning and construct our identities, and ultimately how we act. There’s absolutely no doubt that in those years, and for a few decades afterwards, I desperately wanted to be that visionary, inspirational, self-less (probably in a rather infantile way), glorious leader! And in hindsight, I can only say that: “mistakes were made”!
In fact, I must confess that today I’m pretty certain that those were not very “good” quotes. And beside the fact that when I was young I had all the answers, and today, being old, I’ve got all the questions… I do believe those citations emblematically oversimplify what leadership should be about, and how to go about it… But let me explain.
Apart from the triumphantly nonsensical juxtaposition of leadership vs management, which Henry Mintzberg so eloquently unravels; apart from the immensely detrimental reification of leadership that has so dramatically misled the whole leadership genre, crowding out alternative discourses and forcing important dynamics of organisational life into the shadow (think about: pride, power, patriarchy, anxiety, vulnerability); apart from the simplistic neo-liberal caricaturisation of the economy as a “competitive jungle”; apart from unduly sustaining a “heroic” and masculine leadership discourse, that cemented narcissism, developmental immaturity, positional power and status quo… apart from all of this, there’s something else.
Think about that first quote again: whilst everybody else is busy and lost in the weeds, the leader climbs up the ladder, scours the horizon and… reveals the truth (actually, the image here might be recalling both a “Hero” as well as a “Saint” leadership metaphor, by Mats Alvesson’s definition!). My question is: what does this picture tells us about how to develop good leadership?
There are probably different ways to “operationalise” the metaphor: traditionally, 1) we tried to discern the personal characteristics of that glorious leader and imitate him [sic] (i.e., leadership “trait theory”); 2) we analysed how the leader behaves, i.e., how he chooses the direction, summons his people and heralds the new course (i.e., leadership “style theory”; 3) we situated the climbing of the ladder in the context of the ‘type of jungle’, the ‘task at hand’, the ‘position of the leader’ and the ‘environment’ in order to derive the factors that made leadership successful (i.e., “contingency theory”); 4) and we looked at the “mindset” evolution of the leader — how climbing up the “ladder of consciousness” made him eventually see the “forest for the trees” (i.e., “cognitive development theory”).
I will argue that most of these— at least in part — are missing the point. Leadership is not about the leader, nor the ladder, nor the new direction, nor the mindset, and not even about “bringing your people with you” to embrace the new (your!) course. It’s not even about the narrative itself: it’s about what is invisible in the picture. Good leadership is about transforming an organisational capacity “to become” its own best future.
In other words, and to stay with the image, it is mostly about the “pointing of the finger”. In this reading, the symbolic act of “pointing” becomes an existential “gesture of disruption”, as Gert Biesta calls it. The leader’s pointing makes me pay attention to something that summons me — the organisation or individual — to look out to the world, and for the world. That very act of interruption opens a crevice of potentiality, an affordance of becoming, of renovation, of nativity.
To be clear, the effectiveness of the act of interruption isn’t related to the leader’s intelligence in setting a new course or in providing answers to me, but operates as a jolt in my awareness towards something that has significance and calls me to revise my relationship and relatedness with the world. Something that opens up important questions about my Self-in-world and challenges my identity and my behavioural patterns — and thus enhances my freedom to ‘be’. Rather than victoriously crying out “wrong jungle!”, it might have just been the leader pointing at that ladder. (So, maybe we could argue that the REAL leader was hiding behind a tree…)
That’s why Leadership is an ‘existentially ethical’ process. It is not just about “how I see things” - my cognitive sense-making - or about making others discover a new map of the territory (what we call “constructivism”, or popularly known as “consciousness”). Within such an epistemology, the enlightened individual always remains the ‘ego at the centre’ busily constructing the world in their mind. It’s about my being-in-relation to the world, being pulled into the world. It’s about enabling an Organisation or individual to learn “how to become”, growing their innate capacity to act, contribute to, and step into the aliveness of the system. But freedom needs a reason to be free. And here, that forceful pointer, that carries an irritating demand of the world to step responsibly into my fullest freedom, ever only works as a gift — it manifests its charism only when it arrives without the chains of command or control attached. When it reveals itself as a transcendental “us”, the primordial energy of life…
So, that’s my thinking now. In this context, I recall being in a meeting at the Institute of Directors in London with Nigel Farage, pre-Brexit. After an hour into his talk I was both hugely impressed and utterly frightened by the compelling simplicity of his arguments to leave the EU. Most of his stated reasons were utterly flawed, and even deceitful, but nevertheless his speech was brilliant. The room was boiling with energy! What I realised there and then was that the necessary counterarguments, albeit more truthful and accurate, often sounded dry, complicated and lifeless. And, as we know, the Brexiteers won. Good narratives are powerful, even when they are wrong. I reckon we must stay alert and critical, and at least once every decade we should re-examine our accumulated truths, stories and favourite quotes to ensure we are not unwittingly perpetuating an ineffective gospel.
Sorry, dear Steve, your book — for many reasons — is not on my best-books list anymore, but my most sincere thanks go to you, nevertheless! You’ve provided that initial disruptive pointer that made me want to become the ‘best leader I could be’ and I haven’t stopped trying ever since. And I know now that this is truly a journey that never ends…
COMMENTS & CLARIFICATIONS: Many people came back and suggested that the “pointing of the finger” could be interpreted in many less positive ways, or that Stephen Covey had written a very good book. I reckon herein lies the difficult of bringing across different “epistemological paradigms” that are “deconstructed” in the story. Hence, I will offer a few of the comments here that might help to clarify the deeper philosophical implications (as far as I understand them myself)…
Q: Pointing the finger can mean so many things — is it to the vision, the culprit, the success, the mistake. Does pointing the finger mean the leader knows it all?
A: You’re absolutely right — and to a degree that’s on purpose ie the gesture is “disruptive” in many ways because it is ambiguous.
Q: I still like the quotes, pausing for an overview before acting, walking the talk, and developing yourself, still rings true. But I am totally with you, that our understanding of leadership has deepened and evolved. And even more, I absolutely agree, that our stories shape our thinking and actions and what kind of person we become.
A: With this piece, and I made some alterations to the story to make the challenge clearer, we are entering into a conversation about post-structuralism (Levinas, Derrida, Foucault etc) — and their fundamental challenge of a constructivist epistemology. The whole idea of the narrative that we use to make meaning of our identity is being deconstructed and replaced by a primordial “ethics of subjectivity”. I have not been very good at bringing this out as I started the piece with an image, but the challenge here is even more fundamental.
Q: I also love those quotes. When we point a finger as you say it can have many implications and meanings and we must not forget (point a finger out in front of you), when we do this, we have 3 fingers curled back in our palm pointing back to ourselves.
A: Very true! Yet, sadly, here I’m failing to bring across the depth of the argument as it’s not quite about the finger but about epistemology :-). It’s a question how “we become” and the post structuralists deconstruct the idea that we create meaning by hermeneutical interpretation of reality in our own mind — which was the key idea of constructivists and structuralists. Their notion instead is phenomenological, ie that our being is “in the world” and not an act of our sense-making. On that basis, a gesture of disruption summons us to our primordial existential being, before any constructed identity. Therefore, so they argue, ethics is the first philosophy, as we only exist in relation to others. We find our freedom in the irreplaceable uniqueness for the “Other”, not in “ego-logical consciousness”. To note — Problem with consciousness is that we are always necessarily in the centre of our own reality, also called relativism. So the “gesture of disruption”, the pointing towards something that wants our awareness in and for the world, is the only way to truly transform…
Q: As soon as we start talking about pointing the finger I start to get uncomfortable. How is the conception of leadership as some ONE pointing the way, not a perpetuation of leader as saviour or messiah?
A: To a degree, I chose the image on purpose because it creates resistance, wonder, disruption. I want to signal “hermeneutic certainty” and then create the “violence of deconstruction”. That said, the picture and the philosophy which I tried to represent here is complicated, to say the least. To a degree what it suggests is that we need to remain vulnerable to be taught. We need to be open to the disruption of our thinking. The leader who points the finger is not a hero, because you’re not looking at him or her, and neither at their finger, you’re not trying to be like them or follow to where they point. They’re pointing to something that for you, and just you, might be meaningful. Something that causes a question, rather than provide an answer. Something that just for you might create a summoning to step deeper into the world, to rethink who you are and why, to reposition yourself. That’s far away from that heroic knight charging into battle. Rather, it is a caring jester, a pattern breaker, a teacher, an “ironist” who cares deeply about your growth and knows that sometimes what irritates you, will tell you most about ourselves. That sometimes they must point a finger, to get you thinking about how that finger is not what it seems to be…
Q: Stephen Covey was one of the first business consultants to advocate for goodness in leadership. Heroism certainly is not what Covey is or more accurately, was or represented.
A: I am sure that is true, but I must admit this story — in spite of the starting question — was not about Steve Covey! I could have chosen any other quote that offered a metaphor for leadership that — in my interpretation — became problematic. It was about my sense-making from metaphors and quotes (as they say: “they are no indecent books, only indecent readers!”), and eventually about the post-structural challenge to the epistemology of “constructivist” sense-making. Whilst popular, “consciousness” or constructivism is not the only — and from Levina’s perspective, a flawed access to truth and ethics. So, Steve Covey has certainly written a wonderful book, but for many reasons — not even specifically this one quote — today the system and language I use is not his anymore. Be Proactive, Begin With the End in Mind. Put First Things First, Think Win-Win, Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood, Synergize, Sharpen the Saw — are useful principles, but in my perspective do not offer a coherent path towards wisdom. But, of course, that does not imply that I suggest Steve is supportive of a heroic image of leadership, or is behaving heroically — that would be, pardon the pun, like “looking at the finger”, rather then towards where the gesture points. Maybe I need to make this clearer!