Leading from the Soul Part IV: Moral Purpose

The final element of leading from the soul is moral purpose. There is a terrific book on this issue by consultant Simon Sinek, titled, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.[1] Sinek argues that while most of us and the organizations we work for can readily articulate what we do and how we do it, all too often there is confusion or even no understanding of why. Why provides the beliefs and convictions that direct the what and how. If the why is missing, everything else is the product of randomness and, even more troubling, its absence provides a vacuum that will be filled by divergent interests and nefarious actors. As Sinek points out, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream, and he shared it on August 28, 1963 with 250,000 people on the mall in Washington DC. People gathered from all over the United States without having received an invitation by way of Facebook, Twitter, email, or cellphone. The three most prevalent phrases in King’s speech are “I have a dream,” “Let freedom ring,” and “Now is the time.”[2] King left us no doubt what he believed, nor of the urgency of his purpose. Like King, Steve Jobs of Apple also has a why. Jobs’ why, is to place the power of computing in the hands of every individual in the world. Today that might not sound impressive, but when Jobs started his quest in 1976, it was patently absurd; computers were never envisioned for use by anyone unless they were employed by a large corporations that would buy them from a company called International Business Machines. Jobs and his partner Steve Wozniak were determined to change all that, and in so doing they, like King, changed the world.

The search for why may be the single most important and illusive challenge we face in our lives, but it is also a challenge that must not be ignored, however frustrating it may be at times. Why are we here? What is our purpose in life? What gives our life meaning? And, perhaps the most perplexing question, how do we know what we know? We can and must ask ourselves these questions, as well as ask them of others — especially our leaders. I study presidents and foreign policy. The what happened and how it happened are usually self-evident. The why is a much more difficult question. Why did George W. Bush believe there were WMD and al-Qaeda in Iraq when there were not? Why did Bill Clinton wait so long to support action in the Balkans while the evidence of genocide was obvious? Why did Reagan decide he could trust Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of an empire he claimed was evil? Why was Carter compelled to seek peace in the Middle East, or give the Panama Canal back to Panama? I’ll offer you a methodology that works with presidents and can also be applied to your own lives: look for integrity by and between the what, how, and why. If there is a pattern of consistency—if the three are aligned—you probably have identified the why. I can tell you with presidents the public why they offer seldom reconciles with the facts of what and how. There is usually a private why that emanates from what I call their unique cognetic profile, which is somewhat analogous, in this context, to their soul. If our own answers or those of our leaders do not reconcile—if they do not have internal integrity—we must demand of ourselves and our leaders that they do.

To say that these are difficult times is a gross understatement, but there may not be words adequate to describe the challenges that face us, individually or collectively, as citizens or a nation. What we can do, however, is take a step back, take a deep breath, and remind ourselves that solitude is powerful, transcendent courage is essential, and that each of us must find our why and honor our moral purpose. If we do, we will regain our capacity to lead from the soul.

[1] Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (New York: Portfolio, 2009).
[2] The text and video of King’s speech is available at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.
By |2017-05-23T20:25:07+00:00February 23rd, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments

Leading from the Soul Part I: Introduction

When I think of great leaders I think of people like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  They were people whom against all odds and, moreover, against popular opinion, led society to places it would have never gone without them—to places that established new norms and higher expectations.  Their ideas and convictions were asserted thoughtfully and courageously and they never wavered from their purpose: to improve the lot of humanity.  These leaders spent a great deal of their time alone, reading and deliberating.  These leaders took risks that elevated everyone.  These leaders had a humble sense of self and a clear sense of mission.  When the history books are written about the early 21st century, I believe it will be claimed that while we suffered from economic malaise, global warming, terrorist acts, etc., the cause was not a housing or capital markets crisis, or an addiction to fossil fuels, or declining test scores, rising federal deficits, or even a broken healthcare system, it was rather a debilitating scarcity of leadership.  Leaders today show little, if any, of the characteristics of Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.

Affluence has had much to do with this dearth of leadership.  For the last twenty years or so, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, we frankly have not needed much leadership. If a difficult question remained unanswered, the consequences were few. Prosperity assured enough slack in the system that mistakes could be absorbed with little pain and no devastation. Evolutionary pressures that might have selected for capable leaders were largely absent.  Foreign affairs columnist for The Financial Times, Gideon Rachman, writes that the post-Cold War days of optimism are over, replaced by a new “Age of Anxiety” that portends a “zero-sum future.”[1] The so-called “Great Recession” that started in August 2007, and the turmoil of a global rebalancing of power that calls into serious question the future of America’s superpower status, means that whatever slack existed in the system is now gone.  Roger Altman and Richard Haas outlined the brutal details of American profligacy and declining American power in the journal of Foreign Affairs where they claimed, it was a lack of political will at home, as opposed to imperial overstretch “that threatens American power and security.”[2] The fact is everything has a consequence again, and leadership is essential.

Historians may also conclude that besides affluence, technology—in spite of all of its many benefits—played its own insidious role in the decline of leadership.  They may find that those digital conveniences we have come to love and dare not live without, which have forced upon us an incessant need to be connected, has pushed leadership aside in favor of distraction and trivialities.  Technology has produced a conversation that is fast, short, and shallow.  It has fooled us about friendship; convincing us we are just a click away from adding a new so-called friend.  Research has been Wiki-fied, which has led to a diminished capacity to search, contemplate, hypothesize, test, reconsider, conclude, and start the search again.  In the process we have lost our sense of method.  Debates—once like symphonies—have been reduced to sound bites and video snippets.  Solving complex problems is no longer the goal; increasing “click-throughs” and “going viral” is all that matters.

These future pages of history can, however, be avoided if we take care to reclaim our capacity for solitude, courage, and moral purpose.  This requires that we shift our behaviors to those that produce depth of thought and origination – that we have the discipline to disconnect.  It requires that we become transcendently courageous and that we focus on the ‘why’ of what we do.  It means that we each must become our own Lincoln, Gandhi, or King.  We can begin by leading from our soul and embracing a conscious discipline of self-restraint and introspection, so that we may regain our purpose and our will.  The process starts with practicing solitude so that we may know ourselves; then summon the courage of our convictions; and remain steadfastly committed to our purposes.

[1] Gideon Rachman, Zero Sum Future (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
[2] Roger C. Altman and Richard N. Haas, “American Profligacy and American Power,” Foreign Affairs, 89, no. 6 (November-December 2010): pp. 25-34.
By |2017-05-27T18:28:21+00:00January 24th, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments
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