You’ve probably wondered how in the world managers like yourself are going to accomplish all these difficult innovations. The ideas may make sense, but how will you restructure today’s bureaucracies into market systems? Unite diverse interest groups into a political coalition? Reorient sales to serving people? Organize work teams that manage themselves? Transform operations so that they are ecologically benign? And keep this entire system constantly adaptive to change?
You are not going to do it using authority, but by drawing out the talents of others. I was privileged to witness a vivid demonstration of this type of leadership when visiting a manufacturing company. In contrast to the antagonism between various groups that was once rife in industry, this organization had learned to work together by confronting its differences in a constructive spirit. Seated at a conference table were managers, labor leaders, suppliers, distributors, and even officials from the local government. Most striking was that the president of the company did not seem a particularly imposing person. He had no commanding presence, was not a genius, and showed little charisma. How, I wondered, did he manage to pull this diverse group of big egos together into a harmonious team?
As the meeting progressed, it became apparent that this was a different type of leader. He saw his role as encouraging the talents of the people in the organization, and so he rarely spoke himself but was more intent on asking others for their views. Remarkably, he really listened. Unlike almost all other leaders one usually meets, this man was genuinely humble in the sense that he focused on understanding the reality of the situation. It was like a breath of fresh air! A leader who cares what people really think? Who wants to hear the messy truth? Who does not impose his solutions? Surely this was either a ruse or it didn’t work, I thought.
But it did work. It energized the meeting. People brought out their problems, their ideas, their doubts, their misunderstandings, and all the other hidden agendas we normally keep contained within us. The president simply asked an occasional question, made a few suggestions for the group to consider, and tried to clarify what they were doing. Otherwise, the group controlled the meeting. Most importantly, the meeting affirmed that this was their organization. They were responsible for its success or failure, so they did whatever was needed to make it work.
OK, this humble approach really works, but what about the leader, I worried? He was obviously not “in charge’ and in fact he seemed a bit awkward and uncomfortable at times. Little wonder when people would say harsh things directly to him, such as complain about some aspect of the company and criticize his behavior occasionally. They even called him by his first name! How could he possibly maintain his dignity and self-respect, much less the power needed to be effective?
Beneath this appearance of casual disregard was a deep sense of respect and affection. Not because this leader held the power of the president, but precisely for the opposite reason. He had voluntarily yielded his authority. The heart of this relationship was that the president was genuinely concerned about the needs of the people in that organization, and he provided a subtle, supportive guidance that helped them find the way ahead. Ironically, by giving up his formal power, he was given far more real power. They would do things for this man that no ordinary boss could even ask for.
He was not simply another member of the team, however. At times he had to bear the responsibility for taking some difficult action on their behalf, such as asking for discipline or bringing up a serious issue. But because he was a true leader rather than a boss, he was able to do this with their willing support, rather like a “servant leader” or a “good father.”
This is only one example, of course, of the many different ways that good leaders work. But I think it highlights a key principle of leadership today: In a world of escalating complexity and empowered people, leaders must cultivate the art of helping others to share the responsibilities of management. And the price of their support is to relinquish that comfortable old sense of control.
Genuine participation is an intense, creative act in which people step out of their comfortable roles to engage their differences. If this painful exploration can be sustained through its twists and turns, a new clarity of awareness, or a “vision,” may be given us to guide the way ahead. Because this process involves nurturing an expanded sense of awareness, it can be said to be “spiritual.” Participative leadership, then, is the fusion of human spirits that releases new energy and vision.