Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Emerson, Whitman: Leaders for Our Times?

Audio post / podcast

They may be unlikely leaders for our times -- 19th-century American Transcendentalists whose work has been read so often that it may even seem threadbare and tired. But, when viewed as leadership texts, the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman seems almost shockingly insightful, vibrantly alive, and anchored in a disturbing conundrum: boundlessness vs respect for boundaries -- what could be more appropriate for our globalized times and consciousness?

The first time I read Emerson's essay, "Circles," I was captivated by the expansiveness of his vision. It was a mental exercise that encouraged one to strive to make connections with other people, and to operate under the assumption that we're all connected in some deep, spiritual way.

Later, I started to think that his sense that conversations are circles that overlap and touch on each other seemed patriarchal in a very negative way. It felt like engulfment. In certain ways, it seemed to reinforce concepts of Manifest Destiny. After all, whose conversations engulfed whom? White males with power, money, and the right to vote.

But -- that said, there is something about the Transcendentalists of the 19th century that resonates with the globalization and fears of engulfment or isolation that we wrestle with today. Of course, our perspectives have changed and when we look at westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, we have to look at the American expansion as a very mixed experience. Certainly some profited, but others paid a very steep price. There was, after all, genocide of indigenous peoples and slavery.

At the same time, the idea of new frontiers and possibilities can be translated to today's times. All we have to do is to look at the announcement of the new iPhone, or new developments in communications technology and the Internet, to feel the same sense of boundlessness, liberation, and possibilities. Today's boundlessness, unity, and transcendentalism tend to express themselves through technology.

Granted, the 19th-century Transcendentalists may not seem like technology gurus or change agents for today, but their ideas are well attuned to leadership challenges of today. Below are a few areas:

Change Leadership: Change means forcing yourself out of a comfort zone. It means learning how to adapt. It also means learning how to identify where it is that you want to go, and to maintain an inner calm when the unexpected happens.

"Everything looks permanent until its secret is known." "Circles"

A true leader shows us how to smoothly negotiate our comfort zones. We shouldn’t reject the concept of a comfort zone – after all, we’re talking about a necessary survival zone, too. At the same time, we need to be sheltered and guided as we travel down unfamiliar paths. A leader is a mentor, a guide, a kind-hearted believer in human creativity and adaptability.

What are the secrets we seek? The surface may be smooth, but underneath are deep currents that portend change. Life force is not housed on the surface, but flows in the dark, unknown waters underneath. Leaders and leadership are in those dark-flowing waters.

Focus on Constant Renewal and Growth: The effective leader knows how to nurture. She knows how to inspire growth. But, instead of a series of lightning bolts of inspiration, what Emerson describes is a process, and the individual stays constantly in motion.

"We grizzle every day. I see no need of it." Emerson, "Circles"

What did Emerson mean? How can we slow the march of time? He was writing long before Botox and laser surgery. How do we “grizzle every day”?

I grizzle when I give up. I grizzle when I cynically dismiss someone’s ideas, or refuse to accept a new viewpoint. I “ungrizzle” (or “degrizzle”) when I look at things in a fresh, new way. I embrace change, I welcome frustration, I forgive myself for not being “perfect.” As I forgive myself for my imperfections, I learn to forgive others.

That’s the beauty of it.

Inclusiveness: In Whitman’s universe, we are connected. Our spirits, our souls, our writhings on this mortal coil are never undetected by others. What we do affects others. What others do affects us.

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.

Walt Whitman, "I Sing the Body Electric"




The idea of interpenetrating essences can sound like the ultimate in inclusiveness, or, alternatively, it can seem overwhelmingly invasive. I think it’s a matter of degree – think of how you connect with others. What makes you relate to another person in a non-judgmental way? The key is to connect to your own sense of a higher self.

Granted, it’s easier if you’re the person in the situation of privilege and power.

Vision-based Leadership: Both Emerson and Whitman wrote in highly visual, metaphorical ways. Of course, we’d expect Whitman to create a vision – after all, he was a poet. The vision has to do with the humanity, and ultimate outcomes.

The successful leader is able to communicate a vision that can be shared by those who hear it. It must resonate with their values, and they must see that the vision is, in some way, transformative.

The transformation is not something imposed by the leader, but offered up as a way to unlock one’s innate potential.

Respect for the Fundamental Humanity of All People: Perhaps what moves me most of all when I read Whitman is the abiding respect for humanity and diversity.

It immediately resonates with an inclusive notion of religious experience – an altered state, a trance-like ecstatic union with purity and omnipotence.

Perhaps the religious overtones are what may make people feel a bit uncomfortable in employing Whitman in the service of leadership text. For this reason, people may prefer to stick with the old pragmatists – Franklin, Lincoln, Machiavelli. But, perhaps there is a place for the ecstatic altered state, the irrational, the passionate in leadership.

What some might say is that we’re seeing is a component of the charismatic leader. Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps it is also true that we’re seeing that you can’t overlook the power of emotion to motivate people to care and to believe.


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Authentic Leadership - Empathy Coupled with Experience: I hear “surprise” and I cringe. I’ve experienced too many painful surprises. How quickly I forget the pleasant surprises! I spend much too much time creating the thickest, most impenetrable armor possible. In protecting myself, I cut myself off from being able to recognize the small beauties, the lovely and unexpected surprises, the “life gifts” that greet me every day, if only I would open my eyes.

"Life is a series of surprises" Emerson, "Circles"

Authentic leadership rests on the ability to “see.” In this case, seeing has to do with being able to recognize what other people are doing, experiencing, and expressing. The authentic leader can empathize with a person because he or she has been through the same thing – and – they recognize that shared point of contact. They also are willing to tell their stories; relay tales of success, failure, and self-overcoming.

Both Emerson and Whitman exhort us to reach within ourselves and find the points of emotional and experiential contact and to open ourselves, our hearts, our minds. We are encouraged to learn how to care about our fellow traveler on this planet. This is valuable for the leader, who must be willing to become vulnerable in order to be able to guide others through their challenges and hard times.

Unlikely Leaders: Yes, Whitman and Emerson are unlikely leaders. Similarly, poetry and moldering nineteenth century transcendental essays seem to be unlikely leadership texts. I would like to suggest, however, that they might actually be the most powerful texts because they touch a side of life and consciousness that typical leadership readings rarely address. I’m not saying we should get rid of organizational behavior, developmental psychology, motivation, cognitive psychology, sociology, military history, and other approaches to leadership. Instead, I’d simply like us to remind ourselves of the efficacy of the humanities in dealing with leaders and leadership.


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