What is a Leader? (new series)

For a series of posts, I am exploring the topic of leadership. What is it? Why is leadership important? Why do we have such a hard time with leadership development? How do you train leadership? 

This is an important question because the Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth (MAPLE) is a mindfulness and leadership development center. I am the Executive Director and Assistant Teacher (as of Sept 2020), so my job is to be the leader here and train other leaders.

In the past, I’ve explored a lot in terms of entrepreneurship, personal development, and strategy. But, I’m discovering that there is a lot to leadership that most people rarely explore.

So, let’s begin with a basic question.

What is a Leader?

Leadership is the skill of power to bring individuals together towards a vision, a direction that they could not have done alone. At least not as effectively. 

Leadership specifically seems to connote power over a group. For example, we would not call a solo-entrepreneur a leader. It doesn’t make sense to call a single doctor a leader. When we say leader, we imagine an army captain as the leader of their platoon, a mayor as leader of a city government, a sports captain as a leader of their team, or the CEO as a leader of a corporation

Leadership also specifically addresses the dynamic of power over people.

How to Become a Leader? Types of Leaders & Power

There are of course many forms of power over people. A common stereotype of leadership is the threat of physical violence to coerce people to do the leader’s bidding. This is how most dictatorships or monarchies work. This brute power is historically the most common form of leadership in early human civilizations. This is elementary school power. But, according to the Dao De Jing, this is in the long run, the worst form of power for governing a society:

True leaders
are hardly known to their followers.
Next after them are the leaders
the people know and admire;
after them, those they fear;
after them, those they despise.

To give no trust
is to get no trust.

When the work’s done right,
with no fuss or boasting,
ordinary people say,
“Oh, we did it”.

Ursula Le Guinn translation of DDJ Chapter 17

Normally, leaders who are despised and followed only through terror only last one generation at most. If a leader is despised then people will plot to get rid of you as soon as possible. 

Of course, most of us are not living in early civilizations. We encounter leadership more in academia, politics, and business. In these artificial, civilized organizations, power is tied with roles and titles. We consider power as given to you in the form of a position like Manager or VP by a higher powerful entity like a President or Board. In this type of delegated power, people are placing their faith in the organization itself rather than the leader. To advance in a large bureaucracy like this, your reputation matters more than your actual merits. It makes sense to get into good graces of the higher-ups by manipulating people’s perception of you. However, I would say our civilized tendency to conflate leadership power with organizational positions is a problem. Being promoted and having a rank or title doesn’t make you a good leader.. 

True leadership comes from earning respect from the followers. Major Winters, featured in the incredible TV Mini-series Band of Brothers, talks about this form of leadership based on respect of followers:

The key to successful leadership is to earn respect — not because of rank or position, but because you are a leader of character. In the military, the president of the United States may nominate you as a commissioned officer, but he cannot command for you the loyalty and confidence of your soldiers. Those you must earn by giving loyalty to your soldiers and providing for their welfare. Properly led and retreated right, your lowest-ranking soldier is capable of extraordinary acts of valor. Ribbons, medals, and accolades, then, are poor substitutes to the ability to look yourself in the mirror every night and know that you did your best. You can see the look of respect in the eyes of the men who have worked for you.

Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters

Many people think you get power and leadership by getting a rank, a position, a role. But, a rank (ideally) is only an external signal of the power. True power, true leadership stems from the followers giving away the power. In a company, employees may follow a manager because they value their paycheck more than good leadership. But, without the respect of the follower, the leader will never be as effective.

This respect is earned by being competent, by knowing your team, by making good decisions, by having good character. This high standard of character means remaining humble rather than beloved. We will explore further in future posts on how to become a great leader.

For now, it seems odd that the Dao De Jing however states a higher form of leadership is the leader who is merely known to exist but the followers assign power and achievements to themselves or nature. How is it that the beloved, respected leader is even an inferior form to this barely-known leader?

This barely known leader is the best form of leadership when it promotes leadership up and down the hierarchy. When the conditions are set up such that everyone can take a little self-leadership to do what’s right. Thereby, it seems that no leader was ever involved.

Even with beloved, respected leaders, there is the potential danger of the followers becoming reliant on the leader for everything. Rather than cultivating their self-leadership, they place their full trust and agency onto the leader. While this is good if the leader is virtuous and wise, this reliance on the leader falls short of an organization that can create more empowered leaders.

Thus, at the Monastic Academy, our intention is to create awakened leaders rather than awakened followers. 

Now we have established this ideal form of leadership and the necessity of leaders to create more leaders. In future posts, we will cover what are the roadblocks to becoming a leader? I will break down more how do you gain the respect of a team? What are the qualities and sub-skills of Leadership?  How do you train more leadership?

And what is the difference between forms of group power such as a manager versus a leader? How does MAPLE train leadership?


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