When Nelson Mandela and his colleagues secured hard-won positions of leadership he challenged “selfish thinking.” He suggested that “restraint and generosity” guide decisions and the use of power. We all know he offered wisdom and exemplary leadership in a very difficult and complex circumstance. When in power he did not make the mistake of ego: serving self. He was able to transcend this temptation and do the right thing for the common good. He surprised his opposition by rising above the self interests of his constituency to advocate reconciliation over revenge.
Politics or Performance
Power is about the access to and use of resources. How power “plays” is a key dynamic in any organization. The norms and values that guide power define a leadership culture. In a healthy nonprofit organization, power is used for a specific change mission. Capable leaders extend influence beyond the organization’s viability. They serve a vulnerable population or serious challenge to quality of life. Regrettably, this isn’t always the agenda. Dysfunctional leaders use their power for politics: control and self interest. If you’re willing to look, it is easy is to see whether a leadership culture is focused on politics or performance.
Denial, Avoidance, Blindness
The choice to look away from what exists is denial and avoidance. It happens when a leader manages relationships and self interest rather than organizational performance. When someone says, “You can talk to me – but I am not changing my mind.” Although a subtle difference, “inattention blindness” is the inability to see what’s right in front of us. It happens when the desperate circumstances of many become so common they are ignored. It happens when the leadership culture is all politics. When there is no rudder, no conscience, no accountability and lots of ego —anything goes.
I believe great leaders step past denial, avoidance, blindness. They face into the wind and are accountable. They agree with Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, who recently said: “The truth is always hard to swallow, but it can only make us better, stronger, and smarter. That’s what accountability is all about — facing the truth and taking responsibility.”
Power as a Tool
Power that focuses on domination is oppressive in many ways. It can generate then perpetuate hardships and injustice. It often occurs by individuals and groups through gender, age, or racial affiliation. Far too often it occurs by people in jobs whose purpose is to serve. While some may not find the courage to name it, many people are offended and perplexed by the examples these leaders offer. It can severely hamper organization performance.
When Mandela assumed a recognized position, he walked past ego and challenged others about theirs. He chose mission over self-interest and competence over cronies. His altitude didn’t influence his attitude or behavior. His example begs a question: What surprise can you offer ?
-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more information, see : www.pwkinc.com