Leadership for Great Culture

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

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9 Responses to “Leadership for Great Culture”

  1. Karen Says:


    Inspiring and refreshing. The world needs more leaders like Nelson Mandela.

  2. BM Says:

    Good thoughts. Nice to keep in mind for anyone who leads — and we all do at some point. Hope to see more from “tinker”.

  3. Mary Says:

    Your words are enlightening and reveal that the culprit is the ego! The ego driven leader thinks: how can I benefit or profit from my leadership role? The non-ego leader thinks: how can my fellow citizens benefit or profit from my leadership role? Sadly, the many who seek the path to leadership roles are driven by their self promoting motives and that seems to be the definition of politics.

    I wonder if the “me first” impulse has become an acceptable trend of “climbing the professional/political ladder” at the cost of blinding us from seeing the higher gain of our culture/society?

    Your good challenge is timely – what surprise can we offer?

  4. Dave Says:

    I enjoyed your thoughtful essay. Please keep giving us hope by presenting examples of authentic leaders and organizations.

  5. Kim Says:

    Great reflection, Liza, that made me think about the numbers of talented people who are resigning from so-called great jobs during a recession. It seems more and more employees are asking themselves the really rough question – Does any good work come from my work? Bottom line is – if only leaders listened more and asked the same question…

  6. Talia Champlin Says:

    Thanks, Lisa.

  7. Steve Says:

    Check out “Power and Love” new book by Adam Kahane.

  8. Cathy Lozen Says:

    Thank you for sharing this well written (by Lisa) and thoughtful article. Unfortunately it brought to mind too many current examples of dysfunctional leadership and too few examples of capable and mission-oriented leadership. I intend to share this with a few friends who may benefit from the insights presented as they continue to fight the good fight.

  9. Dorothy Young Says:

    I am back at MSU trying to learn all that I can to help young mothers and their children, know that they are the leaders of tomorrow. I am very happy to know that you are still here. I will share this with my friends who are thinking the same way that I am. I
    would like to share my ideas with you and make changes where needed.
    This is great. Keep up the good work. Dorothy Young

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