Common Ground Leadership

Reading Manfred F.R. Kets De Vries’ Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership was like embarking on a backpacking trip. One had to slog through the initial rough terrain, enduring steep switchbacks before reaching breathtaking mountain-top vistas. Except I thought this book’s trailhead started in the dumps. I was almost tempted to use my newly acquired skill I learned from Pierre Bayard and talk about a book I haven’t read. But just like backpacking I trudged, one foot in front of the other until I reached familiar footings that gave me time to reflect on important things about leadership.

As I was reflecting on why I was having a tough time connecting with Kets De Vries’ ideas I decided I’d better review his presuppositions to gain proper perspective. The author is not opaque and states them clearly in the beginning. He uses three frameworks in this book: (1) Psychodynamics, (2) Evolutionary Psychology and (3) Neuroscience. Indeed, these are fascinating subjects and as much as I’m tempted to quibble with them, I’m afraid I’d only end up contributing to the “dystopian worries”1 the author warns us about.

However, as I read through the material I began to pick up things I found familiar with my own research. And that is the whole idea of common ground. The idea of ‘common ground,’ at least in Christian Apologetics, purports that there are transcendent basic human values shared among humanity from the beginning of time. In worldview terms, it’s understood as being able to answer five ultimate questions: the question of origins, identity, meaning of life, morality and destiny.

So it was refreshing to discover that Kets De Vries addresses these important issues as part of a developing leader. For instance he connects our goal in leadership to life’s purpose. He says “Many studies have shown that having a purpose is good for our mental health.”2 This idea of adopting a purpose comports well with another expert, Edwin Friedman, in which he analogized a human cell undergoing the process of specialization3 that aids in the function of the organism. To be a good, self-differentiated leader we must answer the fundamental questions in life for ourselves: Who am I? Why am I here? What is life all about? What’s the meaning of my life? Kets De Vries said that if we avoid these questions, life becomes superficial and empty.4

Another exciting discovery for me in reading Kets De Vries is his allusion to what sociologist Peter Berger calls ‘signals of transcendence.’ Again, very much related to the whole idea of common ground (common grace for the Reformed), Berger thinks that there exists timeless, transcendent truths that evoke a sense of soul-searching in a person who unwittingly comes face to face with realities of human experience. I’m guessing Kets De Vries is not a believer. And yet it’s refreshing that he includes concepts in his leadership training that ultimately finds its source in God. Values such as hope5, play6, humor7 and order8 are all what makes us human9. These are the things that connect us deeply with those we are trying to lead. If we are wise, we will seek to establish common ground with those we are trying to influence, whether that be in our own families or in organizations that count on us to lead.

Nuanced Juxtapositions

O wow! Reading Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve was like drinking from a fire hydrant — there’s just so much to assimilate. I found myself highlighting many parts, frequently re-reading sections, trying to comprehend his ideas about leadership. Then there were the familiar concepts we’re told not to emulate, such as empathy and togetherness.1 There was a welcomed subversive theme in his writing, doing away with the old, ineffective ways of dealing with organizational issues that looked to external regressive forces.2 But instead he asserted that the way forward is to look into our “self” and become what he calls a “self-differentiated” leader.

There were also what I call the nuanced juxtapositions of commonly amicable words that made me think harder about them. Side by side words such as peace over progress, flexible or wishy washy, rigid or principled, selfish vs. self-‘ish,’ genius or madness, etc. Not only were they clever, but I found the literary approach helpful to discern more carefully my own attitudes and behavior in situations that trigger my actions. Choosing one over the other makes a big difference in how we become mature.

There are too many good lessons that I’m afraid I can only put to practice some of them. The following are the ones that resonate with me in my present leadership context.

Anxiety. There’s the garden variety kind of anxiety that many of us are familiar with and experience with some regularity. Some of what triggers may be due to unmet goals, missed deadlines, etc. Then there’s the unacknowledged anxiety. This is much harder to deal with because it lies beneath the subconscious. If not dealt with properly, it leads to empathy,3 which then leads to a spiraling regressive triangle4 relationship. Fortunately we have a third member of the triangle who can break in at any point and redeem the broken relationship. That person of course is Jesus. He invites us to come to him, to trade our burdens for his because they are light and he will give us rest.5

Self-Differentiation. Friedman makes it very clear that a good leader is one who is self-differentiated. He describes that person as

“I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”6

Friedman says we never get there but rather it’s a life long process that we must persevere through. I see this person as fully mature, well-balanced and secure. So the key to a successful family or organization is having a leader who is self-differentiated. I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s admonition to “not think of yourself more highly than you ought…”7 There is the implication that there is a desirable and expected state of who we are as individuals. A mature person does not think lower or higher than he or she actually is. In the same passages Paul exhorts us to fulfill our calling by exercising our gifts. This parallels Friedman’s idea of “specialization” in which members contribute to the good of the larger society.8

Like I mentioned earlier, there are so many helpful concepts on what it means to be a good leader. These two takeaways are what stuck with me.

History: His Story

Reading this new historical tome by Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads reminded me of my favorite quote which sums up the atrocities in the Middle Ages: “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”1 It’s a gruesome picture but in many ways accurate.

Frankopan’s project in this book was to attempt to write world history, not necessarily from the point of view of the winners, the “accepted and lazy history of civilization” but from alternative sources. He does have a point. I admit, my own knowledge of world history came from the “lazy” perspective where 

“Ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry crossed with democracy in turn yielded the United States, embodying the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”2

I suspect I’m not the only one and many of my friends, from the learned to the simple minded, especially those who grew up in the West, subscribe to this incomplete view of world history. I was intrigued and a part of me couldn’t wait to get to the end. I was patient and managed to read through the conclusion. Did Frankopan succeed in his goal to “rewrite” world history? Was he fair and objective, writing about events as it actually happened? 

I am no history buff, and so anything he wrote I took at face value. To my surprise and delight I thoroughly enjoyed it. Did I agree with everything he wrote? Not necessarily, but that’s neither here nor there. No one agrees 100% with everything anyone says. We all get some things right and some things wrong—no is perfect. The following are some of the highlights I gleaned from the book which I found helpful.

  1. I learned a lot. This is perhaps the thing I am most grateful for. For instance I didn’t realize that Christianity in the 3rd century was being compared to other religions in Persia to see which religion was “superior.”3 Nor did I know that “the barbarians were at the gates” more than once in history. I learned about the “steppes” and the beginnings of the Low Lands. I learned about the etymology of “slaves” and a closely related word in Italian “Ciao.” I leaned about the two shots fired in the summer of 1914 that changed history and divided nations that really did not want to go to war. Much of this has given me a renewed desire to visit these historical sites and actually have something to say about what happened at these places.
  2. Need to be careful about bias. It should not be a shock to anyone to learn that history is written by the winners. That’s obvious. But if what is meant by “history is written by the winners” is that there is a pervading bias, a triumphalist tone in the reporting of history, then that is entirely something else. The important thing to ask is: Is it true? Are the facts being reported comport to the actual events? We all have bias. It’s unavoidable. The important question is: can we admit and set aside our partiality enough so that we can look at things objectively?
  3. God is in charge. Frankopan’s view of world history is more depressing than I think it actually is. He hardly mentions the great Christian movements during the Middle Ages (Dark Ages for the pessimists). There’s almost nothing mentioned about the centrality of Israel in world history, which I find curious. I don’t deny that many horrible things were done in the name of Christianity throughout history. But I don’t find that troubling because we see the same kinds of things reported in Scripture. Humanity, created in God’s image, rebelled against God in the beginning. We’ve needed a savior ever since. God has a strange way of superintending human events. For example, God used Cyrus II, a pagan king to restore Israel in 6th century BC. Or how about God allowing the Israelites to “plunder the Egyptians” centuries before as they escaped their captors. 
  4. Abject humility. Since we don’t have God’s perspective we have to admit our ignorance about how world events shape history. Sure, we have some knowledge about it but we can’t authoritatively claim we know for certain how certain events will turn out. A practical application of this was already pointed out by Frankopan’s work. For example, throughout history, believers were sure the apocalypse was near, but it never happened. Extending this a bit further, it now becomes pointless to argue for a particular view of eschatology. When folks ask me if I’m “pre-trib, premillennial” or “post-trib,” “amill”, etc., I just shake my head and say “I’m optimistic.” Then I get a chuckle. All I know for sure is that Jesus is coming back again. Until then, I’m going to remain curious and humble about world history.