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.

  1. Kets De Vries, Manfred F. R. Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership: Leadership Pathology in Everyday Life. S.l.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. Loc. 193, Kindle.
  2. Ibid., Loc. 2633, Kindle.
  3. Edwin H. Friedman, Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Church Publishing, 2017). Loc. 2489, Kindle.
  4. Kets De Vries, Loc. 2646, Kindle.
  5. Ibid., 362, Kindle.
  6. Ibid., 1445, Kindle.
  7. Ibid., 1807, Kindle.
  8. Ibid., 343, Kindle.
  9.  Interestingly, these are four out of the five of Berger’s ‘signals of transcendence.’ In other writings he refers to these as “prototypical human gestures.”

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