Friday, April 29, 2011

Leadership and Thresholds -- the American Sea Change

Thresholds and Leadership

Thresholds are events that change world history, passages through which humankind works its way, effecting a permanent change. There needs to be more research to show how certain historical thresholds have changed leadership. For example, when Romans overthrew a hated Etruscan king, those who were now elected to lead the Roman Republic exhibited much different leadership styles and traits than the Etruscan monarchs had. One of the first consuls, Publius, ruled with humility and eagerness to please the people. He set a powerful example for future republican leaders.

Sea Change in Leadership

The founding of the United States was another threshold that changed world history. It also brought about a sea change in leadership. Prior to the American founding, there were relatively few leaders in proportion to the population of any given nation. Most of the Old World's leaders ruled through conquest or dynastic succession. The rise of the U.S. increased the absolute and relative number of leaders in the West as well as changed the rules of the game. "We the People" were no longer hierarchical subjects of a king, but equal citizens of a constitutional republic who enjoyed inherent rights, as well as the opportunity to pursue happiness as we wished. Most American leaders were not "to the manor born" but worked their way "from the bottom up." So prepare to be surprised by the people around you: Today's followers may well be tomorrow's leaders.

The frontier played a special role in developing American leadership. It called forth women and men who had to meet innumerable challenges before local, state, or national government could extend its effective reach, even for day-to-day defense. In this challenging new environment, self reliance, the cultivation of freedom under the rule of law, and a culture of democratization took root. These values have had a profound impact on who leads whom, when, and how, in America.

The three great sectors of American public life have reinforced this sea change in leadership. In the political arena, candidates standing for election must learn consensus-building skills, the art of compromise, accommodation, flexibility, and respect for rules of the game. If you lose the debate or the vote, you accept the outcome and live to fight another day. In the marketplace, the providers of goods and services have to be sensitive to people's needs and wants, offering what is socially needed and desirable -- or risk financial failure. In civil society, there are all kinds of opportunities for people to volunteer and take a lead improving the lives of others. All three of these sectors -- political, economic, and voluntary -- reinforce one another. Each sector requires ethical, effective leaders. The effect has been to dramatically increase the number of leadership opportunities in the U.S., as well as to democratize and decentralize leadership.

In America, the tyrannical type does not do well in the public square -- either in the political arena, marketplace, or civil society. Throughout our history, people have had to conceal and channel their libido dominandi. In effect they have to come across as ruling less and leading more. It means that a lot of what a leader has to do is genuinely connect with others. True leaders -- the Real Deal -- must make a better impression than the host of pretenders out there. They have to win others over in an authentic way. A leader wins others over through good people skills, integrity, hard work, smart presentation, and mastery of the practical arts of leading.

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