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The Courageous Leader in a Modern Organizational Context

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The Ambiguous Enemy

The premodern enemy is usually rather easy to identify. He is out there, threatening us at the gates of our city (or organization). The internal enemy is inherently ambiguous—unless we chose to take the destructive path of identifying a specific and tangible internally-threatening enemy. How do we go about identifying and “concretizing” the ambiguous internal enemy? Do we use the rhetoric of warfare, such as often occurs with a government agency: “the war on drugs” or “homeland security”? While this may work short term, this rhetoric carries unwanted or inappropriate baggage with it. We look to war-like strategies to defeat the war-like internal enemy. We question loyalty when alternative perspectives are offered. We apply coercion rather than either clarification or persuasion to bring about the “defeat” of the internal enemy.

Much as the challenge of premodern courageous leadership can be summed up in two words (“powerful enemy”), so the challenge of modern leadership/management of courage can be summed up in two other words: EMPATHETIC EMPOWERMENT. The effective leader of courage will be open to alternative perspectives and will fully appreciate the need for flexibility in addressing the complex problems of the modern world. Furthermore, this leader will fully embrace and engage the processes of empowerment as related to patterns of communication, conflict-management, problem-solving and decision-making in her department or organization.

The Strategies of Empathic Empowerment

There are several alternative strategies that can be applied in moving toward empathetic empowerment. These strategies are much less warlike in orientation. The metaphors to be used are based on models of appreciation and collaboration. First, we can frame the internal enemy as a corrective polarity. A specific perspective or strategy has gone too far or is no longer relevant. For instance, it may be important to honor organizational traditions and to serve the interests of continuity and predictability within an organization. Excessive and indiscriminate change can destroy an organization. Yet, an emphasis on tradition, continuity and predictability can be pushed too far, leading an organization to atrophy. The enemy becomes an over-emphasis on tradition (or an over-emphasis on change). This over-emphasis needs to be “corrected” not “defeated.” The empowering leader can show modern-day courage by pointing the way to this correction and by ensuring that the correction doesn’t shove the organization to the opposite extreme and to a whiplash swinging from extreme to extreme. This first approach to framing and managing the internal enemy is systemic in nature. There is a need for rebalancing the organization—an acknowledgement of homeostasis (the important and adaptive tendency of healthy organizations to return to some balance point between two extremes).

The second way in which to frame the internal enemy is based on an alternative perspective regarding organizations as systems. This approach focuses on the dynamics of homeorhesis (the important and adaptive tendency of healthy organizations to return to some operational pattern). This approach is much more ambitious and much harder to engage than homeostasis. It is much easier to return an organization to homeostasis than it is to identify, address and correct an embedded organizational pattern. What do these homeorhetic patterns look like? They often involve one or more of the four patterns I identified previously: communication, conflict-management, problem-solving or decision-making.

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