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The Wise Leader in a Postmodern Organizational Context

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Model Four (Appreciative) focuses on identifying and giving voice to the wisdom (insights, knowledge, skills) that the successful leader already possesses—not on new learning or growth. Furthermore, this wisdom is uncovered and appreciated within a specific context that is co-created by the leader and her colleague (mentor, coach, retreat facilitator). The leader’s current mugs are overflowing. The leader has only to become more fully aware of these “bountiful” resources and the best way in which to engage these resources on behalf of her organization.

I propose that as our society becomes more complex, unpredictably and turbulent (the postmodern condition) and as our population becomes older on average (the “graying” of society), it is likely that the third and fourth models of leadership education will become more important, more often engaged and in need of further refinements.

The Challenge of Relativism

While I believe that postmodern leaders can become lifelong learners and have noted ways in which we are changing and expanding on our notions about adults learning, I wish to dig deeper and explore the profound challenge that underlies virtually any new learning associated with the postmodern realities of 21st Century life. I propose that we live in a world of relativity and uncertain knowledge. In such a world how shall we make commitments and honor enduring values? How do we continue to learn when new knowledge often calls into question our most closely (and carefully) held assumptions and perspectives?

Who knows if unadulterated good and bad, right and wrong were ever appropriate perspectives on the nature of truth and reality? The postmodern world is one that demands a relativistic perspective, if we do not want to shut out what we are learning. What are the tools of thought that will help us in our willingness to take action in a world that is fluid and in which ethics are more situational and elusive? William Perry’s description of the movement from relativism to a commitment in relativism offers us some insight into this process.

From Dualism to Commitment in Relativism

Perry suggests that many mature men and women move beyond a way of thinking (dualism) in which everything is either identified as black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, clear or unclear. They move to a way of thinking (relativism) in which there are rights and wrongs, and goods and bads that exist within a specific community of belief and are not universal. Thus, within a specific scientific community, certain postulates are accepted as valid and are subject to rules of verification that have been formulated by that specific community. Yet, within another scientific community a different set of postulates are accepted and a different set of rules are followed in efforts to verify these postulates. Thus, in each of these communities there are “truths”—but in neither case can truth be claimed as universal or all encompassing. We see this dynamic played out in the field of psychology during most of the 20th Century. Three warring camps—behaviorism, humanism and psychoanalysis—and many sub-camps fought against one another, yet could never make much headways, since each camp made the argument for truth using methods and criteria of validity that neither of the other two camps accepted or even recognized as appropriate to a valid study of the human condition.

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