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Featured in Soul Light #16

© 2005 Corinne McLaughlin

Bringing together the best of both hierarchy and democracy was perhaps the most important lesson I learned about leadership in the organizations I've worked in. The principle of hierarchy has received a bad rap in recent years in alternative and spiritual groups because of the abuse of power by hierarchies in our society, but it needs to be redeemed and understood.

Having previously experienced only oppressive, top-down hierarchies in my life, I was naturally drawn to the iconoclastic, anti-leader politics of the Ď60s and Ď70s.  In those days, I didnít recognize the importance of hierarchy, and I refused to assume or acknowledge my own leadership, even when I was the co-founder of the organization.  I was always trying to be more inclusive and democratic.  I wanted to make sure that power was distributed equally among members of the groups I was involved in--even when someone had only recently joined or was clearly not very committed to the groupís goals.

This brought many painful experiences.  I was holding too high an expectation of other peoples' abilities and their willingness to shoulder responsibility.  When they didnít conform to my expectations, Iíd feel resentful and judgmental. Even though I wouldnít express this openly, people could feel it.  It didnít exactly create a very harmonious group!

But I finally had a spiritual breakthrough. I learned to take more responsibility for my own leadership, and also to see other people more realistically.  I learned to evaluate their commitment to the group more objectively, as well as their skills and their potential leadership abilities.  I recognized the importance of creating a balance of hierarchy and democracy in a group.

Democracy has an important spiritual core. We all have the same divine potential within us, and we will all eventually express our full potential.  But at any given moment, not all of us are at the same level of actually manifesting our potential. We may only be expressing part of our full talents and abilities.  In every group, there is always a hierarchy of ability present, and this needs to be recognized. This perception avoids burdening people with unrealistic expectations that can cause guilt, anger or resentment if they are not currently living up to their full potential.

The principle of hierarchy acknowledges current abilities, quality and excellence.  It recognizes  actualized potential-- ability and accomplishment. It values leadership, purpose, direction, vision, efficiency. Recognizing hierarchy can provide clarity and accountability. It can encourage and reward initiative. It can provide models of achievement for others to aim for.  It can offer mentoring for those who are younger or less experienced. Each of us must learn to recognize whom we can learn from, because s/he is more advanced in certain areas.  (And this offers the opportunity to learn humility).  But we must also recognize whom we can serve, because s/he hasnít yet developed certain qualities that we might already have. (And this then offers the opportunity to learn responsibility).

The principle of democracy acknowledges future potential and empowers its development, giving people the maximum freedom to grow and develop. It provides opportunity and encouragement. It values inclusiveness, relationship, listening, compassion. Equal opportunity, political rights, and decision-making power are bestowed on all so that individuals may develop their full potential. There is an emphasis on inclusiveness, where everyone is equally honored and encouraged to participate. This can be especially reassuring, especially for those lacking self-worth or self-confidence.

However, I found that an obsession with equality can come from a lack of self-worth, as it may be a subtle demand for reassurance that you are just as good as anyone else. It can also come from a fear of accepting your own leadership responsibilities.

Overemphasis on equality in a group can also lead to a lack of motivation for developing your own potential, as you receive no greater rewards for your demonstrated abilities, and in fact, others may even view greater abilities with jealously. This can lead to what's often called "the tyranny of the structureless group," where no one is empowered to take initiative on behalf of the group, and there is an anti-leadership bias leading to stagnation. 

In fact, thereís always leadership present in any groupóone or more people initiate new things more often and have more influence than other people.  But if their leadership is not acknowledged and made accountable and transparent, it will go underground and still affect the group unconsciously.  It may in fact become quite manipulative.

On the other hand, as we are all well aware, overemphasis on hierarchy can lead to arrogance and abuse of power, as well as missed opportunities for new creative impulses. The limitations of the leader or leadership group can become the limitations of the entire organization. This can lead to immense frustration, with a continued threat of rebellion from others in the group, or at least passive resistance and subtle sabotage.

Applying a transformational synthesis to this age-old conflict of hierarchy vs. democracy takes the best aspects of hierarchy - love and responsibility (rather than power and dominance) - and the best aspects of democracy - participatory inclusiveness (rather than the lowest common denominator) - and raises them to up to a higher synthesis.

The synthesis of the best of democracy and the best of hierarchy creates enlightened leadership. Democracy provides the container to hold and nourish people's development.  Hierarchy provides the direction to grow into. As individuals take more responsibility for the good of all, they are then given commensurate authority and power-- not the reverse. When there is a good synthesis of hierarchy and democracy, leaders only accept as much authority as people are willing to give them. Work gets done through inspiring people with vision or purpose, rather than bossing or dominating them. There is an encouragement, rather than a suppression of feedback, since good leaders know how to listen.  And leaders invest a great deal of energy in developing good relations with all members of the group.  Good leaders embody a balance of heart, mind and will (or purpose) energy.

Enlightened leaders support people in developing their abilities by providing equal opportunities and political rightsóbut do not guarantee equal outcomes.  Itís up to each individual to do the best he or she can with the opportunities given. 

Enlightened leaders create "power with" people rather than "power over" people - a blend of leadership and empowered equality, where leadership relates to function and "facilitating energy," rather than to personality. Individual learning and responsibility are fostered, as is a sense of team spirit and ownership by all members.

Enlightened leadership can be developed through both change in structure and change in consciousness or attitudes. Organizations can be structured so that people are inspired to do things for themselves, to make their own decisions, and to take on more responsibility. Leadership can be rotated and/or based on function to avoid dependency on one person.   There can also be team leadership. There needs to be an institutionalized process for creating a widely shared vision and mission, and for consensus building on major decisions. There also needs to be an agreed upon process for giving valuable feedback to leaders, and a method for gathering creative ideas from all parts of the organization.  

This new type of enlightened leadership represents a change in consciousness.  It is educative rather than directiveódrawing out the best in others. It inspires responsibility rather than creating dependence. It is based on the assumption that people already have the potential wisdom and creativity within them, so the task of leadership is mainly to encourage and draw out this potential, helping people develop their skills and sense of self-worth. People are helped to develop self-confidence and a sense of self-worth. Negotiation rather than pure authority is the basis of relationships.

Over the years Iíve had the opportunity to keep practicing and refining this synthesis of democracy and hierarchy in my own leadership. My natural tendency is to over-emphasize democratic inclusiveness, so I have to keep remembering to honor leadership and hierarchy.  Through our leadership courses at The Center for Visionary Leadership, my colleagues and I work to nurture a more enlightened leadership in the many people who take our trainings, especially  the younger generation.  Weíve also worked to build coalitions among leaders to create a new politics and to bring spiritual values into business.

Iíve recognized that the best leaders know how to work behind the scenes and avoid the ego and power trips that often snare leaders who must hog the spotlight. Iíve learned the special wisdom of the ancient Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, who said, "Leadership is best when the people say, 'We have done this ourselves!'
 

Corinne McLaughlin is co-founder of The Center for Visionary Leadership and Sirius Community, and she is co-author of Spiritual Politics and Builders of the Dawn.  She consults with various organizations, and  offers visionary leadership training and personal coaching for leaders and can be reached at corinnemc@visionarylead.org or www.visionarylead.org


 

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