Supportive Leadership

From The Art of Supportive Leadership

Chapter One: The Art of Leadership

Genuine leadership is of only one type: supportive. It leads people: It doesn’t drive them. It involves them: It doesn’t coerce them. It never loses sight of the most important principle governing any project involving human beings: namely, that people are more important than things.

Consider a situation in which none of the above statements might seem valid: the battlefield. To a general, the most important thing, obviously, is victory. In the cause of victory he must commit men to possible, and sometimes even to certain, death. Is not victory, then-an abstraction, a thing-more important to him than the people he leads?

Yet the difference between great generals and mediocre ones may be attributed to the zeal great generals have been able to inspire in their men. Some excellent generals have been master strategists, and have won wars on this strength alone. Greatness, however, by very definition implies a great, an expanded view. It transcends intelligence and merely technical competence. It implies an ability to see the lesser in relation to the greater; the immediate in relation to the long term; the need for victory in relation to needs that will arise once victory has been achieved.

Leadership implies running at the head of the pack, and not driving it from behind. This is true also in military matters. Those who serve under a great general know well that he asks nothing of them that he would not first do himself. Such a general feels himself at one with his men, not superior to them. He knows that he and they are simply doing a job together.

A great general is a man of vision: necessarily so, for only with vision can he inspire his men to heroic action; only with vision can he make them desire victory as ardently as he does. He persuades them not by angry commands, but by the power of his own conviction. He involves others in his vision, and inspires them also to be visionaries.

People, even in warfare, are more important than things. Yet there are circumstances in which people can fulfill themselves perfectly only by total self-offering to whatever it is they believe in: times when great truths may be at stake, or when the safety of family or countrymen is threatened. There are times when, for the welfare of the greater number, individual lives must be sacrificed. The great general inspires in his soldiers, because he believes it also for himself, the realization that whatever may be demanded by the exigencies of war, death in a great cause is a life lived victoriously.

A great general is also loyal to his soldiers. Only in that spirit of loyalty does he demand loyalty of them in return.

Thus we see that even in critical times when stern command is necessary for proper leadership, the essence of genius in leadership is supportive, not dictatorial.

An example of a great general, though not always a great tactician, was George Washington. Rather than billet his tired and hungry soldiers on civilian homes, and rather than feed them by foraging, he chose-for himself as much as for his army-discomfort, cold, and hunger. Historians who have concentrated only on his need to win the war have criticized him as impractical, if not even indecisive, but Washington understood that the need of the hour was as much to win a whole people to the concept of revolution as it was to win the revolution itself. It was his breadth of vision, and his concern for human values, as well as his greatness as a man of honor, that made him one of the great generals of history.

If it is true even in the military that leadership means leading others, and involving them, not driving and coercing them, then how much more is it true in matters where total self-sacrifice is not the issue.

This book is written primarily for those who understand that more can be accomplished by working with people than over them.

Leadership is an art. Bad leadership is usually due more to clumsiness than to ill will. Leaving aside the natural bullies-most of whom, except in circumstances where bullying has been imposed as the norm, have neither the intelligence nor the perceptivity to earn positions of real authority-people who fail as leaders usually do so simply because they are ill at ease in positions of leadership. They are like the untrained singer who bellows loudly to conceal his inability to produce a pure tone; like the actor who bludgeons his audience with bombast because he hasn’t learned how to win them with subtlety; and like the mechanic who, unable to find the malfunction in a motor, kicks it in the hope of starting something.

Any tailor knows you can’t merely jam a thread through the eye of a needle. The strands must be brought carefully to a point, then inserted cautiously into the eye, allowing not a single one of them to escape.

The same is true of any art. One cannot bluster. One must attune himself sensitively to the requirements of the medium he is using. To paint fine lines, an artist must use a thin brush, not a thick one. To depict loneliness, a composer may well limit himself to a simple melodic line; certainly he won’t use crashing chords.

Bluster, unfortunately, is the response of many people in positions of leadership to even sensitive issues, issues where finesse and patience are essential if the support of one’s subordinates is to be won. At such times, especially, the temptation often arises to consider things more important than people. Often, indeed, in such situations, one hears the justification, "But it’s a matter of principle!" Is it? Sometimes, perhaps. But even then, is not kindness also a principle?

My hope in this book is to help people in positions of leadership to see their roles, not as "big shots," but as artists whose medium is the dynamics of human cooperation.

Because the suggestions offered in these pages are people-oriented rather than job-oriented, they will prove helpful as well to anyone, whether in a position of leadership or not, whose lot it is to work with others: parents, for example, in raising their children; teachers interested in drawing the best out of their students; store salesmen seeking to interest their customers in the products they sell; or anyone wanting to win others to a point of view.

Even people who live and work alone may find suggestions in these pages for drawing the best out of themselves.

To recapitulate the rules given in this chapter:

1. Genuine leadership is supportive, not coercive.

2. The true leader tries to lead others, not to drive them.

3. Leadership means involving others.

4. Leadership means vision first and above everything; action, secondarily.

5. Leadership means understanding that people are more important than things.

6. Leadership is an art, to be learned and applied sensitively. It is not to be confused with mere position.

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