By Bob Dunham
In the common sense of our culture a leader is one who has power, who gathers power, and who exercises it in a way that affects the futures of others. In the Institute for Generative Leadership we see this interpretation as inadequate to understand leadership well or to grow leadership capability to build a future we want to participate in. Although leadership certainly includes the generation and use of power, we also claim that leadership must include care, care as the point for which power is used.
Our interpretation of leadership includes answering the question “For the sake of what?” do we wish to shape the future, to desire or wield power. We can distinguish uses of power that have positive, and negative, effects on those who are affected by it. Those who seek power only for the sake of power itself, power for only their own personal concerns, or power against whole communities eventually produce negative futures for others. This happens because these kinds of leaders do not include the concerns of others in their view of the future and the power to realize it. Some may try to produce the appearance of concern for others, but in the end they cannot hide their raw greed for power. Negative leaders run the gamut from Hitler and Stalin, who built visions of a future that included the destruction of whole communities, to demagogues who create power through division and hate, and to those who pursue power for their own greed or will to power.
What we consider a positive form of leadership is one which is committed to a more positive future for all who are affected by it, including working through the tradeoffs and challenges that designing and producing such a future requires. By positive we mean that people are better able to take care of their concerns, such as for a culture of freedom or social justice, for a more prosperous and healthy community, for a successful business, or for providing services and aid to members of the community in need.
Our interpretation of leadership, which we call generative leadership, is one that is founded in human existence, in the human power to shape the future – a future that has meaning and value for a community. Leaders have certain concerns and take certain actions that distinguish them as leaders. These concerns and actions are constitutive of leadership, since they constitute, or create leadership. They are also regularities of leadership we can recognize. Our interpretation of the constitutive regularities of leadership is that:
- Leaders take care.
- Leaders build power for themselves and others.
- Leaders make offers.
- Leaders speak and move with a presence, a voice, and identity to have their offers heard and accepted.
- Leaders build new narratives of and commitments for the future with others.
Leaders take Care
Our first answer to the question of “What is a leader?” is that a leader is someone who takes care of concerns, and builds the capabilities of others to take care of their concerns. These concerns can be distinguished from the perspective that life in our current era is lived in distinctions of:
We can interpret our concerns in these two dimensions: 1) the concerns we have as individuals, as Selves, and 2) the concerns that we have for and with Others – the dimension of relationship. These concerns are related, since our concerns for others are part of what shapes the Self that we are, and our concerns as a Self orient us to how we will relate to others. But these concerns can also be differentiated.
Those concerns that arise due to the fact that we exist as a Self are those concerns that life brings us, the constitutive concerns of being human, such as taking care of our bodies, families, need for money to live, membership and community, play, work, career, and so on. We all want the power to be able to take the actions to take care of these concerns. We call these the concerns of the Self, and these are domains of action that we cannot avoid. If we don’t take care with our actions in these domains, we will have breakdowns. We claim that living a good life is taking care of these concerns.
Some of these concerns belong to our relationships with others. It is in our social relationships that we generate whatever power we have to lead, to be heard, or to shift the future. We live in networks with others, and in communities where we couple and contribute to each other in our social practices. In these social practices, we are granted power based on the value we create for others, for the value of our commercial offers, for the value of the love we give, for our taking care of what others care about. In this way we move with social concerns, those concerns we share with others, our concerns for how our actions affect others, how others react to our actions, and the affect this has on us. These concerns may also be ones that constitute our Self – who we say we are – but because they are fundamentally social, they can only be taken care of in our social interactions.
Our social concerns arise from the fact that we couple with others in our mutual interdependencies in life together. In our culture important social concerns are work and careers as we interact with others to make money, and to build our professional paths. In our current culture, the focus on producing value with our professional work often gets disconnected from what we care about, separating us from the concerns of our Self.
Strong and effective leaders bring passion to their leadership. This passion adds to their presence, power, and effectiveness. We will base leadership on an authentic offer to take care of the concerns we share with others and have passion to address.
Leaders build power
We live in a world with others, and this is how power arises. Our interpretation of power is that it is an assessment of a differential of capacity for effective action in some domain, which leads to making choices of who you trust for certain actions, and who trusts you. Power thus shapes our relationships.
Getting power always comes from an act of being authorized by others. In our families and communities, the power we have to take care of our concerns is granted to us by others in many ways: by the money people pay us for the value of our actions; by the love of our families; by the care of our friends; by the trust we have from our public identities as professionals, community members, contributors, or experts in some domain of concern. So it is in the domains of action that are social, that include others, that we generate our power and autonomy to take care, through the assessments that we produce in others.
It is in making offers to build the capabilities of others to take care of what they care about that we see the connection of taking care with building power. Power is ultimately granted to us by others, and we are granted power by others when we have built power for them, addressing their ability to take care of what they care about. In accumulating power, we build our capability as leaders to take care of what we care about and what others care about.
Leaders make offers
The fundamental social act that creates leadership is the offer. It is an act of relationship, of creating a shared future with another. In offering, leaders promise to produce a new future for others if they accept the offer and the commitments it requires. Offers lead to an exchange of power, where the leader is granted power by others in return for the promise they make about the future. It is in these exchanges that we not only shift the future with others, but also where we build our own identity and our own power. Leaders initiate or promote these exchanges by making offers – offers that are commercial, offers to lead, offers that shift the future, offers of a new narrative of the future, and even the offer of possibilities that others see just from the way you move in your body and in the world.
Leaders build presence, voices, and identity in the world
In order for our offers to be heard, we have to have the identity and presence that produces enough trust in others for them to accept our offers, or at least be in conversation with us about the possibilities we represent for their future. A key concern for our leadership is to become observers and actors of our presence, of our voice, and of the identity we have and are building in the world.
Leaders build new narratives of and commitments for the future
Whether it be building a new shop that attracts customers, taking a leading role in a community organization, running for political office, producing a new product or business, or producing a new vision of the future that shifts how people think, leaders build new narratives that others see their future in, and within which they make new commitments. This of course depends on the identity we build, the presence we have, our voice and the offers we make, and how we conduct ourselves in our social relations and in the fulfillment of our offers. The extent and impact of our leadership can range from affecting your relationship and future with another, to shifting the practices of a whole community in a way that it is history making.