Lead or Leave: A Call to Action for Everyone Who Works

March 1, 2002
In this issue:

March Editorial: Lead or Leave: A Call to Action for Everyone Who Works
Newsbriefs: “Now Just a Minute, Mr. President!”…plus John responds
Next Month: Three Strikes: What Follows the Enron and 9-11 Tragedies

The state of the world is such that there’s no time for screwing around pretending that we have no power over how things are done at work. The time for complaining and resigned, half-assed participation has to come to an end. It is not responsible behavior and it doesn’t accomplish anything other than demoralizing everyone it touches. The time for responsible action is now if we truly wish to stop widening of the “great disconnect” between the complete human experience and the way business is being done.

People who see a better way for things to be done in the workplace have an opportunity to improve the quality of their own work experience. And, most likely, they also have an opportunity to improve the quality of life in this world too! But it takes responsible action to do this. Responsible action is key to real leadership – the kind of leadership that is in such short supply today. This real leadership – what I call “conscious” leadership – hardly resembles how we defined leadership thirty or forty years ago.

In the past, leaders were the “chosen few” who received a better education, were raised with privilege, or possessed a title that put them higher in the formal organizational hierarchy. In many ways, these were the “aristocrats of democracy” – the upper class in a so-called classless society.

This is still how many people think about leaders and leadership – associating the role of a leader with a position or title. This outmoded way of thinking about leadership is anchored in an ancient model where only a few people have the information necessary to make informed decisions. This goes back to the days when only a relative handful of people knew how to read; they became the leaders because they “knew” more than everyone else. It may even go back further – to the right of kings who were deemed to have been blessed by the Divine. The organizational structure that goes with this outmoded thinking is the traditional hierarchical military model.

Today, with information readily available to so many people, and with the advent of so many specialties, there is no way for a “chosen few” to know everything. Hierarchical organizations have become obsolete, as many organizational experts will tell you. Informal networks can get the word out quicker and more effectively than these outmoded hierarchies.

So then why does the leadership myth continue to be perpetuated? Why do so many people act as if leadership is still something formal or bequeathed or awarded to someone in the form of a title or rank? Despite all the teaching in the business schools, and articles in the business press, why do people in organizations continue to hold on to this obsolete notion?

I contend that it hinges on the avoidance of personal responsibility. It may also have something to do with a disempowered population of workers who are afraid to say what they think or are afraid to do what they know needs to be done, but this disempowerment is also a function of personal responsibility.

The leadership that is so sorely needed in these days of rapid change and questionable sustainability – sustainability of our organizations as well as sustainability of the human species – will come from individuals taking personal responsibility, regardless of rank or title. This new leadership calls forth action whenever one sees something amiss or an improvement that can be made; where the individual takes responsibility for what they know. Responsible action doesn’t mean anarchy. It simply means individuals empowering themselves (after all, who else is there to empower one?) and taking stands for what’s right and necessary.

This is no time to tolerate workers who are resigned to being ineffectual in their jobs, people who perform at a minimum level while allowing systemic dysfunction to go uncorrected. This is no time to tolerate passivity and cynicism. This is no time to tolerate people who are not willing to tell the truth and take stands for what they know.

Today, most organizations consist of a population of people that includes a handful of “leaders” and another handful of people with one foot out the door – waiting for the opportune moment to leave for a better job, to start their own business, or for their kids to graduate from college. The vast majority of people, however, are not among either of these two groups. They are just getting by, enduring conditions that they know how to improve, like prisoners who sit in the jail cells all day despite the fact that the door isn’t locked. They either don’t feel they have the right to make the changes, or they are too lazy to make any extra effort, or they don’t want to make waves, or they have succumbed to leading an “uncommitted life” – going through life without their “lights” on, numbed to the peaks and valleys of human existence.

Harboring this third group means death to any organization. They are the ones who are responsible for the very situations they claim to abhor, the conditions they are trying to avoid. They are the people who suck the life from any company which harbors them. They are the people who go to work every day on auto-pilot, putting in their time for a paycheck, making sure they never make any major mistakes and “staying under the radar” of their bosses. Their implicit strategy is simply to put up with things as they are and endure less than optimistic conditions. They have numbed themselves out to the pain of selling out their souls, sometime resorting to chemicals in the form of alcohol or drugs of all sorts under extreme conditions.

Clearly, these people are committing what I’ve previously called “spiritual suicide.” However, these same people are also contributing to the death of their organizations. Their indifference is like cancer, festering away in hidden pockets within the “body” of the organization.

Organizations cannot afford to harbor this cancer-like indifference. So what are the organization’s options if it wants to change things? They can invite people to step forward and responsibly participate, requiring them to snap out of their cynicism and indifference. They can also let them go if they’re too far gone. They can also encourage this “new” leadership – through corporate programs, executive mentoring, and culture and policy changes. They can modify the structure of the organization so it supports the new leadership model – flatter, more flexible democratic systems.

That’s what organizations can do. But what about the individuals in the organization? What can people do on a personal level?

Today’s times call for one of two individual actions – either take leadership initiative or leave the organization. That is be responsible for what you know and stand tall for what you see needs to change and become a leader for that cause. Stop waiting for someone to tell you that you’re a leader, that you have permission to take a stand. Stop being a victim and take responsibility for doing something that “lights your fire” and feeds your spirit.

If this option doesn’t fit you, then acknowledge that the organization and what it is doing doesn’t turn you on and get out so someone who’d love that job can have it. Either of these two options – leading from a place of passion or consciously choosing to leave – is responsible action.

Anyone who disagrees with me here (and I’m sure many will), or thinks I’m being harsh and insensitive to people’s situations, is invited to examine their reasons for hanging on to a position in which their hearts aren’t tickled ever day and their souls aren’t nurtured. If the rationale is financial (as it usually is), they can look and see how they got into a situation where they ended up doing something they don’t like or, at best, are tolerating. They can ask themselves, “Who put me in this position?” It would take a massive dose of denial to put the responsibility any place but on themselves for whatever lifestyle or indebtedness they had accumulated so they feel forced to adapt this attitude of indifference in order to endure a job that is any less than truly joyful and tremendously satisfying.

So, next time you feel a grumble coming up, ask yourself if there’s something you have to contribute that you’re not doing, or if there’s something you have to say that you’re not saying. Take a leadership stance; take responsibility for what you know and who you are. Either that, or get out. Whether you stay and assert your leadership or leave the organization because it isn’t a fit for you, both you and the organization will be better off.


“Now Just a Minute, Mr. President!”

United States Congressman Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) addressed the Americans for Democratic Action on February 17th at the University of Southern California. He offered a prayer for the U.S., and offered a challenge, stating in part “That implicate in the union of our country is the union of all people. That all people are essentially one. That the world is interconnected not only on the material level of economics, trade, communication, and transportation, but ‘innerconnected’ through human consciousness, through the human heart, through the heart of the world, through the simply expressed impulse and yearning to be and to breathe free.” The Congressman then took exception with many of the administration’s plans for the War on Terrorism, expressing deep concern – one of the few voices in Washington to publicly challenge the scope and direction the President is taking.

John Responds to the Congressman

Four days after Kucinich’s speech (see above), John received an email containing the complete text of the congressman’s speech forwarded by Marianne Williamson through John Steiner; after reading it, John immediately sent the congressman an encouraging and heartfelt response; anyone wanting an email copy of both John’s response and the text of Kucinich’s talk can get one by requesting them from John.


NEXT MONTH: April’s Editorial:
“Three Strikes: What Follows the Enron and 9-11 Tragedies?” – an op-ed piece by John Renesch

About John Renesch

Better Future NEWS is prepared monthly by John Renesch, a San Francisco writer, futurist, and consultant/executive coach. John served as Editor-in-Chief of The New Leaders business newsletter from 1990 to 1997 and has created a dozen business anthologies on progressive business subjects, including consciousness, intuition and leadership. These books include New Traditions in Business, Learning Organizations and The New Bottom Line. His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing.

John is also an international keynote SPEAKER, having addressed audiences in Tokyo, Seoul, London, Brussels, Budapest as well as many cities throughout the U.S. For a list of all the SERVICES John offers, go to Services.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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