Charting New Territory

By: Eric Betts

One of the most informative books on leadership is entitled The Failure Of Nerve by Edward Friedman. There is so much to be learned in that volume. Leaders who will make a profound difference within their group and in their community possess what he calls the “explorer mindset.” It is about charting new territory, advancing forward while never losing sight of self. It is counterproductive to seek to preserve community by eliminating self. Self-definition within a system is vital for the purpose of advancement. The idea that self-focus is a negative is what prevents so much progress. Much of the mindsets of today seek to eliminate self for the sake of group cohesion and chemistry. The extreme notions of eliminating individuality for the sake of togetherness is as counterproductive as trying to prevent the scourge of fire by eliminating air. This is the mindset barrier that must be crossed if progress is to be made and if advances are to be achieved.

If new discoveries are to be made, an explorer must feel free to venture into the unknown and into turbulent waters to get to that new place. The negative orientation to self will always prevent this sense of freedom. It is this negative orientation toward individuality that introduces a counter-evolutionary perspective on leadership. The kind of leadership that makes new discoveries and launches out into new fields are described by Edward Friedman as well-differentiated leaders. He explains that such leaders are misunderstood but are desperately needed. They are mistakenly viewed as compulsive rather than persistent, as obsessive rather than committed, as foolhardy rather than brave, as hostile rather than aggressive, as bullheaded rather than resolute, as desperate rather than inspired, as autocratic rather than tough-minded, as irresponsible rather than courageous, as domineering rather than self-confident, as egotistical rather then self-confident, as selfish rather than self-possessed, as insensitive and callous and cold rather than determined. Such criticism can grow into sabotage within the system. Such sabotage will be cloaked with pretended virtues such as safety and togetherness.

The good news about such leaders is that they are willing to take the risk of making people uncomfortable. They stay true to themselves and their goals even if others around them are uncomfortable. They do not allow mistaken opinions about them drive their emotions and by default their decisions.

One of the false assumptions that gets in the way of progress is that communities will get along best when everyone stops being selfish. These incorrect assumptions are often found both in the profit and non-profit business realm. However, self-empowerment is extremely important for the advancement within the larger group within society. It should be viewed as a blessing and not a curse. It should be encouraged and not demeaned. Friedman gives a great example of this counter-evolutionary thinking. He says it can also be found in the way that medicine is approached in the 20th century. Twentieth-century medicine emphasizes stimulating the body’s own natural defenses against the toxic forces in the environment rather than trying to eradicate those hostile forces directly. Oftentimes, today’s leadership places too much emphasis on how to mitigate, tamp down, or avoid negative emotional encounters rather than maintaining one’s own self on the road to discovery and advancement.

Well-defined leaders are indispensable when it comes to making new discoveries, new inventions, and making the progress that is so desperately needed in these times. They have the characteristics that will move them to take bold stands while headed into in an intense emotional environment. They will be clear about their own personal values, forthright about their goals, and they will take maximum responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. They are willing to take the necessary risks. They are willing to take responsibility for failure, and are acutely aware that there will be failure along the way. They are prepared for the criticism that comes along with risk and failure. On the other hand, there are those who are not inclined to be an explorer and launch out into the unknown. They have a tendency to lose self for the sake of togetherness. They take on the mood of the environment around them and adjust to that setting. They are reluctant to take bold stands because they are afraid of the emotions of others. Those who will make their mark on a community will think differently.

In order to make progress, one must be willing to place the need for advancement and progress above the emotions of a few. The goal to be achieved is more important than the emotions of a few. They are driven by an inner urge and a drive to make progress, rather than the criticism or the applause of others. Such leaders will go to new places where no one else has gone before. Those who will make new discoveries and build new enterprises are the ones who have the capacity to go outside the emotional climate of the day. Friedman said they have a willingness to be exposed and to be vulnerable. They are persistent in the face of resistance and even downright rejection. They have stamina in the face of sabotage along the way. They are willing to be viewed as headstrong and ruthless in the eyes of others. How their confidence is perceived by others does not deter them. It is not an impediment for them. They are strictly focused on the future and the goals to be achieved. They are focused on the urgency of the hour and the need for advancement more than the fears and suspicions within the group. This is what courageous leadership demands.
By: Eric Betts
Assistant Director, Curtis Coleman Center for Religious Studies and Ethics at Athens State University