Friday, October 3, 2008

Collaboration and Better Angels: Leadership Paradigms for Full Democracy

In his New York Times op-ed statement “Edge of the Abyss” today, Paul Krugman says vis-à-vis the current economic crisis, “And what’s truly scary is that we’re entering a period of severe crisis with weak, confused leadership"(

Weak, confused leadership: Do you think?!

We can’t say it enough, those of us who want to see the American democratic experiment continue: we are in serious crisis now, as a nation, in the area of leadership. There simply are not anywhere near the number of models of good leadership in our nation right now to prepare for a viable future. And we’re not going to find our way out of the mess we’re in as a culture if we try to revive the paradigm that got us into this mess in the first place: the blustering self-serving swagger of the obscenely overpaid big man (or woman) on top, all bravado and threats, all egocentric fantasy that only she or he is capable of pulling the strings to save us, all facile, shallow concern with image-management and media manipulation.

Getting us out of our present mess will require a consultative and inclusive style of leadership that harnesses the best angels of all of our natures. Everyone needs a voice in participatory democracy, if we’re to survive as a democratic society. Those of us without jobs and health coverage definitely need a place at the table, as we resolve our economic crisis.

When I heard Mr. Obama talking recently about how a job is fundamental to everything where he comes from, I longed for the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about what not being able to find work—meaningful work that engages one’s talents and allows one to give back to the community—does to a person’s self-esteem. I also wished for the chance to sit and talk with him about how not having any health insurance affects one’s self-image, not to mention one’s health.

When I listened to Mr. Obama, I wanted to tell him how tinny, how false, many of the statements our churches make about the need for full employment and full health coverage sound, when one looks at what the churches actually do. When one examines the leadership models churches offer—top-down, big man/woman on top, power pyramids with no opportunity for those on bottom to contribute to the unilateral decisions of those on top—one wonders how churches can imagine that they have any alternative to offer. Not when their models of leadership perfectly mirror those of the political system that has walked us right to the edge of the abyss . . . .

And when one looks at the other key institution of American culture that also touts itself as the bearer of alternative visions of leadership, one is equally dumbfounded. Universities also replicate leadership model of the top-down, grossly overpaid big man/woman on top. In how they structure themselves, in whom they choose to reward and whom to punish, they do not provide that viable alternative paradigm of leadership that they profess to offer, when they ask for our tax dollars. And when we need such alternative models so desperately today . . . .

Like the political sector, our universities—and chief among them, church-owned ones whose policies prohibiting salary disclosure hide the glaring disparity between what is paid to those on top as compared to those on bottom—love the leadership model of blustering swagger, bravado and threats. The model that does not and cannot harness the better angels of our nature when all of our energies, all of them together, are needed now to avert disaster . . . .

As I’ve noted before, in his vision of a new paradigm for American politics, Mr. Obama could do far worse than to turn to that early 20th-century African-American leader Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune for insights. Dr. Bethune’s insistence that any democratic structure worth its salt must pursue “full democracy” is worth retrieving, for a post-modern paradigm of participatory democracy. In her essay “Don’t Miss the Foot-hold! Women and the Civil Rights Report,” Dr. Bethune urges African-American women to teach their children the concept of democracy they advocate for themselves. Dr. Bethune calls this concept “full democracy”; she notes that full democracy entails bringing everyone to the table, and teaching our youth that color, national origin, or the religion of others can be seen not as stigmatizing characteristics that make us different from one another in ways that alienate us, but differences that enrich a full democracy (Bethune papers, Dec. 5, 1947; in Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, ed., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World [Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999], p. 191).

In Bethune’s view, institutions of higher learning play a premier role in American democracy by modeling full democracy. In the university she founded, Dr. Bethune fashioned a leadership team that crossed racial and gender lines. She also pioneered inclusive town-gown community meetings that drew communities together for collaborative work to solve problems faced by all members of the community. She made a concerted effort to assure that those most excluded by social structures from the table of full democracy had equal access to a voice at her town-gown meetings.

The model of full democracy that Mary McLeod Bethune worked to create at the school she founded, Bethune-Cookman University, is at the heart of what that university’s current president, Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, an expert in leadership studies, calls “transformative leadership.” In Trudie Kibbe Reed’s view, “Transformative leadership is the ‘art and science’ of learning to facilitate value-centered change within organizations through inquiry, reflection, critique, and collaboration” (the quotation is from an unpublished 2005 manuscript of Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, as cited in William D. Lindsey and Reed, “Transformative Leadership: A Conceptual Framework and Application” [Bethune-Cookman University, 2005], p. 2).

Note the strong emphasis on collaboration as an essential quality of transformative leadership. Healthy democracies build teams of leaders that collaborate in inquiry, reflection, and critique, because no institution can thrive and meet the challenge of the future without inquiry, reflection and critique.

And such inquiry, reflection, and critique must occur in a collaborative context in which the myth of the quasi-imperial big man/big woman on top with all the answers and all the power is put to the test of critical inquiry and reflection. When the test of inquiry, reflection, and critique is applied to such mythic notions of sound leadership, they are found wanting. They are found wanting because they depend on the illusion that only the grossly overpaid, self-interested ruthless individual at the top of the heap has the ability to solve problems that affect an institution or social structure.

Dr. Bethune’s concept of full democracy and Dr. Reed’s notion of transformative leadership depend on and incorporate the confidence that the solution to complex problems affecting an entire institution or the entire body politic is to be found among all of us affected by these problems. Models of transformative leadership that value full democracy assume that all of us have valuable insights into the problems with which we struggle together, and all of us need a voice in the resolution of our shared problems.

On the basis of that assumption, transformative leadership pursuing full democracy brings everyone to the table, and provides a voice for everyone. This is why full employment and full health coverage are so essential to a democratic society, and why institutions (e.g., churches and universities) that profess to offer alternative visions of leadership must work to overcome unemployment and lack of health coverage for all citizens—and why any church or university, and above all, any church-sponsored university, would never contribute to the problems of unemployment and lack of health coverage by unjust termination of valuable employees.

It is for all of these reasons that I recently called on Mr. Obama, as he prepared for his presentation at Bethune-Cookman University on September 20, to take seriously the legacy of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and to promote her vision of full democracy as he campaigns ( Mr. could do far worse than to look to this prophetic African-American leader for inspiration, as he seeks leadership models that engage the better angels of the natures of the American people in the 21st century.

*Note: this is an end-of-week précis of points I’ve made at greater length in postings throughout the week, particularly