The Era of the Ear
Faith is the daring of the soul
to go farther than it can see.
-19th-century theologian William Newton Clarke
Leadership is the art of the future. A leader is one in whom
the future shines through in support of the present in spite of
But something is wrong in our understanding of leadership.
The decades that brought us the greatest burst in leadership literature
also brought us corporate scandals with Enron and
World.com and Adelphia and Tyco and Global Crossing and
Arthur Andersen, and they brought us President Bill "It-dependson-what-the-meaning-of-'is'-is"
Clinton. More than seven out of
10 USAmericans say they distrust CEOs of large corporations.
Nearly eight of 10 expect top executives to take "improper
actions" to help themselves at the expense of their companies.
THE VISION THING
What is wrong is "the vision thing." Our understanding of
leadership needs to be turned upside down.
The future needs ears even more than it needs eyes.
In the literature on leadership, the eyes have it hands down.
Warren G. Bennis's famous definition of leadership established
the course for countless others: "the capacity to create a compelling
vision and translate it into action and sustain it." An
adviser to heads of the largest nations and businesses in the
world, Bennis is sometimes called "the godfather of leadership
literature." In his 27 books Bennis introduced a new orthodoxy
that made leadership into a science with its own set of rules
and principles: leaders are made, not born. Anything that
involves a goal (i.e., "vision") requires a leader, and everyone
needs to be trained to be a leader. By the late 1990s, many of
the 200,000 MBA graduates turned out every year had taken
required "leadership" courses and "visioning" workshops.
No wonder the business world has made "vision" a catchword,
perhaps the catchword of the 20th century.
It was this definition of leadership's intellectual haute couture
that inserted itself into a presidential campaign. The phrase
"the vision thing" stems from candidate George Bush's 1988
response to a friend who suggested that he spend some time
thinking about what he would
do as president.
Bush blurted out, "Oh, the
George W. Bush now says
that what he learned from the
mistakes of his father was, "The
vision thing matters."
His MBA-less father was right.
This is an anti-leadership leadership book. It offers a
patently and passionately unfashionable stance on one of the
defining issues of our day.
To put it bluntly: the whole leadership thing is a demented
concept. Leaders are neither born nor made. Leaders are summoned.
They are called into existence by circumstances. Those
who rise to the occasion are leaders.
Everyone is "called" by God for some kind of mission. But
sometimes the "called" are "called out" for leadership. How you
manifest your mission will change throughout the course of
your life. But the mission remains constant. When how you do
your mission and how you make your way into the world coincide,
you are living the dream life.
True, some people are born leaders. It just comes with their
psychological territory. But these are few and far between.
Ask any kindergarten teacher. You want to know if you're
a leader? Look in back of you. Anybody following?
We're all "players" in life.
Yet sometimes life summons "players" to be "leaders." It may
happen only once or twice in life. Sometimes life takes shape
in such a way that a player is like the missing piece of a puzzle:
the exact fit for the situation. Up to that point, the jagged
pieces of your life don't seem to fit into any significant pattern.
But then life calls you out and summons you forth. A player in
life becomes a leader, and even "born leaders" find themselves
following the summoned leader. Not accidentally, the primary
language of many is "hearing the call."
One freezing Thanksgiving evening, dairy worker Guillermo
Garcia was herding Holsteins toward the barn in thick coveralls
and heavy rubber boots. He looked up and suddenly discovered
a shoeless, shivering seven-year-old boy screaming while vomiting
on the manure-stained frozen mud: "My mom! My mom!"
Unfortunately, Garcia didn't speak English. But he knew
someone who knew someone who did, who called 911.
The vomiting, shoeless boy was Titus Adams. Titus had run
a quarter-mile in his white socks to seek help. He and his two
sisters, Tiffany and Tierra, had been riding in their mother's
pickup truck on a remote road north of Greeley, Colorado.
They were in their pajamas, ready to be carried in and put to
bed once they got home from Thanksgiving Day at Grandma's.
Titus was talking to his dad on the cell phone when his mother
stretched to get the phone at the call's end. She unbuckled her
seat belt, then lost control. The pickup rolled twice and ejected
her through the glass of the driver's window. Tammy Adams-Hill
lay unconscious and near death in 23-degree weather.
The children were strapped in. Titus unbuckled his belt
and checked his sisters. Tiffany's nose was bleeding and a cut
on her head was staining her blond hair. Tierra was unharmed
Titus knew what he had to do. He bundled coats around
his sisters. He gave Tierra her pacifier. He told Tiffany to "stop
crying. Stay right where you are. Don't cry. I'm going for help."
The truck doors wouldn't open, so he climbed out the window
his mother was thrown from. Titus looked for her in the
dark and felt his way around the truck on the ground but
couldn't find her. In the distance he saw lights from a small
farmhouse (a tenth of a mile away), but the lights from the
dairy barn shone brighter. Titus ran toward the brighter light.
It was a quarter-mile away.
Titus was a called-forth leader. He saved his mom from
dying that night.
Titus was not trained to be a leader. He was born a player,
not a leader. But he was summoned by a situation. He was
called out by history. He became a leader by responding to the
Will you rise to the occasion? Will you be there when life calls
you forth? Will you answer the call of called-forth leadership?
What is the most desirable characteristic for a new CEO?
Is it vision, or is it vigilance and good corporate governance?
Lou Gerstner uttered a now-famous sentiment back in 1993:
"The last thing IBM needs now is vision."
In one sense, the last thing the church needs is "more vision."
When Christians sing "Be Thou My Vision" we are testifying to
the fact that we have all the vision we need in Jesus. Where we
need help is in developing a musical ear: ears to recognize the
vision that is already at work in our world, ears to hear the false
notes, and ears to tune ourselves to God's Perfect Pitch, Jesus
The need to go beyond vision is borne out by arguably the
two most important leadership books of the past 25 years:
Tom Peters and Bob Waterman's In Search of Excellence (1982)
and Jim Collins and Jerry Porras's Built to Last (1994). Peters
and Collins are archrivals. Their books seem to be at opposite
poles. But when the rhetorical flourishes and turf markings
are stripped away, both authors emphasize the same thing:
What makes a successful corporation is not a great product or
a great leader, but a great culture in which people are empowered
in creative goodness, innovative beauty, and unyielding
It's easier to hear this in the "dowdy," calm, long-haul
Collins than in the "sexy," hyperactive, make-shift Peters. For
Collins, "charisma is a liability-something to be overcome, like
a speech impediment."
Collins is known for one primary prejudice: an enduring
distrust for the concept of leadership. "I've never believed in
leadership," he says. "In the 1500s, people ascribed all events
they didn't understand to God. Why did the crops fail? God.
Why did someone die? God. Now our all-purpose explanation
is leadership We have basically lots of witchcraft, lots of religion,
and very little understanding."
The only thing we can say for sure about great leaders is that
no two are alike. Every great leader's "greatness" is different.
According to Collins, the success of the world's best companies
(what he calls "Level 5") can never be truly known.
Collins talks about how one gets a giant flywheel moving.
At first you start to push on it and feel as if you're making little
progress at all-it's barely moving. After just one revolution,
you're already tired out. But you keep pushing in the same
direction. As you push, the flywheel slowly accelerates; after
turning a few revolutions, it gradually gains momentum. You
keep pushing, and all of a sudden you realize that the wheel is
going along on its own. The heavy flywheel that had been
resisting your push is now going your way. And if you keep
pushing, you soon find that it's going hundreds of revolutions
per minute-and pushing you.
Then Collins stops to ask the question, "What was the one
big push that caused this thing to go so fast?"
In Built to Last, the leader's personality was upstaged by the
organization's personality. The culture of a corporation is what
produces success, not CEOs. Jack Welch didn't make General
Electric's success; GE's success made Jack Welch. In recent
years Collins has seemed to back off his anti-leadership tack,
but not before redefining what real leadership means. It is the
intentionally humble and quiet leaders who truly do make a
difference. Humility can win out over more powerful organizational
Even if you agree with the "leadership" concept, the world
doesn't need another leadership book. At last count, there are
more than 10,000 books in print
that have "leadership" in the
title. Is it possible to bear one
more without an authorial apology
or excuse? Besides, what are
the differences between a book
on leadership by a Christian and
one by Jack Welch? How many more books can you read based
on the same formula: Follow these principles and you will
change your life. The best reaction to the appearance of another
leadership principle is one of resignation-another point nicely
made but another instance of missing the point.
What's more, isn't the very notion of "self-help leadership"
an oxymoron, since the self-help comes in decidedly relational
ways: seminars, groups, tapes, and chat rooms.
THE EARS HAVE IT
The definition of leadership as "vision" trips a variety of
clichés. Leadership as "vision" has become another way of talking
about exercising dominance and pushing other people
around with your ideas. Governor Gray Davis of California-subsequently
recalled-was toast the moment he said, early in
his term, that the state legislature's job was to "implement my
vision." Vision has become a way of declaring dominance, of
achieving alpha status and stats.
Furthermore, "vision casting" is most often nothing more
than "strategic planning" board games. "Visionary" endows
shopworn ideas with new roadworthiness and respectability.
Even worse, when leadership development is disfigured as "the
vision thing," we are teaching a dysfunctional system to leaders
whose success will hinge on their ability to dismantle the very
thing they've been taught.
Investing more time in the vision thing is not a good deal
because it's not a good ideal, as recent events have proved.
When it comes to leadership, the senses are not born equal.
Leadership has more to do with the ears than with the eyes.
The significance of sound is the missing chord in the literature
on leadership. What matters most is not the clarity of
your eyes, but the charity of your heart and the clearness of
Leadership is an acoustical art.
People from other cultures have understood this better
than those in the West. The words ear and wisdom are the same
in ancient Sumerian. The phenomenon of leadership always
will remain misty-and always should. But failure to probe the
currency of hearing as well as the currency of seeing is one reason
why leadership remains one of the most studied and least
understood phenomenon of the last century.
After nearly 200 pages and 7,500 citations on leadership,
one report concluded that it found "no clear and unequivocal
understanding of what distinguishes leaders from non-leaders,
effective leaders from ineffective leaders, and effective organizations
from ineffective organizations." Another study of the
congested analysis of leadership, having compiled 110 different
definitions, concludes that "attempts to define leadership have
been confusing, varied, disorganized, idiosyncratic, muddled,
and, according to conventional wisdom, quite unrewarding."
In all this literature on leadership, the eyes are the most
recurring motif and metaphor. The eyes have not always had
For Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, it was the ears. Called by
colleagues "the greatest leader who ever came on God's earth,
bar none," the Antarctic explorer Shackleton understood that
leadership was more than meets the eye. To adapt Paschal: the
ear has its reasons that the eye knows nothing of. The ability to
find one's voice and to hear and call other voices into harmonious
sound is the essence of a Shackleton-inspired definition
of leadership as the acoustical art of imagining the future.
Mark Twain had a bad habit of using profanity in his
speech. Twain's wife was as refined and cultured as her husband
was raw and coarse. Her
husband's uncouth manner of
speaking offended her sensibilities,
and she tried many ways of
curing him of his bad habit.
In desperation, she tried the
shock technique. "Maybe if he
hears what he sounds like and I become a sounding board, he'll
be so shocked at what he hears, he'll change his ways." So when
Twain came home one afternoon, she met him at the door with
a stream of obscenities, throwing back at him every bad word
she could remember coming from his lips.
The classical curser listened quietly until she finished, and
then said: "My dear, you have the words, but not the music."