Living Dangerously - Issue 32

"Here are the 10 Commandments of leadership that I carried down from the mountaintop."

When Jesse Jackson walked into a publishing company years ago to pitch his first book, an autobiography, he was faced with a question: Could someone like him, someone with an overcommitted schedule, actually take the time to think through his entire life? He admitted to the possibility of failure. "Martin," he said, referring to his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., "could go to a cabin in the mountains and think great thoughts. I go to a cabin in the mountains and fall asleep."

Last October, I went to a cabin in the mountains — Bishop's Lodge, in Santa Fe, New Mexico — to think great thoughts. Among the 30 other people there for the Radcliffe-sponsored Intellectual Renewal Program were a famous television actor, a political activist who was well known during the Reagan years, a couple of entrepreneurs, a columnist for a major daily newspaper, and a litigator at a top DC law firm. We all had three things in common: One, we all felt that there was something missing in our work lives — some spark, some connection. Two, we all worried that we had somehow compromised our personal goals — a worry shared even by those of us who had realized our dream of building our own business. And three, we all wanted to believe that by shifting our thinking, we could get closer to learning the secret of truly great work.

It wasn't that we were burned out. Rather, we wanted to know how to focus our distracted energies in order to accomplish something that would last. The word "legacy" floated overhead like an avenging ghost. We had reached a point where endurance mattered more to us than the latest developments in our particular market. As one participant in the seminar put it, we felt that our challenge was "to move from success to significance."

Yes, there was a bit of naivete in all of us. We were Bambis in a dark wood filled with hunters. I know leaders who would dismiss us as "head wounds" — people with gaping holes in their heads who think that ideas can plug those holes up. Although we all believed in the power of creative thinking, there was a limit to our understanding of how to think. Heading toward the mountaintop, we all viewed wisdom as a combination of experience and intelligence. By the time we headed back down the mountain, we had all added one thing to that formula, something that allows a leader to build on both experience and intelligence: reflection.

In Santa Fe, we were guided in our search for significance by three wise leaders: Tamar March, dean of educational programs at Radcliffe; Barbara Hill, senior fellow at the American Council on Education Project on Leadership and Institutional Transformation; and Mary Catherine Bateson, cultural anthropologist and author. Here are the 10 commandments of leadership that I carried down from the mountaintop.

1. Become a self-aware learner.

This was the very first challenge set before us: Don't just absorb information — observe how you absorb that information. "During conversations, keep track of what makes you start thinking about something," said Hill. "Be aware of when you shift positions and of how you feel about people whose opinions differ from yours."

And you should be careful about the people whom you allow to lead you, Bateson offered: "You have to say, 'I will not confer authority on, or put my trust in, anyone other than the person who lives the virtues of listening, learning, making mistakes, and reflecting on experience.' "

2. Start a brain trust that includes all of the best thinkers in the world, past and present.

We came to Santa Fe armed with a heavy red binder containing excerpts from the works of great leadership thinkers — from Plato and Rousseau to Peter Drucker and Nelson Mandela. We argued with Plato about whether a leader should be part of a specially trained elite. We debated with Thoreau about whether leaders should put themselves above the prevailing system and its rules. We challenged Socrates and Mandela. We summoned the best minds that we could bring into the room with us and worked at raising our own efforts to their level. Mentally sparring with these leadership thinkers was like going a round with the intellectual heavyweight champion of the world.

3. Practice "enacted learning."

In other words, talk. Most people think that they need to know a lot about a subject before they speak about it. The challenge of speaking calls up thoughts that you don't even know are percolating inside your brain. People are unread books. Speaking forces you to say out loud what you know deep inside.

To think deeply, don't ask questions. Talk about something that you don't entirely know — and discover connections that your subconscious has already made. Talking is a forcing mechanism: You have to have an idea, whether you know it or not.

4. Ask yourself, "What is an ideal leader?" Then make a list.

Is an ideal leader someone who combines Socrates's self-sacrifice with Thoreau's "self über alles"? Or is it someone who follows Mandela's way of forgiving enemies and competitors? Draw up a list of the qualities that you think make an ideal leader. And remember, to think big thoughts, you have to start big.

5. Now ask yourself, "What will I settle for?" Then make another list. (This is the list to live up to.)

People don't usually want to compromise their list of leadership qualities, which might include such items as "Leaders do what they say they'll do." It's easier to think in the realm of the ideal than in the realm of the practical. We routinely idealize what a leader is, and so we never learn how to be the best leader that we can be. The "best" stays safely out of range.

6. Creativity isn't always about imagination. Try thinking without using your imagination at all. (It's one of the most difficult things that you can do.)

Imagination is a survival tactic that helps us get through surreal times. But imagination is also a form of sentimentality. To be truly wise requires dealing with the here and now. Machiavelli's "The Prince" warns: "It appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of a matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen."

"Machiavelli wrote 'The Prince' as a job application," Hill said. He wrote it to educate the young prince Lorenzo in the art of gaining and maintaining power, hoping that it would persuade Lorenzo to give him a job. It has been said that Machiavelli showed up at court offering his little treatise at the same time that someone else showed up with another gift: greyhounds. Lorenzo delighted in the dogs — and ignored Machiavelli and his book. Not long after that incident, Lorenzo lost hold of Florence. As for Machiavelli, his little book has educated generations of leaders in the art of seeing things as they are, not as we wish they would be.

7. Check yourself in your mind's mirror.

On the mountaintop, we read no current books on leadership. No goofy "Who Moved My Cheese?" and no sublime "Built to Last." Instead, Radcliffe chose works that have been around for centuries. Bateson implanted in us the importance of revisiting a text. "It becomes a way of measuring what has happened to you since you last read it," she said. "Think of how frequently some people read the Psalms, or some other part of the Bible. They do it to go back to a place where they've been before." Have you got a text like that in your life? If you do, then read it again.

8. Don't be embarrassed to think grand thoughts.

An actress in our group spoke about the time she struggled with how to portray Queen Elizabeth: "I asked my director, 'How do I play the queen when I don't know what it's like to be a queen?' And my director said, 'You don't play the queen. Others play the queen.' " The revelation? Others "play" the leader's role by paying tremendous attention to what the leader does and by acting subserviently toward that person. The director meant that the actress needed only to be herself, because that's what a leader is — an authentic self.

9. Get chummy with something that you find repellent.

Carol, a brilliant executive in our group, had just lost her high-powered job because of a takeover. When we were asked which text repelled us, Carol thought for a long time and then raised her hand. Her voice shook as she spoke: "I finally understand why I hate Plato. He told the truth, and I've been telling myself lies. I'm one of those people Plato writes about. I have a Harvard education. I'm one of the elite. But I've always been afraid of the responsibility that Plato discusses. I haven't accepted responsibility for my talents. That's why I stayed in a job that was too small for me in the first place. Now I have an opportunity to remake my life. And this time, I'm going to look for work that's bigger than my talents."

10. Recognize that you are a stranger to yourself.

"We live with strangers every day," said Bateson. "It begins in the morning, when we're looking in the mirror and brushing our teeth." People we think we know, certainties we think we cherish — these are phantoms. There is little in anyone's identity that has to be preserved. We think that as leaders we are supposed to show gravitas: depth, profundity. But in fact, the goal should be playfulness — to go on playing, learning, and changing.

We came to the mountaintop thinking that we knew what we wanted out of life. Now we're not so sure. We're changing our notions of leadership, because we're changing our notions of ourselves. Instead of trying to know yourself, Bateson suggested, ask yourself a question: "What is my commitment?"

For one weekend on a mountain, we were as unguarded as if we had never been hurt or made fools of. What that weekend gave us is the certainty that real leadership cannot exist without great thoughts. There is no such thing as a hero who lacks a sublime quality. And heroism is one form of leadership that lasts.

Harriet Rubin (hrubin@fastcompany.com), a Fast Company contributing editor, is based in New York City. To learn more about Radcliffe's seminars, visit the Radcliffe institute on the Web (www.radcliffe.edu).

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