• Brent Kaneft

Leadership and Strange Attractors

A manager manages, but only a human soul gifted with imagination has the resilient artistry to live and work with forces that call for deeper strategies than containment.

- David Whyte, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America

My dad started and ran a family business for over 30 years. To do so, he sacrificed a lot. I will never know how much, but I do know that he wasn't always able to be at everything. God knows, he tried, but for a while, the entire success of the company rested on his shoulders. He had to make difficult decisions, and at times, that meant he had to be on the road when he wanted to be home. His experience, I believe, shaped his leadership style. When other salesmen began joining the company, and his role changed from shouldering all of the weight to distributing it among a team, he remembered those early years and insisted that his company would not drain the lifeblood of its members, that people could be human first—dads, moms, friends, hunters, golfers, etc.—and producers second. This philosophy, "Euro-style" he called it, became the cornerstone for the culture of his company.

My dad didn't micromanage. He didn't try to right every wrong, he didn't hold everyone accountable to the "t," and he didn't waste his time tracking down everyone who owed him or his company something. His early sacrifices gave him a clear vision for his company: a place you could be successful, financially and otherwise; a place that you were expected to bless others, those in need, with the fruits of the company, to pay it forward; a place where you could schedule around your child's basketball game and meet your spouse for a long lunch on his/her birthday, an insistence on finding a healthy balance in your life; a place, where as long as you were getting your work done and pushing the business forward, you practically didn't have a boss, not in the typical sense at least. "Euro-style." It was powerful, magnetic; it left space for creativity and the soul. His vision continues under the direction of my brother now, who has embodied the purpose of the company our father began. Sure, it can improve—and my brother is seeing to that—but it is right at its core. It's a business for people, not for profit, but because it got the equation right, profit is an end result.

I have learned a lot from my father.

The first book I read this year was David Whyte's The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. I heard an interview Krista Tippet did with Whyte on the On Being podcast, and I couldn't believe I'd never heard of him before—his message was so consistent with the "Euro-style" my dad cultivated. I was reminded that a company (or a school, in my case) was still a place to be human, and the "[p]reservation of the soul means giving up our wish, in the scheduled workplace, for immunity from the unscheduled meeting with sorrow and hardship" (15). Cancer, divorce, depression, death: you can't sterilize a school from suffering, and you wouldn't want to. You must take time to acknowledge tragedy as much as you acknowledge joy.

In the quiet of my office, when I am designing professional development or tweaking the evaluation model, I am not always thinking of these anomalies. I am thinking of what works best for the majority of people. When I schedule eight meetings a year for a learning cohort of 40 people, there are bound to be absences, for the more tragic side of life, sure, but also for things that, in the moment, matter more to people: closing on a house, unexpected doctor's appointment, kids are sick. There's humanity in every absence, and what I've had to discover and rediscover is that leadership, true vision, is not bound by a meeting, by a rule book. What I've wanted at times is for "[t]he complexity of the world [to] be accounted for [...] by a simple increase in the thickness of the company manual" (10). Think Faculty handbook. Yes, our litigious society demands its thickness, but are our manuals guideposts or the anvils we use to beat people into compliance? "A calm manager," says Whyte, "working with simple paddle strokes can ride a turbulent river of events into calm water, while a frenetic manager may be overwhelmed and drowned simply by attempting to account for every swirl and eddy of the torrent."

I am guilty of being the "frenetic manager" at times, of trying to manage in a way that "account[s] for every swirl and eddy," whether that's people being absent from a meeting or for someone's emotional outburst about a new policy or plan we've implemented. I've tried to wrangle the chaos that is the combination of people working in close proximity.

The hope is that organizations, chaotic as they may be at times (i.e. human), are moving toward their goals, that some "strange attractor" has grounded their employees' activities in an "ideal behavior." For my family's company, the ideal behavior is "get your work done, but make sure you're not missing out on what's really important in life"; do people take advantage of this more permissive leadership style? Of course—but not enough to make a difference. Profits are up and people are happy, satisfied and grateful to be working at a company that is so humane, that allows them to be so human.

But that's a company of only 15 employees. It's easy not to micromanage in a group that small. What about when I have 100 employees or more? Should we just let everyone do what they want? The answer is no, and my dad's answer would be no. The challenge is clarity. What behavior does the culture tolerate and what behavior doesn't it tolerate? If you find yourself advocating for more accountability all of the time, maybe you should consider that your expectations need to be clearer before you assume they are clear but people aren't following them. In short, what "ideal behaviors" do you want people to gravitate toward?

For any school I work for, the strange attractor should be the movement toward more student-centered thinking, which requires, as new information comes in (i.e. new research, new technology, new strategies), consistent improvement over time. The "ideal behavior" looks like teachers reflecting on their practice, asking for critical feedback, and taking risks in the classroom by trying new strategies. A healthy culture, one that doesn't design for the rigid containment of its employees—a demand for lockstep compliance is the death of the soul—gives weight to its goals, to its ideal behavior, with consistency and modeling, not emails and behind-the-desk oversight. This may be frustrating to the more linear style of leadership that brings results faster but that sacrifices the humanity of its workforce—the less poetic leaders. Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that "[t]he voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks." As you know, the "voyage" is the point, and the "zigzag" is the natural human reaction to whatever life puts in our way. Our organizations can fatten their employee handbooks and burden us with their good intentions, but they'll never zig every zag. What they can do, however, is drive the human spirit, our souls, into the corners, the isolated cubicles of control, and consequently, the innovation and creativity they so desperately need is driven their as well.

David Whyte reminds us, "Without repressive rules, then, a cohesive team with a strong sense of its mission, ethics, and tasks can be allowed a lot of leeway to develop its own approach to problems." So to make sure people are working at their best, they have to have the space to be fully human, and that comes with all sorts of things that can frustrate leaders. But it's in that humanity that exists the creativity and the innovation that we want. As leaders, then, our time is wasted if we focus on "every swirl and eddy"; our focus should be on whether this is the right river and if people are seeing us model the right way to paddle into the torrents.

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