Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Logic of Collective Leadership

Democracy used to mean something...something about equal opportunity for all, for example. Our democratic principles used to suggest that anyone could run for office -- still true, perhaps -- anyone with $5M to blow, or at least that much pledged from vested interests. Jeffersonian democracy used to imply that the common citizen, given a chance at a decent education, could develop the good judgement to vote in his own interest (and yes - in those days, it was his, not hers).

Today, the common citizen is probably doing a lot of head-scratching. People taking hard and fast positions on either extreme have made our democratic processes look anemic when it comes to getting something done. But as my 11th grade history teacher used to say, the flaw may not be in the principles so much as the execution.

University professors Stephen Preskill and Stephen Brookfield have taken a shot at a different approach. Their new book Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons from the Struggle for Social Justice (Jossey-Bass: 2009) suggests another way around this barn. The book is well worth the effort to read all the way through, so I won't attempt to summarize, but I would like to highlight one small part of the chapter on collective leadership.

In corporations and state and local governments, the lone, heroic leader has been the model for most of our lifetimes. Even a casual reading of corporate by-laws (not to mention the US Constitution) should make it clear that this was not the intended model. Non-profits, not-for-profits, and cooperatives - and not just in the United States - have pioneered a different kind of leadership, and Preskill and Brookfield have put their finger on it:

"When collective leadership is being authentically practiced, all group members are committed to creating and implementing a shared vision. All assume some leadership responsibility. All have an opportunity to play a leadership role. All are willing to subordinate themselves to the group's goals and interests."

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and other non-profits and cooperatives around the world have been living and learning this model of collective leadership for years - some perhaps closing in on a century of striving for this model. NRECA teaches board members of rural electric cooperatives to set aside their differences to work for the common good of the consumer-members. The Mondragon cooperatives in Spain (see April post) have created their own unique cooperative economy based largely on this approach. Collective leadership is not easy (just think about the "subordination" part of the preceding quote, for example) but it can be learned and practiced. What's more natural to the American character, to the pioneering spirit, to "In God WE Trust?"

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Jim Bouton and the Power of Reflection

Most baseball fans who cared probably read Ball Four forty years ago. Back then I was too busy doing my homework to take the time to read a baseball book, especially a "bestseller" that purported to "tell the truth about the game." In case the name of the book doesn't immediately ring a bell for you, Ball Four relates the personal experience of Jim Bouton, a former World Series championship pitcher for the New York Yankees, who has turned 30. For the 1969 season, seemingly nearing the end of his short career, he is headed to the minor leagues to develop a knuckleball in order to work his way back to the major leagues.

At a distance of four decades, Ball Four offers unexpected insights, and not just for baseball fans. It was the nature of the book, rather than the content, that held my attention these last couple of weeks. Not that the content is not interesting. The book has historical interest, for example.

In 1969, players had limited options if they wanted to play in the Major Leagues. Once they signed a contract, the club that signed them controlled their negotiating power by means of a provision then known as baseball's "Reserve Clause." If you know the history, you know that players have since turned the tables on management. The clubhouse in 1969, though, was a different world.

Ball Four, though, chronicles more than the events of the season. Bouton, a bit of a square peg as a thinking player, thought critically about the prevailing feelings and attitudes - of other players, as well as management. He recorded his thoughts each day, so the narrative has an immediacy that few memoirs can achieve. His daily recordings became increasingly reflective. As the season wore on, Bouton questioned almost every aspect of the league, the clubhouse, and the prevailing "wisdom" of the players.

About the same time that Jim Bouton was writing this book, I was writing daily journal posts, originally as an assignment for Michael Zajic, my high school English teacher, and later, as a personal pursuit that I kept up for years. As I read Ball Four, I could not help seeing Bouton's thoughts grow deeper, more profound, more intellectually honest. In Bouton's narrative, I recognized the personal transformation that I had gone through with the journaling process, although for me, it took far longer than a single baseball season.

If we stick with these daily reflective writings about our world (both external and internal), the process can ultimately help us increase our powers of observation, and eventually, our understanding of ourselves. Bouton does not disappoint in this aspect. Since high school, I have read many, many baseball books. For the development in his reflective thinking, and for his ability and willingness to share his reflections with us, Bouton's ending is my favorite.

His last musings begin with hearing about the fate of a fellow former major league pitcher whom a taxi driver tells him is now pitching in the Kentucky Industrial League. I'll let Bouton say the rest himself:

"Then I thought, would I do that? When it's over for me, would I be hanging on with the Ross Eversoles? I went down deep and the answer I came up with was yes.

"Yes, I would. You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."

The Jim Bouton of the opening pages of the early season would not have allowed himself to think that, let alone to express it with a poetical flair. Coming at the end of Bouton's season, it demonstrates the power of daily, disciplined reflection to ultimately penetrate layers of tough surfaces, helping us find our essential truth.