Citizenship over Leadership

“They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” — Exodus 32:8

Leadership is a word much loved in Agile circles these days. We have servant leaders, thought leaders, fearless leaders, open leaders, and tribal leaders, to name but a few. We have leadership rules, leadership laws, leadership principles, and leadership lessons. Everyone wants to either be a leader, or find one to follow.

This is another example of the quick-fix culture in which we live. We seek people to tell us what to do, or how to think. We seek formulas, processes, steps, procedures, anything to make work life easier, and then, inevitably, to have something—or someone—to blame when things don’t work out. One body’s process is thrown out in favour of another’s, the next “5 Ways to…” or “8 Laws of…” book is touted, and a new bandwagon is launched. In all of this striving for The New Way we overlook individual responsibility. We forget about good citizenship.

The concept of citizen is elegant and simple. Maintaining a balance between rights and responsibilities the good citizen gives and receives in equal proportion. No one citizen is more or less important than any other, and each offers what she can, while reaping the rewards of the citizenship as a whole. The good citizen is present in body and spirit for her neighbors, and for her community; and she contributes in time and taxes to the maintenance and improvement of her city. A city is built by its citizens, and the more each citizen is involved in the process the more each will come to love her city, and thus to care for its infrastructure, its culture, and its inhabitants.

Mapping this to the world of work we can see the corporation as the city, the department as the neighbourhood, and the team as the personal community. Just as we have friends in different parts of a city, we may have teammates in different departments throughout the organization—and we find our own ways to maintain and nurture those relationships. The expectations of the worker in the corporation should be the same as the expectations for a citizen: that she will be responsible for the well-being of self and others, that she will take an interest in community and politics, and that she will raise her voice at injustice. This is leadership.

As regards the Biblical quote at the start of this piece, I am not enthralled by the idea of a commanding God, so I read the commandments as a manifesto (albeit a somewhat crude one) for good citizenship. It’s basic stuff: don’t lie, cheat, steal, kill; act with honor; and don’t make graven images. It’s this last part (actually, commandments 1 and 2) that’s interesting here, and is the subject of the passage from Exodus, above. It seems not to fit my idea of a manifesto for good citizenship, but I think perhaps it does.

Disregarding the concept of an all-powerful, invisible deity, we can interpret the first two commandments as advice to not look outside of self for something to fix us, something to idolize. Just as the ancients would adopt, and then cast aside one god after another, as each proved to be inadequate for their needs, so we leap from thought leader to thought leader, or process to process for the same reasons. After several thousand years of this behavior, it may be time for a retrospective.

Each of us has the capacity to show up for life in a holistic way, to be present, to listen and to learn. Much of this is crushed out of us in the school system—but that’s too vast a topic to tackle here. The point is, we have become lazy. Our search for the perfect leader is a sign of that laziness. It is a turning away from seeking our own truth, and living our lives each to her own potential.

Rather than peering outward for the answers, maybe we can spend a little time looking inward. If we seek to be good citizens, rather than to have good leaders maybe the corporate environment will begin to shift.

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Original Comments

Some very interesting thoughts Tobias. While I read this I have to think back to the wonderful book QBQ on accountability. Unfortunately, it seems the American culture has greatly become one that lacks accountability and doesn’t want to take responsibility. As you mention we are always looking for someone else to solve the problem, so that if the solution doesn’t work, we can blame them and not ourselves. I personally am ashamed at how much I see this mentality running rampant in my country and see that it is a huge obstacle to agility in businesses. In order for agility to work, the team members must be willing to be accountable and accept responsibility for their own results.

I think it is this fact that is causing a lot of the agile community, myself included, to talk about leadership. If leadership in an organization isn’t fostering this culture of accountability and citizenship, it is going to be very difficult for the team members to adopt it. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that they shouldn’t attempt to adopt it even if the leadership isn’t supporting them, but it does make it a lot more difficult. I believe that is why we are seeing leadership come up more and more, because if the leadership within an organization supports and encourages accountability and citizenship, it enables people to act like citizens and take that responsibility.

In any case, I look forward to discussing this some more at ACCUS!

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Thanks for the comments, Matt.
“If leadership in an organization isn’t fostering this culture of accountability and citizenship, it is going to be very difficult for the team members to adopt it.”
This is true, and this is the kind of leadership we need to foster amongst those already in positions of authority, while at the same time helping the (supposed) disempowered to learn to lead from within.

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