Teaching Leadership LO7075

Dave Birren, MB-5, 608-267-2442 (BIRRED@dnr.state.wi.us)
Tue, 30 Apr 1996 09:02 CST

Replying to Christian Giroux in Teaching Leadership LO7047:

>A lot of people in Germany would not have chosen Hitler as a leader if they
>had known...

First, I'd like to apologize for not taking the time to properly think
about what I'm going to say. As with most of my other posts on this list,
given the press of e-mail and "regular" work, this will get said now or
not at all.

When I was about 12 years old I began a study of Germany and Eastern
Europe that covered language, customs, culture, history, trends of
leadership and followership, racism and multinational relationships. This
began as an effort to understand my roots and progressed to preparing for
a career in the CIA (fortunately, that never happened). With this
background I must say, with a great deal of chagrin, that the German
people knew exactly what they were getting when they let Hindenburg go and
chose Hitler.

Consider the conditions of the time: crushing reparations, deep and
widespread resentment against Jews, raging inflation and unemployment (our
"Great" Depression was nothing compared to what happened in Germany and
Russia), a movement toward democracy for which the people had little
preparation, and great pride in a culture that was over 1,000 years old.
They wanted a strong leader who would solve problems and make them feel
good about themselves. They got what they wanted, but like most nations -
and organizations - they didn't realize the full impact of their decision.
(Lest I be accused of gross generalization, that's exactly what I'm doing;
I'm aware there were many who saw what was coming and fought against the
rise of fascism.)

I write this because I think there's a lesson here for organizations. The
Germans in 1933 may have known much more about themselves and their
leaders than the typical American organization. Consider that "Mein
Kampf" was the most widely-read book in Germany in the 1930s. What do we
have that bares the souls of our leaders as completely as that little
book? What makes us think that we know what we're getting any more than
we think the Germans knew?

What I'm getting at (and more passionately than I expected) is this:

(1) Every leader is right for the moment, however brief that moment might
be. Failures of leadership are the greatest teachers in the lives of
nations and organizations because they offer us deep insights into our
characters and desires. I'm skeptical about whether and what we learn
from these moments.

(2) We must respect our ignorance and build into all of our systems
mechanisms to compensate for that ignorance. When we realize we've chosen
an ineffective leader, let's not just sack him, or bear with a bad
situation; let's examine our values, our selection processes, and his
ability to learn, and do our best to help him improve.

Above all, we must be willing to face the fact that leaders generally give
us exactly what we're asking for. It takes great courage to learn that we
often don't know what it is we truly need. This was true for the Germans
after WWI and is no less true for Americans at the turn of the coming
century. If we fail to take responsibility for our leadership we will
continue down the blindered path of blaming and victimhood. Seems to me
an organization dedicated to learning from its experience is supposed to
do better than that.




David E. Birren Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources birred@dnr.state.wi.us Phone 608-267-2442 Fax 608-267-3579

* ** *** There is no excuse for being uncivilized. ( D.H.Birren) *** ** *

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