• by Josie Danini Supik, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 1997
It is 1957 in Laredo, Texas, the “Gateway to Mexico.” Every evening after dinner, families sit on their porches to escape the sweltering heat that even nightfall will not dissipate. It is a time for neighbors to exchange the news of the day: Tony’s son is going to Laredo Junior College now; Nena’s baby is getting to be so big; Richter’s is having a sale tomorrow.
As darkness falls, a man, the velador, walks down the streets lighting every light post, casting both light and shadows. A few years later, his widow and son inherit the task of lighting the way as he had done. There have always been veladores in our lives – men and women who have lighted the way. In moments we, ourselves, may have been veladores for others, sometimes standing in the shadows for others to stand in the light.
Each of us has a light within us, a potent force to lead the way for ourselves and others. The choice to do so is not always easy for it means facing and overcoming the darkness, the fears and doubts that are constant companions. It means staying true to a vision, keeping hope alive, giving voice to those who have none. It means believing, in a profound and unfaltering way, that each person we encounter can make a difference in this journey. It means listening to people with our heads and our hearts and speaking with a voice that resonates with truth, fairness and decency. It means finding words that will move us and others to do what is right.
During a recent visit to a school superintendent’s office in the South, I noticed a saying on a wall plaque:
- Watch your thoughts because they become your words. Watch your words because they become your actions. Watch your actions because they become your habits. Watch your habits because they become your character. Watch your character, because it becomes your destiny.
Leadership is about character, about integrity and about commitment. It is also about joy and humanity and passion. Chip R. Bell, in his article, “The Leader’s Greatest Gift,” writes that leadership is not so much about reasoning as it is about passion:
- Memorable leaders call up in each of us a visit with the raggedy edge of brilliance and the outoftheway corner of genius. When we feel inspired, incensed or ennobled, we have visited the magical realm of passion…Passion takes the plain vanilla out of encounters. It is a leap into relationships” (1996).
Bell quotes Goethe who called leadership boldness:
- Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin in boldness. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred” (Bell, 1996).
Tom Peters writes in “Brave Leadership” that passion and integrity are integral parts of leadership. He quotes strategy researcher Michael Porter: “Of the hundreds of worldclass companies that I have studied, an enormous proportion were run by some maniac who had spent the last 20 years of his life on a crusade to produce the best product” (Peters, 1996).
When we think of people who have inspired us, who have changed things for the better, who have made a difference, sometimes at great personal and professional sacrifice, what is remembered is not their technical skills but their character, their drive and dedication, their passion and their courage. What also stands out is their authenticity. Leadership is about being authentic, staying true to what is inside you and letting that spirit and humanity shine through, unfiltered by others’ expectations or the fear of change.
Perhaps it is that fear of change that is the greatest inhibitor to bringing forth the leadership within us. It means being comfortable with risk, with the unknown, with leaving behind what is familiar and predictable. It means taking a risk to “have 30 minutes of ,wonderful’ rather than a lifetime of ,nothing special'” (Bell, 1996). It also means making critical decisions that will affect people’s lives, ours included.
Peter Senge teaches a leadership course through Innovation Associates that takes people through a process “whereby they discover that they are never going to completely figure anything out in their lives” (1996). He writes that the impact on people is extraordinary. Some try to deal with it by intellectualizing it while others
- …sit back in their chairs and laugh, realizing that they are dismantling two common beliefs: first, that people can control an organization from the top or at a distance; and second, that you can ever fully understand a system or figure it out…And so we teach executives to live with uncertainty, because no matter how smart or successful you are, a fundamental uncertainty will always be present in your life. That fact creates a philosophic communality between people in an organization, which is usually accompanied by an enthusiasm for experimentation. If you are never going to get the answer, all you can do is experiment. When something goes wrong, it’s no longer necessary to blame someone for screwing up – mistakes are simply part of the experiment (1996).
There is another critical part of leadership and that is ensuring that others will take the lead, will light the way as we have before them. We are stewards, keepers of the light, for only a short time. And like the widow and son veladores who continued the lighting of the way, we must prepare those who will do the same for us. Before that happens, we must recognize and accept our limitations but never lose sight of all that is possible.
We must also accept the inherent greatness and leadership in people: “The first task of the manager is to see the unique greatness that is there, to intuitively recognize the inherent potential in each individual, and to take a stand in his or her own mind for individuals realizing their greatness” (Senge, 1996).
Chip Bell asks the hard questions we all face:
- Why are you here, in this role, at this time? What difference will your being here make? What legacy will you leave behind? Will you be forgotten for what you maintained or remembered for what you added? Imposing mountains are climbed, culturechanging movements are started, and breath through miracles are sparked by leaders who took the governance off rationalism and prudence, letting their spirit ascend from within (1996).
It is ultimately our choice to lead, to be a velador, to let the spirit and light within us and others ascend. We must choose well, for it will become our destiny and our legacy.
Bell, Chip R. “The Leader’s Greatest Gift,” Executive Excellence (October 1996) Vol. 13, No. 10, pp. 1314.
Peters, Tom. “Brave Leadership,” Executive Excellence (January 1996) Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 56.
Senge, Peter. “Systems Thinking,” Executive Excellence (January 1996) Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 1516.
Josie D. Supik is the division director of the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]