September 6, 2015

Martin Luther King Jr. Lived on the Moon

James McGregor Burns is a giant in the field of leadership studies.  His seminal work called, "Leadership" is a masterpiece.  Reading it felt like watching someone take apart a Ferrari piece-by-piece and put it back together from memory.  Stunning work.  However, I have been continually frustrated by the field of leadership studies.  I had the opportunity at a conference to ask James McGregor Burns the question at the root of my frustration.  "If we are the rocket scientists of leadership, why aren't we sending more people to the moon?"  

If we understand leadership so well, shouldn't it be easier for us to identify and launch strong leaders into prominence?  Shouldn't it be easier for us to train and support existing leaders?  Shouldn't positive change in our society accelerate when we use this important knowledge for the greater good?  Unfortunately, he had little to say.

Here's the crux of the issue.  There are two bodies of leadership.  There is observational leadership and aspirational leadership.  Using our rocket scientist analogy, it is the difference between observing the moon from earth and trying to live on the moon.  They are two completely different experiences.  They also can inform each other in helpful ways when we acknowledge the difference.

Observational study of the moon looks at the amount of light and darkness and why it is light or dark.  It looks at the atmosphere and what gasses are present, if any.  It looks at its orbit pattern around the earth.  It documents those who have tried to go to the moon in the past.  It is a safe and academic exploration.  Personal risk is low.  It examines past experiences and collective data.  It is focused on history rather than on the future.  It asks "what has been in the past?"

In contrast, aspirational work is for astronauts.  It designs the breathing apparatus to survive on the moon.  It creates the rockets to escape the gravitational pull of the earth.  It builds habitats that can withstand the hot or cold temperatures observed with the phases of light and dark.  It creates communication systems that can get messages, data and supplies back and forth from earth.  It requires courage and personal risk to explore this uncharted territory.  It is unsafe and unknown.  It is active experimentation which then creates new experiences and new data.  It is future focused.  It asks "what is" and "what could be?"

We must examine our work in nonviolence, leadership and social change through both of these lenses.  We need both the observational and aspirational perspectives.  We must also be intentional to distinguish the two and not conflate or confuse them.  The predominant paradigm is to teach from an observational perspective regardless of the audience or end goal.  Remember, observational perspectives are safe and low-risk.  We can peer-review them.  We can wax philosophically for years without consequence.  However, if we want to send people to the moon, we must shift our focus to aspirational work.  

For example, Martin Luther King Jr. was an aspirational leader.  A majestic planet in his own right, many scholars observe him and his work.  He left much writing and resources related to nonviolence.  The Six Principles of Nonviolence and the Six Steps of Nonviolence are tremendous contributions to humanity.  What we must recognize is that his writing and teaching came from an aspirational perspective.  King lived on the moon, to use our analogy.  It was active experimentation in an unsafe and unknown environment.

The work of aspiration is always unfinished.  Gandhi understood this well.  He famously writes about his "experiments in truth."  No matter how much observational knowledge we have, it is imperative to document, reflect upon and refine the work of the aspirational practitioner.  That means building upon the work of Gandhi and King and not simply accepting it as observational written truth.  Nonviolence was not intended to be an observational textbook or chapter in a history book.  It is a living tradition to transform an unjust present into a more just future.

Nonviolence, at its root, is an aspirational model.  It is intended for astronauts "going boldly where no person has gone before."  Aspirational leadership requires the active reflection and meaning-making from its practitioners.  As I have said before, the mindset of leadership is being ready to learn.  Leadership thrives where there are no clear answers.  Every step a person takes toward social transformation is a step that no one has taken before for that group, that time, and that place.  Therefore, we must distinguish in our explorations and learning if we are using an observational framework or an aspirational framework and for what purpose.  It makes no sense to teach someone how to use a breathing apparatus if they will never go into space.  It is also folly to send a person into space with no knowledge, skills or tools for survival.

This distinction can help all of us become more effective in our work.  The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.  Let's go into space and see how far it bends!   

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