The Leadership Vacuum — Make It Your Friend

Among the myths about leaders is that they are born and not made. When a leadership vacuum appears, there’s stress. Chaos threatens to erupt. It would seem that only a unique person, someone whose chemistry mixes ambition, charisma, and ego, can fill the vacuum. But when teaching an approach I call “the soul of leadership,” I begin with the opposite assumption, that leaders appear when awareness meets need. A person who knows what a group actually needs — the group can be a family, business, team, or political party — must be more aware than those in need. If they had enough awareness on their own, the leadership vacuum wouldn’t persist. Once the need is identified, the leader must take steps to fill the role that it demands.

Rather than speak generally, let me name the specific roles I have in mind. They are arranged from lowest to highest (following a scheme widely familiar as a hierarchy of needs). The point is that higher needs can’t be fulfilled until lower ones are met. So the skill of a leader is to know which need must be addressed immediately and then begin to raise the group’s awareness so that the next need can be fulfilled.

Here are the seven primary roles you will be called to fulfill if you step into a leadership vacuum.

1. Protector: Your role is crisis manager. As a role model you show confidence and strength. Walking the walk, you go to the center of the crisis and remain there as long as it takes. You look for constant feedback as to how the crisis is shifting. Your persistence ensures that every aspect of the crisis is being attended to, overlooking no foreseeable possibilities. When the crisis is past, your group (i.e., followers) celebrates by embracing those who were saved from threat, bringing them into a feeling of safety, and releasing the tension and stress that every crisis creates. A protector has been successful when the group feels secure.

2. Achiever: Your role is motivator. As a role model you are the winner, the one who competes successfully. You walk the walk by bringing tangible rewards to the whole group, not just yourself. The feedback you look for is stories of success, but you are also alert to the things people are less willing to share: their doubts and obstacles that block the way to success. You persist in the face of competition and setbacks. These are inevitable, and you keep encouraging the group to realize that every challenge can be met. When success is finally achieved, you celebrate by sharing the credit and the rewards, pointing out each person’s unique contribution, and allowing exultation to have its day. An achiever has been successful when losers have been turned into winners.

3. Team Builder: Your role is negotiator. As a role model, you convince the group that you support shared goals instead of rivalries and factions. You walk the walk by being fair and just, showing no favoritism. The feedback you look for is agreement. Disagreement is inevitable, and you remain alert for potential cracks in the group so that you can heal them before they turn into rifts. You persist by reconciling differences, even though each party may be stubborn and stuck in its own position. When you have achieved group unity, you celebrate by relaxing as a group, finding an activity that everyone can enjoy together. Let the group feel its solidarity without the pressure of a deadline to meet. A team builder has succeeded when everyone feels that they belong.

4. Nurturer: Your role is counselor. As a role model, you express sympathy and understanding to anyone who comes to you in trouble or need. You walk the walk by never judging; your empathy extends to everyone, because everyone goes through tough times. The feedback you look for is any sign that people feel listened to and understood. On the other hand, you are also alert to anyone who looks disengaged or alienated from the group. You persist by following up with the people who need you, keeping tabs on how they are doing, and committing yourself to building a real relationship. Celebration takes place one person at a time, when you are able to share another’s intimate joys and steps toward healing. A nurturer has succeeded when everyone feels heard and understood.

5. Innovator: Your role is catalyst. As a role model, you encourage new ideas and show that you are comfortable with the unknown – in fact, it excites you. You walk the walk by creating a space for creativity to flourish – you nurture the first sprouts of a promising discovery. The feedback you are looking for is any sign of a breakthrough. You keep your antennae out for signs of progress, steering the group away from dead ends and unpromising lines of inquiry. When the breakthrough has been made, you celebrate by appreciating as a group the beauty and wonder of being pioneers. An innovator has succeeded when everyone feels creative.

6. Transformer: Your role is inspirer. As a role model, you exemplify a higher calling, and your voice amplifies the inner voice that calls every person to be transformed. You walk the walk by upholding the values you preach, giving flesh and blood to higher guidance. The feedback you look for is any sign of an internal shift in your group – a group that could be as large as a whole society. You are alert to evidence that people are acting out of their better natures. You persist by showing compassion, no matter how often your people backslide or show weakness. The celebrations you lead are often rituals of thanks and worship. The group is drawn together as children of a higher power. A transformer has succeeded when everyone feels that their lives have more meaning.

7. Sage and seer: Your role is pure light. You have reached the highest state of awareness. As a role model you are saintly, a purified soul. You walk the walk by emanating the very qualities of Being – love, truth, peace, and a deep knowingness. What you do is almost irrelevant. What matters is your being. This can be called a state of non-doing. Your feedback is anything and everything: the sage accepts that each person is following a unique path that must be honored. You persist by understanding human nature in any guise. You celebrate by uniting with the One, the field of pure being that is the source of everything. Others celebrate by absorbing your inner peace and joy. Sages and seers are beyond failure, but they succeed most when others feel connected to the sacred level of life.

This is only an outline of the hierarchy of leadership, but two things emerge immediately. The first is that there is not one vacuum to be filled but seven — security, achievement, team coherence, nurturing, innovation, inspiration, and higher meaning are different needs, each to be fulfilled on its own terms. The second thing that emerges is that it takes awareness to identify which need is lacking. The greatest leaders are able to reflect all seven needs; their secret is a rare ability to be seen as a role model at every level. If you attune yourself to the group’s needs, you don’t have to feel the stress of a leadership vacuum. It actually becomes your friend because it draws out your potential, and once that begins, a path to greatness is very likely to open.

Published by San Francisco Chronicle