Experimental Leadership

by Tom Heuerman, Ph.D. and Diane Olson, Ph.D.


In his book, Servant Leadership (1977) Robert Greenleaf wrote of England's George Fox, seventeenth century founder of the Religious Society of Friends. Early in his ministry Fox, an earnest seeker of truth, wrote in his journal:

"I had forsaken all priests. . . and those called the most experienced people; for I saw that there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me. . . I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.'. . . And this I knew experimentally."

Greenleaf credited Fox's forty years of extraordinary leadership to the gift of knowing experimentally which led to ethical practice in all areas of his life. Fox's contributions included: a new commercial ethic, equal status of women, education for all, and opposition to slavery 100 years before the American Civil War.

Experimental leadership was largely absent during the industrial era which required conformity by obedient bureaucrats and technicians. For approximately 300 years, many people gave away their right to think for themselves in exchange for the illusion of security. Alienated from their inner lives (the source of experimental insight) many people treated others as objects.

For example, a senior manufacturing executive said to me, "I don't like people problems. I'm a machine kind of guy." The pain in the hearts of those who work for this manager reflects that belief. Like many other people in positions of power, this man doesn't understand he is connected to those around him, and what he does to them, he does to himself.

I hope he becomes aware of the enormity of his impact on others. I hope he comes to understand that no one has the right to harm another human spirit. I hope he comes to understand that true leaders never, ever turn on their followers. His good intentions for his company are not enough; he needs to be aware of the impact he has on others for those impacts are harmful to many people on and off the job and to his organization. I hope the employee who said, "I just want a decent leader to follow" will have his wish come true. The times we live in require more of leadership than this executive is providing.

We live in a world undergoing a transforming creative process, and the times are frightening. Fear of the unknown is a normal state. The threats to life as we've known it are real. The challenges are great. Within organizations, fear is rampant. People fear uncertainty, loss of their job, loss of status, loss of control. Men and women question whether they are competent to do what a changing world requires. Employees mistrust the competence of coworkers and managers. People doubt themselves. Women and men fear additional work, and the impact of so much change on their families and health. People fear the loss of themselves to inauthenticity. Despite profound anxiety, most fear leaving organizations to pursue their dreams. Perhaps the greatest fear is of life itself. I believe the aspect of leadership needed most today is the courageous person who lives by ethical values and thinks independently; one who leads experimentally.

Experimental leaders do not identify with rigid schools of thought or specific groups whose boundaries they will have to defend and whose rules they will have to follow. They do not blindly follow the scientific method and are not new age thinkers. They will not conform to the academic worldview or the organizational development paradigm.

Experimental leaders are artists. Their meaning, direction, and inspiration come from their powerful vision, deep ethical foundation, and profound sense of purpose. They identify with life itself and understand life's natural creative process. These leaders form a symbiotic relationship with others evolving together to a higher consciousness and wisdom. They know experimentally what to do and have the courage to follow that course daily-regardless of what others do, say, or think.

Greenleaf asked, "Who is the enemy? Who holds back faster movement to a better world? Who is responsible for the mediocre performance of so many of our institutions?" It's not the evil, stupid, ignorant, or apathetic people nor the executive who doesn't like people problems. If the world is transformed there will still be evil, stupid, ignorant, and apathetic people. The enemy is indifference. The enemy is those with power and responsibility who lack the courage and conviction to hold others accountable for their behavior. The enemy is the indifference of each of us when we fear to live authentically. We are not victims of poor leadership; we are its co-creators. We will not have a better world or better organizations without authentic and courageous leadership and followership.

We need to mentor and nurture the capability of knowing experimentally in today's leaders. More than technical knowledge, we need strong ethical leaders who will raise moral standards in a time when much of leadership is, Greenleaf wrote, "in the hands of the gross, the self-seeking, and the corrupt." We need courageous leaders at all levels who trust themselves and are not afraid to make a decision. Leaders who tell the truth and stand up to injustice, mediocrity, and selfishness. Leaders who cast aside political correctness for truth and integrity, who judge behavior, and hold others accountable to live by the shared values that are indispensable in a community. In a living system, all are responsible and can influence life's dynamics. Each of us can choose to live experimentally and to lead.



Tom Heuerman, Ph.D. and Diane Olson, Ph.D. are organizational consultants in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Phone: 612-931-3909; Fax: 612-931-3002

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