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Tomorrow’s leaders embrace resistance

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Succeeding in spite of resistance is a traditional problem of leadership. A leader ought to welcome resistance and work with it. A successful leader needs resistance. In fact, leadership and resistance can be the same thing.

It’s time to move beyond the studies of leadership that focus on “how” and start asking the deeper question “why” is leadership needed.

The answer to “Why?” is “Peace.”

An effective leader for peace moves away from the traditional leadership model of one person with power over others and toward one that brings together conflicting views to arrive at a truth — giving everyone a chance to lead as needed.

World events are forcing leadership scholars to consider the deeper purpose of leadership. Leadership for what?

The protest movements of the 1960s sought to overturn the existing power structure by creating a “counterculture” in opposition. More recent movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street worked within their respective cultures in an attempt to bring change.

The modern protests had no discernible leaders but were combinations of many differing individual views — something that, according to many news reports, caused consternation among their opponents, who sought traditional methods and targets for counterattack.

The leaders of the modern protests had the ability to see complexities in how people got along without reducing conflicting views to a simple “us versus them” — in turn allowing the leaders to see possibilities in the conflict instead of obstacles.

This same moral imagination encourages modern resistance leaders to be willing to assume personal risk to advocate their causes, creating a crisis that encourages others to question their beliefs.

Indeed, for peace to exist individuals and communities must develop and enlarge their capacity to imagine themselves in a web of relationships, even with enemies; this speaks to the interdependency of our collective web.

Traditional boomer generation leaders have traditional leadership ingrained in their brains so it will take the current crop of young people — Gen(eration) Y — to accept and use the collaborative model of leadership.

Gen Y members in many ways carries the seeds of our boomer hope for a better more peaceful world, but they are more strategic and systemic about this effort. Using their values, they are moving institutions and even society in the direction of moral progress.

Furthermore, peace will take some time and thus depends on the generation now coming into leadership to carry the work forward.

Such moral leadership will have practical benefits. A leader who acts for the greater good will help create an organization that can sustain itself — and thereby, in turn, act for the even greater good.

Develop a shared leadership mindset
Change your thinking about leader as hero and instead share leadership responsibility; this means ending the mindset of workers versus managers or followers versus leaders in favor of exploring how power and influence can be shared. Organizational resistance leaders can pop up anywhere — as informal leaders who lead quietly to affect evolutionary change, challenge prevailing wisdom and transform organizational customs and norms. Simple, consistent, collective acts of resistance build over time to advance moral awareness and increase peace within organizations. 

Lead to serve others
At the micro-level, leadership for peace begins within the individual, though significant and ongoing commitments to advance peace in relationships, to extend compassion, to exercise self-restraint, and to lead for the betterment of the group rather than self.

One form of leadership that captures these commitments well is servant leadership, which begins with a commitment to serve others first. Organizational leaders who embrace this style of leadership invert the hierarchical pyramid, placing themselves at the bottom rather than the apex, seeing customers and front-line workers as those possessing the most rights rather than the least, in contrast to most top-down approaches. 

Embed moral practices into business processes
Leaders who lead from a commitment to advance sustainable practices provide a good example of resistance leadership. Resisting the profit-only motive in favor of a triple-bottom-line approach to measuring success, these resistance leaders invest in production and distribution partner organizations and thus demonstrate a higher level of moral reasoning.

Excellent examples of this more holistic, and to some radical business model are Patagonia and Timberland. Each of these organizations has embedded moral practices in their business processes, clearly demonstrating moral progress and resistance leadership; and through their commitments to environmental sustainability and social justice, each has advanced peace through raising awareness of the common good.

Cultivate an attitude of peace
An attitude of peace will lead to practices that create greater security for those you lead, which will then encourage them to work toward creating circumstances that allow for a wider attitude of peace.

But without a moral compass, that’s not a given. The decisions that leaders make have a broad bandwidth of impact, and without moral grounding, leadership becomes a game of chance.

Dr. Bernice Ledbetter is a member of the practitioner faculty at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management and teaches MBAs and students in the Master of Science in Leadership and Management program about organizational leadership, ethics, and organizational management. Her research focuses on leadership and values, especially gender differences, as well as on moral developmental and non-Western approaches to leadership.