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For the Health Of It™©, Volume 3 #4 Timeless Leadership Challenges: The Lion King

by Irv Rubin, Ph.D

A Disclaimer

         I’d seen The Lion King before. I saw it quite differently recently. As best as I can tell, several current contextual factors contributed to the difference. My personal journey passed the ¾ century mark. Warren Bennis, a friend, colleague, mentor, and contemporary passed away. But it was Angie Keister’s phone interview of me for an article on ‘values in OD’ that stirred the kind of looking way back out-loud reminiscing that left me mulling; “What’s it all about Alfie?” Organizing a few of these Lion King-triggered musings from a few scenes is useful to me. I hope they prove useful to others and our beloved profession, as a reminder of what our profession “was supposed to be ‘ all about’.”


The Scar[s] To Prove It

         As the Lion King, Mufasa made every effort to treat his younger brother Scar with respect and dignity. These efforts proved to be insufficient to mitigate Scar’s ego-driven jealousy of Mafusa’s young son Simba becoming the heir to the throne. A throne Scar so feverishly sought and believed he was entitled to have. A jealousy that fed Scar’s hubris and led to his killing Mafusa. An ego that developed and manipulated the plan to have Simba believe it was he who had caused his father’s death and in his ‘shame,’ disappear from the scene. Feigning humility and gratitude, Scar ‘accedes’ to assume the throne, and proceeds to exhibit exactly the kind of leadership principles our founding fathers and mothers predicted…and our profession has endeavored to mitigate. One scene will suffice.

When Nala—who was to become Simba’s betrothed when he became the Lion King—rejects and denies one of Scar’s “less-than-appropriate” advances, when he doesn’t get what he wants/what he believes he is entitled to have, he screams out: “I own you. I own everything!!”

Self-will runs riot when the ego releases our hubris. Examples of ”pulling rank” are sadly numerous. Be it a parent who shouts at a spouse or child—“Because I said so, that’s why!” Be it a CEO or senior executive or supervisor whose facial expressions clearly warn— “That kind of behavior could become ‘career-limiting,’ a resume-generating event.” Be it a manager, a President, a Priest justifying “less-than-appropriate” advances. Behaviors sadly familiar to all of us. But my musing led me to a few deeper leadership challenges.

What is it that we do believe/profess about what exactly it is that a “company owns?” Surely not as a CW classic would have us believe; “I sold my soul to the company store.” But if that is a true reflection of what we believe/profess then I need to ask, myself, the same question James Haskett posed; “Why isn’t servant leadership more prevalent?”

Three corollaries flow from that question; (1) What role do we believe/profess that the notion of “soul” plays in the world of business? (2) Why is the “L” word—love— so verboten around Board Room tables? (3) Why do we not put more faith in the insights from past ‘elders’ like Max DePree when, in Leadership Is An Art, he emphasized the “importance of love, elegance, caring, and inclusivity as central elements of management?”

My ‘answer to myself’ came in the form of an interaction I was honored to have had with Doug McGregor, a Doctoral advisor, mentor, and colleague. In musing aloud one day with a group of young faculty, as he was prone to do in complete transparency and honesty, Doug verbalized “feeling really phony these days,” like “he’d ‘sold out!’” [You can imagine the gasping from his protégés at their ‘father’s’ admission!] His explanation was profound and went something like the following. [Keep in mind it was ½ century ago!] “When I talk with CEOs, I hear myself arguing for ‘treating people well’ for primarily extrinsic reasons. Treat people well and you can expect higher productivity, lower turnover, etc. The truth of the matter is I am afraid that if I told them what I really believe they’d never listen to me. Namely, that the reason for ‘treating people well’ is intrinsic. We are all Gods creations, God’s children. Deserving of unconditional love. If we act from that belief, productivity, turnover etc. will take care of themselves…as a natural result.”

I can only add, “we have the ‘Scars’ to prove” what the consequences are when we don’t.


Leading By Example: First Heal Thyself

Simba felt a deep sense of ‘shame’ because he believed—wrongly—that he’d caused his father’s death. Rather than face this shame, he banished himself. As a result of the leadership vacuum this left, his beloved followers suffered painful ‘scars.’ But Simba, too, has scarred his own soul, which manifests itself—as it always will—in a growing sense of discomfort. I “feel lost…something is missing” he laments. But he quickly closes the window of opportunity for self-insight by retreating to his new mantra of denial: “Hakuna Matata”— No worries. Everything is fine!

Who taught him this mantra? None other than the hyenas—the scavengers of the jungle whose modus operandi and joy in life is to cackle and spread self-serving rumors behind others’ backs. Hyenas who profess to be Scar’s allies, who smile to his face and act like his friend…as long as it serves their purpose.

Simba’s ‘devil’s bargain’ works…until he gets some undeniable feedback delivered by Nala. After getting over the shock and joy of finding him alive, she gives him a dose of ‘tough love,” face-to-face. Her feeling of having been betrayed by his choice to not ‘come home’, to not ‘serve his people’ hits the home where we all live. In his heart he knows he has betrayed his intrinsic core, his soul. As a fallible imperfect human being, his ability to be a true ‘servant leader’, to lead by example, is limited. He must first heal the wounds he has inflicted upon his soul by himself.

Drawing courage into his heart from a place unfamiliar to his ego [a point we will return to shortly], he exposes his humanness with humility, integrity and transparency. He stands before those he was destined to serve and admits to and apologizes for a mistake…a mistake a he had mistakenly believed he made. In so doing, he reminds us that he—like all of us—is a human being first and ‘professional/role’ second. That the dichotomies we have created and incorporated into our daily lives, our daily thoughts, serve the same purpose as; “Hakuna Matata”— No worries. Everything is fine! They enable us to rationalize/deny the dehumanizing consequences of common phrases like, for example: “It’s ‘just business.’ It’s nothing personal.” “Let’s keep our feelings out of this and stay objective! Let’s not get ‘too personal’!” “I don’t want you to take this feedback ‘personally’!”

Reflecting on Simba’s struggle to free his soul from his “devil’s bargain”, I found myself wondering what it is we are really saying about what we believe we value when it comes to things like; courage, humility, the reality of our inherent imperfection as human beings, integrity and transparency? Do our ‘espoused values’ match our behaviors? My ‘answer to myself’ came again from another interaction with Doug.

I can remember the event, as if it were yesterday. I was scheduled to have my Ph.D oral exam at 2:00 that afternoon. I had only to ‘make my case for entry into the club’— a club whose membership board included the likes of Ed Schein, Warren Bennis, Donald Marquis, and, of course Doug. At 11:00 Doug called me into his office. He had a proposal. “How did I feel about ‘playing professor?’ All I had to do was provide a brief lecture on my theory of the ‘human side of organizations.’ The “kicker” was that he planned on asking the Ph.D committee to ‘play the students.’”

Without going into the details, I spent most of the next three hours, planning my ‘lecture’…seated on what we euphemistically refer to as “the throne!!” [To say that I didn’t feel anything like The Lion King would be a severe understatement!] I have no memory of the actual ‘lecture.’ But I will never forget the first 6o seconds. Doug began by announcing his proposal to the ‘body politic’ at hand (to the clear chagrin of a few, I must stay!) He then turned to me, smiled, and made a hand-motion; “The floor is yours.” Trying as best as I could to look brave, together and confident, I opened my mouth to ‘hear’ words emerge that had never crossed my mind during my ‘planning process.’

After thanking Doug I said something like the following. “I must admit I feel a bit nervous [yet another understatementJ] So much of what I have to share is built upon and influenced by you and Theory X and Y, I’m afraid it will be redundant and boring for you.” Doug smiled warmly, shifted in his seat, took his pipe from his mouth [yeah it was a long time agoJ] and said: “I hope you won’t let that get in the way Irv…because I expect to learn something new today.” Talk about leading by example with concrete behavior reflective of core abstract values like courage, humility, the reality of our inherent imperfection as human beings, integrity and transparency!

If Doug were alive today, I wonder what he’d say about the kind of behavior we, as a profession, model and strive to share with our clients when it comes, for example to feedback? Do we ’walk our talk’ when it comes to core abstract values? Doug put our challenge this way. “Unless handled with consummate skill and delicacy, the feedback process constitutes something close to a violation of the integrity of the personality…leaving managers uncomfortably feeling as if they are ‘playing God.’ Yet…circumstances force us not only to make such judgments and to see them acted upon, but also to communicate them to those we have judged. Small wonder we resist!”

It’s been over four decades since Doug put that challenge before us. Might he wonder, for example, if the mania we have helped to create over traditional 360s is not iatrogenic? [A medical term referring to the fact that treating a symptom can, and often will, make the root cause worse!] Do we really believe the way to treat the fundamental mistrust, fear, and avoidance of ‘one human being talking to another’ we, together have created, is to use procedures/processes that mirror Simba’s “hyenas?” In “aggregating anonymous feedback” are we honoring one of our most intrinsic of human diversities— expressing similar abstract values in quite different behavioral ways? [Try sometime asking 10 people for the specific behaviors a person has to exhibited toward them for them to conclude they are being treated with “respect.” But don’t expect anything near consensus! It is this very quality of our uniqueness as beings that makes The Behavior Minder™ my ‘right arm’ when it comes to ‘humanizing feedback.’]

My own answer is he’d suggest that growing to our next stage of development as a profession in ‘leading by example’ will involve some further deep ‘healing of ourselves.’


A Leap of “Faith”

I promised we’d return to an earlier reference to Simba’s drawing “courage into his heart from a place unfamiliar to his ego.” Please recall my Disclaimer since I’m about to venture into an area that I believe holds a key “to our next stage of development as a profession.” A key that has been around a very long time…since the beginning of time: namely the domain of spirituality [as distinct from and yet resonating with theologically-rooted values.] One of our founding fathers first brought this topic, and it’s potential relevance to our mission as a profession, to my attention long before The Lion King reminded me of it, so I’ll start with that story.

In his reign as CEO and Chairman of the Board of Hermann Miller, Max DuPree engaged regularly in the following ritual. When it came time to bring an important discussion to a decision, he would announce that he needed a few moments of silence. The group could do as they wished during that period. He’d be tuning into his ‘Chairman of the Board’ hoping to get a clear signal as to what was intrinsically the “right thing to do.” If he was unable to sense what his soul affirmed was right—above and beyond the direction suggested by exhaustive quantitative analyses and razor-sharp logical debates—the issue was tabled.

This is where our musing gets a bit ticklish, at least for me. Not because ‘spirituality at work’ is a new topic. Quite the contrary. Many have, with courage and foresight, written about it. Indeed, it is the fact that the topic “has been around a very long time…since the beginning of time…” that fuels my puzzlement. When Maslow, for example, made us aware of the ultimate stage of our personal growth and development [itself a never-ending process not an end-point], could he have just as easily said “soul-actualization?”

To this observer, we seem as a profession to be holding the place/the role the soul plays in helping to heal our clients—in supporting organizations in the equally never-ending process of the search for excellence— at “arms length.” [To return to Doug McGregor’s earlier thought: What could be more intrinsic than a human soul?] Might our continuing to act as if the self we are striving to help people ‘actualize’ is somehow separate from the soul contain the seeds of a transformation? Might our continuing to dichotomize “being a ‘professional’ and being a ‘person’ not itself be ‘the iatrogenic problem’ we face as a profession? And if so, what do we—as a profession…made up of fallible imperfect human beings—have to consider doing to act as if “being a ‘professional’” is a part of versus apart from being a ‘person’?”

And “What,” you’d be justified in wondering, “does The Lion King have to do with this ‘ephemeral-stuff’?”

During a few early scenes, Mufasa engages in conversations any good leader should have. He is talking with his son about the challenges of ‘succession.’ In one scene, Simba is defending his having knowingly violated his father’s ‘direct orders’, and thereby put himself in ‘harms way— saying: “ I only wanted to show you I know how to be brave!”   During the discussion, Mufasa admits to his own fears for Simba’s safety—itself a lesson in the “humanness humility, integrity and transparency” Simba, as we saw earlier, called upon as he stood “before those he was destined to serve and admitted to and apologized for his mistake.” He adds to his ‘planting the seeds of crucial values’ when he tempers Simba’s impression of his father’s power: “I am only brave when I have to be. I don’t go around seeking opportunities to show how brave I am.” In other words, he reminds his heir apparent that “pulling rank”—‘scarring’ other’s souls’ by ‘kicking butt and taking names’—requires no leadership skills at all.

But perhaps the most poignant scene, at least as it relates to ‘spirituality,’ comes when Simba is struggling with what the ‘intrinsically right thing to do’ is vis a vis his need to face the followers he left hanging. Feeling the reality of the ‘loneliness at the top,’ he stares helplessly up to the heavens. Why? Because Mafusa had promised his son that, “he would be there for him when Simba wasn’t sure about the right thing to do.” As a central part of his ‘succession planning,’ Mafusa had told his successor that the history of all previous Kings was radiating from the stars. Mafusa would be among them when he was ‘no longer here’ to provide counsel and coaching. In other words, all Simba had to do was follow Max DuPree’s wisdom, ‘take a few moments of silence’ and trust that they/it/??? would guide him, would tell him what was right.

When we have to ‘draw courage into our hearts from a place unfamiliar to our egos,’ where do we intrinsically turn? What they/it/??? do we trust when we have to take a ‘leap of faith?’ If every thing on Earth is a Creator’s creation, as Doug McGregor, among millions of others believe…then deep in the heart and soul of virtually every human being is the notion of a “God.” Then maybe Mafusa was giving his son a lesson in Spirituality…the lion’s version of The Lord’s Prayer.


Our “Leap of Faith” As A Profession

         Professions, organizations, “fields”—because they are made up of human beings, are living breathing organisms. As such they—we— will exhibit familiar patterns/stages of growth and development. What are the challenges we face, as the individuals who comprise “a field central to creating effective and healthy human systems [grounded in humanistic values] in an inclusive world community,” in growing into our next stage of growth and development? What might The Lion King offer us as words of wisdom in the service of our vision and mission? At the end of the day, for what do we stand? In looking back over the above, I see several possible avenues that might be worthy of our consideration. “What if” kinds of questions to ponder in contrast to concrete steps.

Values that fuel ‘scarring’ behaviors—and ways to mitigate and assuage their impact and spread—are clear to one and all. In no small measure as a consequence of the efforts of our founding mothers and fathers…many of whom are/were on the Vision-Strategy-Organization [VSO] Project Leadership Group.

What if, in so doing during our youthful existence—in Maslow’s terminology—we have therefore succeeded in moving ourselves closer, as a profession, to our next stage of normal development? We would then have to re-examine our ways of focusing on ‘self-actualization.’ A hard look at our “humanistic values,” as is happening now is certainly an essential step in that direction.

What if that ‘self’ took into more conscious account Doug McGregor’s intrinsic versus extrinsic perspective? Might that lead us to learning to be comfortable with the role of the “L—word” in the Boardroom? Might that lead us to having to re-examine our “two sets of books” mind-set—“That’s ‘just’ business.”— when it comes to accounting for/holding ourselves accountable for the consequences of our behavior?

What if we, as a field, stood for “one set of books” when it comes to the intrinsic treatment of human beings? What if there was no fundamental difference between being a ‘good leader’ and being a ‘good human being?’ Might that lead a new ‘performance matrix’ when it comes to ‘self-actualization—the impact of actions/decisions on the enhancement/nurturing of the soul?

A quote etched in stone in a Church in England in the early 1700s reads: “The third millennium will be characterized by a focus on spirituality…or there will be no third millennium.”

What if embracing the soul as the new mantra of our profession would allow us to help to serve every human being, in an inclusive world community, to be more likely to do the intrinsically “right thing to do?”

What if ‘world peace’ was our intrinsic raison d’etre and our ‘laboratories’ were the human systems in which we spend our waking hours?

Now there is a “leap of faith.’


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