Sunday, March 25, 2012

Leading Quietly - Beyond Expectations - Buber & Hasidic Wisdom

A few recent reads:

Leading Quietly:  An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing by Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr.

An enjoyable read, framed around several “case studies” from life that Badaracco has discerned, including his review of great literature, engaged in the context of classrooms with learners at Harvard.  Having gleaned insight from Macbeth, Antigone, The Prince, Death of a Salesman and many others, Badaracco suggests that the characters who “set out to become great men ended up disappointed” while the minor characters who are “unassuming” with modest ambitions, careful and sensitive intentions, “simply trying to do their bit” are actually “responsible, thoughtful and successful [in their] efforts to lead.” (181-182).

The book is not a guide to the black-and-white issues of what every leader must do, in order to lead.  There are no “be this” or “do this” manifestos articulated in the context of the book that are framed as the context within which leaders lead.  Rather, the book explores the nuance and textures of leadership that are difficult to discern in complex contexts.  A single quote that helps frame this, that Badarraco takes from a manager involves what he calls the Paradox of Quiet Leaders (p. 88) while noting that Quiet Leaders have “the courage to prudently tackle tough situations” (89).  Courage and prudence, while tackling – but not tackling in ways that “stay and fight” nor “fight recklessly” but “consider and calculate” while “invest[ing] their political capital wisely” (90).

Badaracco does not, in his own words, “elaborate a theory, test hypotheses, or offer conclusive proofs.” Rather, he “raises questions, prompts reflection, and sketch[es] alternatives to familiar views about leadership and doing the right thing . . . [by]. . . offer[ing] practical advice in the forms of guidelines of action”  (181). 

Badaracco’s ideas have been shaped by Tolstoy, too, including War and Peace .  About leadership, Badarraco agrees with Tolstoy that “so-called great leaders were largely creatures of larger historical forces which they neither understood nor influenced, while ordinary individuals, going about their mundane affairs, cumulatively shape the world.”  (185)

While this ending note might sound a note of passive inactivity – the text asserts quite otherwise.  Active, engaged, thoughtful, patient, discerning leaders emerge from years of investing wisely, buying time, bending the rules, nudging, testing, crafting compromise, while restraining, being modest, and having tenacity.  A thoroughly enjoyable read – and one with great questions on pages 186 and 187 that I will use with future learners in Ethics courses that I teach, including thinking about the ethics of Rescuers in the contexts of situations of genocide.


Having noted this full text about leading quietly and leadership, I jump to a short blog entry from John Maxwell, where Maxwell writes,

No one wants to feel invisible as they pass through life, yet we often get the impression that others see us as little more than a statistic. Our resume ends up in a pile, our performance reviews goes into a file, and like everyone else we get a raise every once in a while. We’re referred to as applicants, employees, or human resources, and we sense our individuality being somewhat buried.

Jack Welch called this feeling of anonymity “being in the pile,” and he recommended thinking as the means of escape. Most people go with the flow, doing what’s asked of them but not much more. In Welch’s estimation, the key to elevating yourself in business is to go above and beyond expectations whenever you’re asked a question or given an assignment.

Maxwell goes on to assert that this can be done by finding a place to think your thoughts, finding a place to stretch your thoughts, finding a place to land your thoughts, and finding a place to let your thoughts soar.

I needed to hear the words of the Leading Quietly text – and these words by Maxwell.  For many years I have felt as though I have been “going above and beyond expectations” – and these words encouraged me to continue to do this – because it is, in fact, a form of leading – even if it feels quiet and invisible.

Kenneth Paul Kramer is an expert on Martin Buber. 

I became familiar with Kramer when I started using his text on Martin Buber’s I & Thou:  Practicing Living Dialogue for a Graduate course I teach in psychology.  (The course engages how we think about human personhood, and is entitled “Philosophy of Interpersonal Relationships.) 

The text noted above is a great stand-alone text for discerning Buber’s I and Thou, though I would counsel any person to first work through I and Thou on their own – to struggle with it, before picking up Kramer’s great text.  Kramer is great, but, knowing the primary source and reading Buber in his own framework is urgent.


In this text, Martin Buber’s Spirituality:  Hasidic Wisdom for Everyday Living, takes Buber’s The Way of Man and extends the conceptual ideas addressed by Buber.  Like his former text on I and Thou, this text by Kramer does not seek to replace Buber’s ideas, but instead aims to enlarge the reader’s capacity to discern what Buber had said.  In this way, Kramer acts as a kind of guide, or mentor, or even perhaps translator of Buber in helping the reader “get” what Buber has said with supporting ideas and extended descriptions. 

It is hard to talk about what Kramer does without focusing on what Buber has already done, for this book is a direct, co-related extension of the former!  In these ways, though, Kramer wants the reader to be able to work through the issues that Buber has attempted to discern.  These issues include:  where persons find themselves in life, with respect to God and others, discerning one’s unique tasks in the world, becoming whole, dealing with personal and relational conflict, and discerning how to be fully human by being fully present with and to God in the fully realized here and now. 

This is an excellent – superior text, really – for discerning Buber’s The Way of Man.  It is much more than a “cliff-note” to the text – but a text that stands alongside the former, with equal capacity for sharing, expanding and enlarging the insight of the former.

If you want to discern Buber – or Buber’s ideas for thinking about personhood, relationality, and how God “fits” into this – you should read this text.

Two other notes: 

Kramer’s “Conclusion:  Practicing Buber’s Secret” is a single chapter worthy of its own deep reflection, that deals with the issue of prayer and praying dialogically.   Included there are these words:

“You know always in your heart that you need God more than everything; but do you not know too that God needs you – in the fullness of His eternity needs you?  How would man be, how would you be, if God did not need [humans], did not need you?  You need God, in order to be – and God needs you, for the very meaning of life.” (116)

“If we pray, Buber continued, ‘Thy will be done,’ we must in truth add ‘through me whom Thou needest.’  Impossible to understand yet necessary to imagine, God needs me for our partnership to flourish, needs me to accept God just as God is ever-ready to accept me, needs me to pray and to listen attentively for signs in daily life, and needs me to live dialogically and relationally.  Approaching prayer in this way, my role in praying is shifted.  I bear a new responsibility, and with this new responsibility comes a new attentiveness to everyday events, encounters, and exchanges in which the Voice speaks.” (116)
And, Kramer offers a wonderful “Dialogue Journal” in the Appendix, with questions that the reader can use with each chapter as they discern their own way in the world. 

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