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Why leaders should not be the source of our courage. (And why they should not be frightened of Umair Haque. I’m not.)

December 15, 2010
Does this man look frightening to you? Me neither.

Does this man look frightening to you? Me neither.

I am not frightened of  Umair Haque–and that’s a good thing.

You see, he writes about the economy and, given my own focus on leadership and the human dynamics that influence our institutions, I am often dismayed to find that most people who write about our collective economic condition can find no way to offer hope. So they frighten me.

Well, wait. Frighten may be a bit strong. Besides, I don’t mean frighten in a hiding-behind-the-couch type way, but they frighten me in a broader, systemic sense. (Besides, I haven’t hidden behind the couch since my mid-30s.)

But seriously, economists and those who write and report on the economy are in many cases the people we turn to in order to build our own vision or narrative of our collective economic condition. And more often than not most other writers are either deeply mired in technical rhetoric or hopelessly pessimistic.

So often, these ladies and fellows don’t offer the kind of insight and perspective that would help leaders envision any kind of constructive response.

Yet it is true that leadership is often about midwifing focus and inspiration in the face of otherwise intimidating challenges. But these things need to find nourishment in the possibility of a better outcome. And for many, that’s the soil in which grows courage. 

But when I speak about courage and leadership I don’t mean that idealized image touted by so many who speak about leadership.

Those folks are speaking of trait-based leadership where the leader is envisioned as a heroic figure, magically endowed with traits that place him or her far above the rest of use with our failings and foibles.

So the trait-based folks will claim that a leader not only needs to have courage–she/he also needs to be the source of our courage as well. I think that’s an outdated message and it carries far more risk than reward.

These times are complex and leaders can no longer fill in for those parts of ourselves we believe we don’t have. So if we insist on them being our courage, we very quickly look only to them and stop looking for it within ourselves. For this reason, leaders must be the channel of the courage that lies within each of us. It might be disowned or misunderstood–but its there and a healthy culture where authentic leadership is practiced can help us to find it.

So what’s this have to do with Umair Haque and the other economic commentators? In short, our economic life world represents the underlying structure upon which all our institutions and social ambitions rest. Without a hopeful image of such–whether we can consciously acknowledge it or not–our efforts toward a better future will be bound and clouded by a pervasive sense of doom. Our courage will then feel very far removed.

And this is what I start to feel when I listen to most of those who speak about our systems of commerce and exchange. So I tune out. I start to feel, like many of them, somewhat nervous and even a bit cynical.

Nervous and cynical that unless some audacious messenger is bold enough to look clearly at the condition of our deep infrastructures and, in an intelligent and inspired way, extract a vision of hope, all of us–particularly those in positions of leadership–will fail to grasp critical opportunities to transform our courage into a collective beacon for unprecedented opportunity.

Haque–the Director of the Havas Media Lab and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review–is that wise-cracking, audacious messenger. He has an unparalleled ability to envision our economic landscape in a way that offers equal measures of caution (and some may even say disillusionment) insight, and unrelenting optimism.

But his optimism is not for our economy–or the institutions that largely embody it. His optimism is for the human spirit and our indomitable drive for meaning and connection. That, he often says, is what will save us. I agree.

The piece Haque recently  published at Harvard Business Review (and which I recently Amplified) features Haque’s characteristic optimism along his recurring indictment of our present myopia when it comes to the economy and social media.

Social media, Haque argues, needs to put on its big boy pants and begin to move beyond the era of “friending” and badges and instead acknowledge its emergent ability as a channel of social transformation. As someone committed to the call of leadership, that’s a vision I can get behind!

So Haque offers a vision of a possible future that, while far from assured, helps leaders to move beyond the smug veil of cynicism–or worse, the shallow assurance of ungrounded, inauthentic idealism.

This is a call that can move us toward a more inspiring vision of possibility; one deeply rooted in a more inspiring ideal of who we can become and all we can create when we realize that the courage we thought belonged to only the leader was within us all along.

(Definitely worth the trek over to for the full read.)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. gregorylent permalink
    December 19, 2010 11:29 pm

    if you have followed umair haque for a few years, his evolution is quite interesting. he strikes me now as something of a mystic reformer. the essence of your headline about the “source of courage” is in essence answered best from a mystical viewpoint. the source of everything is within one’s own being.

    • December 19, 2010 11:38 pm

      Hey Gregory,

      Thanks for the insightful comment and, yes, I couldn’t agree more–the source is within. For me–having a background in esoteric pursuits yet now being in a PhD program–this is an extremely exciting time. The two worlds are beginning to co-mingle in a much bigger way. With greater scholarly validation will come much greater assimilation into traditional organizational settings. I’m interested to see if the publication of Haque’s book opens this door even further. Best, David.

  2. March 19, 2011 8:42 am

    Hi David,

    Love this article. I got very excited about one line in particular and started to copy it to tweet it, but then I paused to think about it a bit more: “leaders must be the channel of the courage that lies within each of us”.

    I’m wondering about the idea of channeling. Might it be that they need to create the fertile conditions for our courage to grow from within? It’s the idea of stewardship of the whole.

    Maybe you could explain more how you see channeling working.


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