Leadership as the Search for Greater Coherence

By Nathan Harter

Literature around leadership is not hard to come by, but there are few texts that examine the process of leadership from where it begins – in the leader’s mind. Below, Nathan Harter analyses how great leaders have embraced the often complex multiplicity of their decisions and so brought coherence to their leadership.

Leadership scholars the world over have bent themselves to conducting empirical studies on how leaders lead. They dig through the historical record for examples from the past, such as Nelson Mandela or Steve Jobs, and they analyze famous leaders in the present, in many domains such as politics and business. They also conduct experiments using social scientific methods to find out what actually happens. This descriptive literature on leadership is growing.

Scholars also weigh in on the purposes of leadership, asking what leadership is for. They join the conversation of ethics about right and wrong, good and bad, going all the way back to antiquity to ponder the perennial questions. In many instances, they zero in on the unique challenges facing those who lead. What makes them blameworthy, if not toxic? This prescriptive literature is also growing.

As a professor of leadership studies, I find myself surrounded by these studies. Some talk about what is done. Others talk about what ought to be done. Yet I never really noticed anyone trying to explain how it is that leaders judge what it is they are supposed to do. How does someone arrive at the conclusion to pursue one course of action, as opposed to any other? It struck me that when trying to teach leadership, I might benefit from understanding that internal process, so that I could help students learn how to do it effectively, consciously.

An investigation into how leaders arrive at judgments requires an inward turn. Until the leader issues a proposal or makes a gesture, the entire process takes place in the mind, out of public view. Nevertheless, I accept what is called the cognitive point of view, which is that how a person thinks directly influences how they behave. If we can understand the internal methods, we have a better chance of understanding the outward phenomenon. That became my goal.
Leadership and Coherence
In 2014, I published a book as a result of my investigation. Leadership and Coherence (Routledge) relies on a fundamental analogy to incense. My kids bought me a stone box. I put a stick of incense into the box, light it, then close the box, so that tendrils of smoke curl out of decorative holes in the lid. These tendrils snake and rise to fill the room with sweet smells. 

In the same manner, leaders engage in overt behaviors that influence other people. What I wanted to know was this: What might be happening in that little box, where smoke is being made, at the source? The direction being proposed by a leader to his or her followers originates in some kind of inward imperative, some intention about what to do. 

In order to look inside the social actor, I had to acknowledge right away that inside everybody is a complex mind with many layers. Separate fields of study, including philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, speak to this multifarious nature of the human mind. Artists and mystics describe it vividly. The human mind is not a homogenous unit, like a slab of butter; instead, it appears to be broken up into disparate and sometimes competing parts. The mind is a plural. How then does that broken multiplicity resolve itself? That is the question.

The direction being proposed by a leader to his or her followers originates in some kind of inward imperative, some intention about what to do.

What leaders do is adopt many different points of view. Ron Heifetz called this watching the ballroom from the balcony. They amass so many perspectives that they get a kind of critical distance from the problems they wish to solve. They consider the various interests at stake, not only for a given moment in time, but from across time. That is, they incorporate past perspectives, and they imagine how things will look from the future.

My book relies on the work of Hannah Arendt, who described the process of judgment as a way of integrating these points of view. Usually, you have to read and listen to what other people have to say, but eventually you learn to do this (as she put it) without always having to count noses. You can do a lot of this in your head. Doing it this way allows you to “hear” the voiceless, the marginal in society who may not be clamoring for attention. It also allows you to anticipate how future generations might assess what you are proposing to do.

My hypothesis is that everyone is broken. By this I mean that everyone experiences the world in a fragmented way, largely because our minds are so divided. We see the world as comprised of differences, dichotomies, in which everything is to be judged as somehow separate from everything else around it. Western metaphysics has encouraged this way of perceiving our world. Thus, I am broken from the natural world and from other people. And it starts because I am broken in my own mind.

Leadership can summon the worst in humankind when it holds forth some shard of a complex reality, some idol, and assures everyone that they are now made whole, so long as they fall down at its feet.

The process by which a prospective leader brings resolution to that brokenness holds out promise to followers that they can heal the rifts and bring some degree of coherence to their lives, if only they unify and rally around the ideals of the one we call the leader. The human brain seeks coherence. Leadership promises that.

I was not unmindful during the writing of my book that the promise of greater coherence is often a demagogue’s trick, a foolish dream that induces followers to recapture some sense of the compactness of innocence, when the world made sense and somebody else was managing threats. Leadership can summon the worst in humankind when it holds forth some shard of a complex reality, some idol, and assures everyone that they are now made whole, so long as they fall down at its feet.


Embracing Complexity
In the final chapter of my book, I warn against what I call the Romantic delusion that leadership itself can heal the brokenness which constitutes life. To the extent that I make recommendations, I call on prospective leaders to embrace the complexity and brokenness and help to prepare followers to embrace it as well. There is a simplicity on the other side of upheaval that the ancients would call equanimity or peace, which does not obscure unsettling experiences, but transcends them from a superior vantage point that comprehends the oppositions.

In order to illustrate how this might be done, I devoted three chapters to actual leaders who embodied this way of approaching judgment. Each in his time fell outside conventional thinking and met with violent opposition, yet we laud them today for their wisdom. I began with Socrates as a thought-leader, whose methods of dialogue created a heightened sense of order among interlocutors. I followed with Abraham Lincoln, who united a nation by prosecuting a war and expanding the franchise to those who had been held in bondage. I concluded by describing the short and happy leadership of an elderly Czech named Jan Patočka, who after decades of persecution by the Nazis and Soviets in turn, finally at age seventy championed Charter 77, a resistance movement that came to fruition twenty-five years ago as the Velvet Revolution.

History depicts episodes of immense complexity. Socrates witnessed the rise and fall of an empire. Lincoln tried to navigate a bloody civil war. And Patočka was forced to adapt to two very different forces of occupation. It is interesting to note that in each case, they put a premium on listening. Socrates would talk to nearly anyone. Not only did Lincoln insist on receiving the bad news from the battlefront unfiltered first, even if it meant staying up all night, he subjected himself to open houses when anyone could wander into the White House to give the president a piece of his mind. Being banned from the classroom, Patočka conducted little seminars in people’s homes and emphasized the importance of asking even simple questions.

In education, we teach students how to read and write and speak and calculate, but has any child taken a course in listening?

Complexity is not a new phenomenon. Neither is setting oneself forth as the answer. Alcibiades presumed to lead Athens before he had come of age, whereas Lincoln’s cabinet was filled with men wholly convinced each would have made a better president than the man who actually won. His first general George McClellan felt the same way. One of the signature traits of effective leadership, in my opinion, is humility – not just humility toward other people, but humility toward that inward imperative which is grounded in something each leader understands to be truth. The brokenness within the individual is resolved first as purpose. Only then is a leader equipped to address conditions in a broken world.

Teaching in a university dedicated to the liberal arts, I embrace the ideal of nurturing two things at the same time: some kind of disciplinary proficiency for yourself, on the one hand, and a broader sense of perspective, to heighten that sense of humility toward the expertise of others, on the other. Such an education prepares the student for appreciating a multiplicity of approaches to real world problems.

The purpose of leadership is not to ignore the differences, not to pretend they do not exist, but to treat them each with due regard and find some kind of emergent order to give each its place.

In addition, dialogue is the art by which a leader acquires multiple perspectives, eliciting information, and ideas from those around you, including those who would otherwise not have your ear. Leaders need advisors, confessors, consigliari to help with this task.    
Beyond a certain point, however, the leader must be able to hold multiple perspectives in the mind, whether someone is present to speak up or not. Toward this end, we often find that reading the account of others in equivalent situations — both from history and fiction — nourishes the necessary imagination; a fine novel requires the reader to adopt many different points of view about the same basic story.   

It is my contention that each of us bears within himself or herself that inward imperative, which desires to bring all things into a kind of harmony. The purpose of leadership, therefore, is not to ignore the differences, not to pretend they do not exist, but to treat them each with due regard and find some kind of emergent order to give each its place. It begins by using one’s mind to apprehend multiple points of view and attaining a vision for how it all might fit. 

The processes of integration never end. Many of us get it wrong or do not care enough to act. In my studies, leaders appear to embody that better state to which we all aspire, and they compel the rest of us to participate in constellating the universe anew.

About the Author
harterNathan Harter became professor of Leadership Studies at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, U.S.A., after twenty-two years on the faculty of Purdue University. Harter has now published two books on leadership, one through the Purdue University Press and one through Routledge. He presently lives in Newport News, Virginia, with his wife of 29 years, Karin, and their daughter.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.