Sunday, July 18, 2010

Leadership You Can Hold a Candle To...

Edith Wharton once said:

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

That quote is about much more than being a candle or a mirror.  A candle has the ability to create light where there is none currently.  It need only be exposed momentarily to a source of heat in order to create a flame that lasts for a prolonged period of time.  When faced with challenges such as wind or water, a candle may blow out…but it is not defeated forever.  It simply needs to be touched again with the heat from a match or another candle so that it can resume its duty as light-creator for the room in which it resides.
A mirror, on the other hand, depends upon another source of light.  It can take the light produced from a candle and direct it to a larger area than the candle could on its own.  Perhaps, based on the position of the mirror, light may reach a part of the room that rarely gets light when the candle is alone.  So the mirror is a “force multiplier” for the candle—helping the candle extend its influence beyond the standard capabilities of that candle.  But the mirror cannot create light on its own.  If the candle were to go dark, so would the mirror.  The mirror would be left to wait until such time that the candle would be re-ignited before the mirror would reflect light again.

A metaphor for organizational leadership

The candle and the mirror can be a metaphor for leadership styles.  Or, more accurately, they are a metaphor for how leadership style flows through an organization.  The light produced by the candle (the leader) is passed through the organization via the other levels of leaders in that organization (the mirrors).  The more “in line” or engaged the mirrors are, the more likely that light will pass as far as possible and remain bright throughout the organization.  But not every candle burns the same.

A variety of candles

In 1922, the Ajello Candle Company created a candle to honor a friend.  The candle stood 18 feet tall, was 5 feet in circumference at the base, and was expected to last 1800 years if burned only one day a year on the anniversary of their friend’s birth.  The candle was extremely ornate and awe-inspiring.  Such a candle might represent a person with charismatic leadership style.  In describing a charismatic leader, German Sociologist Max Weber described charisma as “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”  Like the Ajello candle, these leaders often inspire awe in their followers and enjoy a high level of unquestioned cooperation from those followers.  Earlier this year, Barbara Kellerman of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, observed after the inauguration of Barack Obama that “none (of the Presidents) in our lifetimes have been authentically charismatic. None in our lifetimes have forged with their followers a bond so tight it transcends the ordinary.”  Other leaders who are generally recognized as charismatic in their style would include Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and even Adolf Hitler.

It is not always necessary to have such a flamboyant and stimulating candle because sometimes it becomes more about the candle than the light it actually produces (or doesn’t produce).  When all you really need is the light, a simple utilitarian candle may be the right choice.  This candle serves a role much as a servant leader would for his followers.  For a servant leader, the focus is always on providing for the needs of their followers.  Robert Greenleaf, the author who coined the term “servant leader” in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader”, says that “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first.”  In other words, it’s not about the candle for the servant leader.

A conscious choice of candles

Not every candle is appropriate for every occasion or setting.  Certainly, if the power went off in your home, an 18 foot tall ornate candle from Ajello would not likely serve you as well as the 6 inch long utility candle found in your kitchen drawer.  Conversely, that utility candle would not likely inspire the appropriate celebratory atmosphere if it were stuck in a cake instead of a birthday candle!

Leaders make a conscious choice of style to implement.  Even if a leader is predisposed to a particular style, it is still a choice to follow that style.  The choice is ultimately based on what matters to the leader or what that leader’s motivation is.   Martin Luther King was interested in changing the status quo and this status quo was not localized to his parish in Alabama.  Rather, it was an issue that penetrated through the heart of the entire nation.  He spoke with passion from his pulpit and inspired people.  His message drew more and more followers to him and he motivated them by eloquently sharing his simple vision.  Soon, his very presence had an impact.  His charismatic style changed a nation.  Yes, he was blessed with the talent, but it was still his conscious choice to use it in the way he did. 

It’s a good thing King didn’t choose the utility candle.

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