Monday, July 25, 2005

Would Life Be Different for African-Americans If...

I finished reading chapter 10 in Ronald Heifetz' book Leadership Without Easy Answers tonight. I will admit that I hated the book after the first couple chapters, but then Heifetz seemed to let up on his personal philosophical leanings and got into some seriously great stuff. Chapter 10 deals with staying alive as a leader, the temptation of becoming a martyr, the co-dependency that can develop between a group and their leader. I couldn't help but think about Martin Luther King, Jr. on every page I read. In part that was due to the fact that Heifetz used King as an example in this chapter, but also because it seemed to describe the civil rights movement and King's assassination to a tee.

Heifetz points out that a movement that will require large scale adaptation and change often requires a charismatic leader at the beginning of the movement (Heifetz' entire book is about leading through "adaptive change"). The difficulty is that a charismatic leader must be very careful not to let a co-dependent relationship develop. Effective leadership through a major adaptive change (such as changing the nation's views on racial issues) requires that the people who are impacted by the change do a significant amount of the work. The clearest example of this from the book was a doctor walking a family through a cancer diagnosis. The doctor had to determine how much "distress" the family could withstand each time they met and very carefully help them come to terms with the fact that the person with cancer would likely die (it was a great real-life example that I won't get into here). In this case, the family that is impacted must take on the work necessary to prepare for death. The doctor cannot get the family papers ready or prepare memories for the children or prepare a co-worker to take over the business. The doctor can only give news, hold hands, cry, and fight like mad against the cancer. The real work of adapting to the impending change must be done by the family.

If a charismatic leader does not recognize the need for the group to do the work necessary to adapt to the impending change (regardless of whether the change is good or bad), then the group will continue to depend on the leader to do all the work for them. Heifetz pointed out that King had wanted a sabbatical in 1968 (the year he was killed). Several of his closest confidantes called the idea impossible (p. 249). King didn't take it. His request for it and the response he received, however, should have been a sign that the people were too dependent on King. He couldn't take the civil rights movement any further because the work that needed to be done could not be done by the leader...any leader. By that time, the movement had slowed down, riots had been occuring across the country for several summers, and King's voice was far from the only one that was being heard. The nation had not been prepared for adaptive change, yet it was forced to deal with it. Since it didn't deal with it in a way or time that some had wanted it to happen, the nation erupted. Sadly, it was the African-American communities that were the hardest hit, and rebuilding has been slow.

No one had stopped to think through the ramifications of forcing change when the nation wasn't ready for it. There are, still today, many cries for "Justice Now" without a serious consideration of how a major change in the life of a group (whether it is a social club, a church, a city or the nation) would impact the dynamics of the group. We have become an "immediate" culture. We want what we want and we want it NOW! Major change cannot occur that way. It must occur slowly. People can only handle a certain amount of stress/distress in their lives at any one time. If there is too much, then there is a significant risk of an explosion. A wise leader understands how to use pressure to create just enough stress in order for change to move forward, but that same wise leader also knows when enough is enough. King had demonstrated such wisdom in Selma, Alabama. He was able to pull back just long enough to make Selma a turning point for the nation. There will be another time to move forward; forward movement doesn't have to be constantly occuring. Sometimes sitting still for just a while will allow the next step to be much more effective.

Would life be different for the African-American community if there had been a willingness to keep the civil rights movement in balance with the nation's ability to process it? I honestly think so. We'll never know for sure, though.