Classical Leadership

Remember that everyone everywhere longs for something. Desire is the most elemental part of each person.

Here's how to become a "Classical" leader. Plato contended the human soul is filled with Reason, Will, and Desire. Of course this mix can greatly vary between people. Further, I've found that highly effective leaders understand they have to appeal to all of these attributes to foster agreement (persuade) and generate enough of the energy required to break through status quo-hugging inertia (propel, magnetize.)

Looking at these three interwoven components: "Reason" refers to understanding how the world works and what approaches would be best suited to fix shortfalls. "Will" means taking oneself in hand, not allowing fear or other concerns to sidetrack working toward improvement. "Desire" refers to cravings, a push to do or receive something. When unchecked, desire –- both physical and emotional -– can incite overwhelming actions that actually hurt a person's well-being overall.

As in the Rochambeau game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, these three human components can each simultaneously overcome and succumb to one other. For example, some try to Will themselves to take actions that their Reason pushes back against, "arguing" either these aren't possible to accomplish or don't provide good payback on effort expended. ("I'll just hurt myself if I persist"; "I'm too old to try a new activity"; "I just have to grit my teeth, try and make myself do this, no matter how it might turn out.")

And both Reason and Will seem to continually struggle with Desire. ("I will not have another piece of pie... or a third one"; "I know I should exercise -- but the game's on"; "Don't say it, don't say it... I can't believe I said it!"; "Why did I do that? I knew better....")

My lifelong experience as an agent of change:

When attempting to reach others, it's essential to incorporate each of these elements. Appealing to only one or two of them makes it more likely the left-out element will resist or that there'll be a critical missing performance link (e.g., even with strong motivation to change -- but not much more than that -- lack of effective planning or execution will stunt actual results).

Timing greatly affects relative weighting of Reason, Will, and Desire. Change expert Kurt Lewin wrote that every person lives in their Dynamic Present, which is comprised of three elements:

  • The Immediate Past -- what recently happened that's affecting him/her now (e.g. had a fight with his spouse just before coming to work and is still stewing, something pressing came up the day before that's currently on her mind, back pain that blossomed yesterday is distracting attention today, etc.).
  • The Immediate Present -- those influences directly acting on him/her (e.g., boss seems to ignore me during our team meeting, she's hungry, etc.)
  • The Immediate Future – known deadlines or upcoming activities that affect what he/she’s doing now (e.g., pressed now because have to complete a presentation for this afternoon managers' meeting.) In addition to time, each person's three-part mix changes based his/her level of attraction or repulsion to it. So if a manager sees a new initiative can elevate her control and power (Desire), she may Will herself to do extra work to make this intervention really fly.

Desire is the ultimate driver of change, even among those who pride themselves on being "rational." Sure, for any proposed course of action, there are always numerous logical reasons for supporting or sinking it -– or to avoid making any decision at all. Have you ever been in a situation where you heard, "This might ossibly be of use, but we don’t have the time, the energy, or the resources to take it on. Besides, this wasn't planned into our current budget cycle," until someone high up in the company became excited about the proposed change? Then the organization "magically" finds the time, resources, and energy to quickly go full speed ahead with the new initiative?

Ultimately, while they may scrupulously weigh costs and benefits, people rarely become motivated by their head/thought processes. They sign on with their gut. Then their Will drives them to continue their efforts. This is even true in a court of law where evidence purportedly rules but emotional reactions actually dominate.

Reason doesn't motivate because anything is open to interpretation by someone predisposed toward bending it to his Will. If logic and reason ruled, likely no one would smoke, we all would be slim and athletic -– and everyone would act toward others as they'd wish to be treated. We'd certainly not lose control and blurt out relationship-torpedoing statements that we later regret. And, in the arena of Safety, none would take "silly" but unrewindable risks.

Desire is receptive to and even looks for opportunities that come out of the blue. In contrast, Reason tends to slow things down, arguing for thorough analysis and contingency planning prior to attempting anything new. Will, while important to actuating results, is a toolset, a let's-get-it-done focus, useful only after the decision to do something has been set. But Desire ultimately stokes the fire that forges new tools; heats up, shrugging off lethargy; and transfers energy into setting the wheels of change into motion.

So if you wish to be a high-level "classical" leader, consider:

  • making sure to include Reason, Will, and Desire into every persuasive argument you convey and every reinforcement plan.
  • enlisting Reason by making it easy for others to grasp the benefits and potential pitfalls of a proposed change –- and what they personally can do to become more effective. Yes, even with executives, include projected cost savings as a rationale for adopting new tools or applications -- but go well beyond just financial returns.
  • providing specific skills and tools that enable Will to easily operate (e.g., move away from "Pay attention to what you're doing next time" and toward "Here are some practical skills for directing your attention to most important tasks and to your safety.")
  • most important, motivating through Desire. Show how change is personally attractive, fun, and beneficial. Include ways others can better get what they most desire -– even when they don't state their deepest wants aloud. Avoid becoming limited by seeing anyone as a rational, "Mr. Spock"-like thinking machine that will change with the right intellectual argument.

Remember that everyone everywhere longs for something -– improvements, less stress, greater returns, enhanced respect, better relationships, and much more. Desire is the most elemental part of each person. Classical leaders understand and address the complex three-part nature of others while harnessing the drive of Desire toward positive planning, motivation, and change toward a more adaptive culture.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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