What Hesse’s Steppenwolf Says About the State of Leadership

Leadership lessons turn up in the most unlikely places sometimes. I love it when that happens, don’t you?

I am preparing to make some major life changes (aren’t we all?!). I always see these periods as opportunities to clear the decks and start again. As part of that clearing process, I revisited my bookshelf and pulled out a book which has lay there for years, waiting for me to pick it up and read it.

It is Hermann Hesse’s classic novel Steppenwolf.

What struck me is the prescience of the message. First published in Germany in 1927, the book deals with themes that are highly relevant for the Western world today, namely that bourgeois sentiments of high ideals create separation from the realities of the human experience. Intellectual arrogance breeds contempt and, in the Steppenwolf’s case, he realises he has sacrificed real human connection, in all its messiness, for the sake of high-minded pursuits.

Could Hesse foresee the societal conditions that led to the rise of European Fascism in the 1930s? Isn’t this what the recent election results have been all about? Hasn’t the writing been on the wall for some time now?

Here we have a conflict in society that mirrors the rise of Fascism once again, with “experts” or “intellectuals” having retreated so far into the world of ideas, theories and visions that they’ve ignored the economic and social realities of the majority. While globalisation, to date, has worked for the people who have the privilege of education and take initiative, it doesn’t work so well for those who don’t.

I realise many people long ago made the connection between the rise of today’s alt-right movement and the rise of fascism in Europe which led to World War II. However, you may have watched from the sidelines, hoping and praying it wouldn’t come to this. Right now, it feels as though we are being pushed towards the Far Right by the groundswell of populist sentiment, and it may feel REALLY uncomfortable, terrifying even.

Take a recent comment from Steve Bannon, Trump’s appointed chief strategist, about his relationship to the “dark side” and his admiration for Satan, Darth Vader and Dick Cheney (read more here). The Trump campaign, much like the Brexit campaign, better understood the fears of the masses and used this to suggest an alternative that the masses would buy. And guess what? The “myopic” media kept publishing it, and the general public fell for it hook, line and sinker.

They won the vote by rolling in the deep with the people for whom the world does not currently work. You cannot understand how to inspire the masses if you have your head in the clouds. You cannot resolve disgruntlement from an ivory tower of lofty aspirations. And you cannot win people over by taking the moral high ground. In fact, you’ll incite anger in people who see the moral high ground for what it is, a superiority issue. They’ll be only too glad to knock you off your self-created pedestal.

As we’ve seen in recent months, this has proved to be true in politics, but it also applies to business. Take the example of a recent client, an investment banking executive dealing with an employee whose disruptive nature was more harmful than helpful. We explored what actions he was taking to bring this employee into line with the rest of the team.

What I came up against was considerable resistance from this person, who felt it wasn’t his responsibility. Instead, he absolved himself of the responsibility by placing it in the hands of the manager below him. When I asked him what support he intended to provide her, he said, “I haven’t got the time to deal with people management issues at that level.”

Have you ever experienced this before? Is this the kind of leader that inspires you? Is this the kind of leader you’d race to work for?

It smacks of an attitude that says, “I’m too important to get my hands dirty. I’ll leave that to the little people.” He had forgotten what life was like when he was on the lower rungs of the investment banking hierarchy, and he had no interest in remembering. I withdrew from the coaching relationship. His resistance to change was greater than his desire for change, and in that position, I am unable to help someone.

You could find yourself in a similar position, and if you’re on that road, consider that you’re walking a tightrope from which you will inevitably fall. Remember the Democratic battle cry, “When they go low, we go high”? It only served to widen the division between the “Establishment” and the “Outsider” who dared to break the rules of engagement.

What this situation really demonstrates is the danger of adhering too tightly to one position or another. In the case of Bannon, you might be quick to judge. On the other hand, he’s been quite generous in telling you what tactics he has already used and what he’ll continue to use to gain traction and support for Donald Trump.

He’s prepared to get down and dirty. Are you prepared to do that? If not, why not?

Let me be clear. When I say, “Get down and dirty,” I do not mean resorting to dirty tricks. What I do mean is being willing to step outside your own world view to experience another world view that you deem beneath you.

When you cling to one reality, believing it to be superior over another, you alienate people with your bias, those pernicious little mistakes in thinking that lead to opinion, to which many a conflict can be attributed. In turn, you alienate unwanted aspects of yourself, projecting them onto others.

How does that work? Well, consider that you are just as “fundamentalist” in your adherence to your “truth” as the fundamentalists you criticise. You are just as guilty of prejudice, couched as intellectual snobbery, as those who hold prejudices towards people based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

You must own your own dark side. Until you do, you will be prone to manipulation, just like everyone else.

Biases inhibit your ability to connect to others, and to yourself, without judgment. It’s not necessary for you to befriend everyone you meet, but as a leader, is it your job to understand on a deep level what the real issues are. Reality can challenge everything for which you stand. It’s a hard but necessary taskmaster.

As human beings, though, we have a tendency to polarise, to believe that it’s either this or that. We see things along a spectrum of possibility, drawing imaginary lines between one position and the next, and we believe we have to stand still at some point between those two ends.

The truth couldn’t be more different. What we mostly do is oscillate between the poles in a rolling motion, a bit like a figure ∞. Like the breath, we inhale, and then we exhale. Or like the tides, the waves move towards the shore and then away from the shore. It’s a continuous process of taking in and then letting go that generates the spiral of life.

Think about this for a moment. If you sacrifice inhaling for exhaling, what will happen? You’ll die. If the waves only moved in one direction, what would happen? The Earth’s oceans would exist as fathomless ponds of stagnant water. Neither supports life.

At the moment, what we’re experiencing is a leadership mutation that’s creating a new spectrum of possibility. While this initially feels frightening, consider that it will also breathe new life into a reality that has reached the end of its lifespan. It’s the rolling movement between the ends of the spectrum that allow for the mutations necessary for the evolutionary jump that the world so desperately needs.

What does this mean for you? As a leader, you cannot afford to stick to one side over the other. It’s understandable to want to only deal with the “light,” and there’s a belief that those who seek the light are enlightened. The real process of enlightenment, though, occurs when you recognise that darkness holds light, and light casts shadows of darkness. It’s the essence of the yin and yang, one contained in the other.

When you absorb this truth, you are able to move between light and dark or highs and lows at will, with the knowledge that you are free to move wherever you choose. You are better able to recognise where you are on the spectrum, or where your team is on the spectrum in relation to you, and act accordingly. When you allow yourself the freedom of movement, no problem is beyond or beneath you. In the end, there is no high or low, no dark or light, and you know your previous polarised assessments of situations were simply a matter of a limited and limiting perspective.

You see reality in its fullness, and this allows you to seize the transition as an opportunity, rather than mourn the passing of something that had outlived its expiration date. It’s this awakening to Reality with a capital “R” that promotes both magnanimity and equanimity, two qualities found in brilliant leaders.

So, as a leader, what are you doing to stay in touch with the people you lead? What are you doing to inform yourself about the issues that matter to people at all levels of your team, department or organisation? How willing are you, on a scale of 1 to 10, to drop down to your knees, roll up your sleeves and get messy with the rest? If you were, what would this make possible?

Like the Steppenwolf, it’s only when you venture into the depths of experience as a leader that you awaken to the fullness of reality. Your action of breathing out to explore life beyond the confines of your existence breathes life into those whom you serve. The line becomes a circle, and if you continue the process, it becomes the spiral of infinity, each level creating the opportunity for a new evolutionary leap in its wake.

It’s called inspiration, breathing life into something.

This, in turn, creates the environment for brilliant innovation, the source of evolution, to emerge. Will you evolve or stay stuck? The evolutionary train is leaving the station. Jump on!

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