Tuesday, June 08, 2010

What does leadership look like? By Vaclav Havel

After reading my recent response to her question, "What does leadership look like in a healthy network," Claire Reinelt referred me to Vaclav Havel, leader of the Velvet Revolution (which brought a peaceful end to Communist rule in Czechoslovakia 20 years ago). In Fall 2009, the International Leadership Association (ILA) held its annual conference in Prague and awarded its Distinguished Leader Award to Havel. He accepted the award and welcomed the conference with these words about leadership (translated from Czech) :
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to greet your conference most warmly and thank you for the award I am to receive from you. I think it is splendid that this conference is taking place in Prague -- not simply because it honors and publicizes our capital city, but also because of the topic of your conference at a time when are truly in need of good leaders. Your conference can be an asset to its host country and provide some lessons.

You have approached me as a leader although I don't know whether I am a particularly typical one. And I am somewhat reticent about being labeled one. But if I try to step back from myself and reflect on this topic, then I do have after all one particular insight to share, namely, that people don't become central persons by their own decision; it is life that lures them and creates them. It doesn't require any particular leadership habits or style. A leader isn't someone who shouts or arouses fear in others, but rather someone that people need to have near them and feel at their backs.

I have one personal recollection. At a certain moment during our peaceful revolution, I was already very tired and exhausted from all the endless speculations, decisions, speech-writing and thinking up new things, and so I escaped for a couple of days to a secret location -- a friend's studio -- where I reflected on my coming speeches and tried to relax. Interestingly, I suddenly started to be missed at the Civic Forum, which was then the focus of all the revolutionary events. I was missed not because there was a specific job or task that I had to do without fail or one that I and only I could do. There was nothing that could not be dealt with without me, and yet I was missed. I was missed as a special kind of background support, the sort that we take into account and that we think about, one that in some way helps us to act and not become confused. Without my having realized it, or desired it, it strikes me that in that sense I was able to play the role of a central figure. I find it amazing, because I am the last person to consider myself to have charisma. However, since I have been invited to talk on this topic, I thought I would share this experience of mine with you.

Apart from all other abilities and skills, leaders should also have trust in their coworkers. They should radiate calm, and they should truly be a background support that others can sense, one that is important to them and gives them energy.

Thank you for your attention. I wish your conference every success.
A video of Havel's speech is here. Another transcription of the speech is hosted by ILA here.

Compare Havel's remarks to Verse 17 of the Tao Te Ching (expanding on the passage I quoted last time):

When the Master governs, the people
Are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don't trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
The people say, "Amazing:
We did it, all by ourselves!"
--Stephen Mitchell (trans 1988)
Thanks, Claire, for illuminating my Taoist quotes on leadership with such a timely example.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2010 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

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