Sunday, September 13, 2009

On Religion, Needs, and Leadership

In life, there are many forms of leadership experienced on a daily basis. From the shows we watch to the company we keep, whether aware of it or not, we lead or are led. All of these examples are of significant influence in every person’s life. However, in my experience there is only one example of leadership that spans not only centuries but pervades every niche of society including those aforementioned. This example is religion.

Since the dawn of time, people have searched for a higher power to provide purpose and to aid in satisfying inherent needs such as food, water and shelter. Once these needs were met, humankind looked toward their respective deities to satisfy more abstract needs such as safety, social acceptance, and self-esteem. This postulation is similar to that of the Maslowian theories of motivation proposed in McGregor’s Theory X. Just as the fulfillment of lower ranking needs in an organization brings rise to needs of greater substance and thus reward, man’s self-fulfillment of simplistic needs creates a yearning for a leader to aid in the gratification of those more complex (McGregor 1960).

Initially, this acknowledgement seems of no harm when its truth is, in fact, of great concern for three primary reasons observed in my admittedly short time here on Earth. First, the degree of complication associated with our unfulfilled needs arise as it is the action of man that ultimately allows them into existence. Second, as we depend on man’s ability to maintain integrity to fulfill these needs honestly, we ignore the frailty of the human conscience. Third, similar to Hackman and Johnson’s ideas regarding unethical impression management, the most morally corrupt will shroud their own personal agenda as the will of their espoused deity (Hackman and Johnson 1991).

One example of religion-based leadership with regards to these shortcomings can be seen by looking at the black freedom struggle of the mid-twentieth century through two very different lenses with the same religious base of Christianity. During this time, Martin Luther King Jr, through his charismatic speaking and faith in God, rose to become a prominent leader of the movement by promoting equality through non-violence acts (Carson 1987). Conversely, during this same time period the Ku Klux Klan became well-known by its acts of violence and oppression; claiming it to be the will of the same God. Clearly, the Ku Klux Klan was falsly claiming its actions as just. With this example, it is easy to discern which group worked honestly to aid in the fulfillment of a complex need, in other instances the distinction may not be so easily made.

Religion is indeed the gate keeper of morality and the author of our world’s values. As such, the virtues of religion can keep mankind safe from itself (our only enemy) but only as long as those entrusted with its responsibility maintain a righteous poise. Since this is not always the case, those that choose to follow rather than lead must judiciously watch for those whose motives are less than pure so to keep the fragile virtues of society safe.

The Choice of Leadership

Having graduated from the United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA) in 2005, I am partially favorable toward the idea that leadership can be taught. That does not necessarily mean that leadership can be learned and applied by the same person to whom it is taught. I think a person must make a decision to internalize what leadership means to him or her before being capable of leading others. Although I've probably written and spoken the word 'leadership' more than I've said my own name, I still cannot make a clear decision as to weather leadership can be learned by just anyone.

The USCGA, the smallest of our nation's federal military academies, provides a four-year Bachelor of Science degree program along with specialized education and training to graduate individuals prepared to serve as commissioned officers and serve the public as leaders of character.

When you first arrive at the academy, you begin what is known as swab-summer. This is a time when senior cadets and commissioned officers train and indoctrinate the new "wanna-be" cadets. You actually are not even considered a cadet or member of the CGA until you complete the seven weeks of training. Throughout this program (equivalent to that of boot-camp for enlisted personnel) we are responsible for learning and reciting the cadet mission of the CGA. Every now and then, whenever a swab-summer cadre wants to hear it, he or she will shout, "Zulu three (or whichever platoon you were a member of), what's the mission?" to which we would reply, "Sir/ma'am, the mission of the United States Coast Guard Academy is to graduate young men and women with sound bodies, stout hearts and alert minds, with a liking for the sea and its lore, with that high sense of honor, loyalty and obedience which goes with trained initiative and leadership; well grounded in seamanship, the sciences and amenities, and strong in the resolve to be worthy of the traditions of commissioned officers in the United States Coast Guard in the service of their country and humanity, sir!" Thus, in the very early stages of my adult education, I was learning that leadership is something that I could learn and would learn before I became a commissioned officer, according to the mission at least. I do actually believe that leadership can be learned, but I believe that learning to be a leader is a choice we make and is a never ending journey.

I was sent home during week 5 of my first swab-summer because of a knee injury but was determined to get back to the CGA where I could learn about this extraordinary concept of leadership. I wanted to be a leader, because I wanted to effect others' lives in a positive way, and I still strive toward that goal. Looking back, however, I realize that my first real experience with leadership involved my willingness to obey authority and my "zone of indifference" of unquestionably accepting orders (Chester Barnard, 1938). This is not how I define leadership today, but that summer (and 3/4) of obedience to authority did teach me to be a follower and revealed traits that I do not want to have as a leader. In a sense, during my four years of training, I was learning to be a leader through experiences, relationships, mistakes, and above all, my willingness to learn to lead.

The topic of leadership was common throughout my four years at the CGA and four years as a commissioned officer. It is an institution and service that emphasizes leadership. We are encouraged to discuss positive and negative leadership characteristics with our peers, but I think a large piece is missing; the direct study of the theories on leadership that we've currently been discussing in our class. I still do not have a concrete definition of what leadership means to me, but I'm closer now to that definition than I've ever been. I agree with people like William Pagonis who says that anyone willing to work hard enough and develop the traits can lead (Leadership in a Combat Zone, 2001). Which traits? I think it is dependent on the situation and the vision of the group and the leader, but that is another topic in itself. However, I also believe some people have a natural ability and/or tendency to lead, without having to work so hard and without having to attend a U.S. military academy.

The CGA prepares cadets to take on roles of great responsibility and leadership and it begins with senior cadets leading and training the junior cadets. However, all of this training and experience does not prove to me that just anyone can learn to be a leader. You must have the desire to lead. Though instructors, especially the commissioned officers and chiefs, help teach cadets about leadership through their own experiences, I think the ability to learn from them is a choice we make. Learning to be a leader seems to be a lifelong commitment that we may choose to experience.

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