Leadership and Mother Courage

Leadership and Mother Courage

Dear Reader,

In the coming weeks we will share appetizers from the fascinating studies in the 18 months Fighting Shoulder to Shoulder Program. The 18 months teams have been running at the Academy since 2012 and more than 50 people have joined.

Today's study piece is from the section of Leadership, specifically the task "Leading and managing the project".


Kind regards

Stina Herberg
Richmond Vale Academy


The director exercising her leadership skills

Good leadership is a straightforward thing.

Bad leadership is probably easier to accomplish, especially when you have some power, meaning the means to punish people, when they do not obey orders. Bossing people around may look like efficient leadership, but does not accomplish anything in the long run, only a growing resistance and opposition towards the so-called leadership.

Good and bad leadership

A clever Chinese, I guess it was Mao Tse-Tsung, once made a telling picture of good and bad leadership, which is here passed on from memory; the good leaderdoes not walk far ahead of the people showing himself off as somebody special you should admire and telling everybody unrealistically how to behave and act. On the other hand, he does not walk behind the people shouting and gesticulating with his arms either. This is not leadership at all, it is just pretending while at the same time covering your own a.. Like the army officer in the theater play “Mother Courage and her Children” by Bertolt Brecht, who, when Mother Courage as a fortune teller has convinced him, that he is going to die in the war, says, ‘But that cannot be true, as a clever officer I always stay behind the soldiers’ lines, so how can I be killed?’ No true leader acts like this.

No, he marches on in the forefront with the people, leading by his good example, by encouraging everybody, by including each and everyone, by mobilizing all, by being the first to tackle the most difficult matters, by going out in the middle of the river, where the current is at its strongest, by caring for everybody and putting proper demands on each comrade according to his or her standpoint and abilities, at the same time making sure that no one is in doubt that he or she has ample room to develop and that this is also what is expected from him or her.

Leadership is a dialectical matter

Like everything else in nature as well as between people, this is a dialectical matter. In order to be a good leader, you have to lead, but you do not lead people, you lead the work, which you are the leadership for. In fact, you cannot lead people; no, what you can do is you can put out directions for the work, you can suggest a policy to be commonly agreed upon, you can stick to the right perspectives in your own practice and when you help your comrades in solving day to day problems with the work. You also can and have to make sure that everybody is working in the right direction and contributing to the progression of the project or work, in which you are all involved. And then, everybody you are working with will lead themselves in that direction, because it is the right direction to go and because they are convinced of it and would have thought the same, if they had been able to.

Control is a part of this. You have to bring about good and strong control systems that everybody has to comply with, because they will make them into a good support for all matters in the daily work, since the systems are serving the sole purpose of making sure that you all do the right thing, as agreed upon from the beginning. And also to make sure that you all do everything that is needed. Not letting anything slip out of hand, so that later it will come to the surface as a minor or major crisis.

You could also say that leadership has to think ahead a lot, in order to create perspectives and point out which new steps are necessary, while everybody is still occupied with making the already agreed policy into reality.

Leadership is a responsibility

In our tradition and practice, leadership is not a position as such, although you may very well be the leadership of a project, a movement, a school, a new program, a business and so on. But in all these cases, we are not talking about a position, like a prestigious title, you can boast about and use as a comfortable settee to lean back on. Leadership is a responsibility and basically consists of a lot of work and in that sense we are all leaders of our own work and that leadership should be practiced with all the above mentioned qualities as well. Whether you are the actual leadership for a large project involving a lot of people, or you are yourself one of the many in such a project, the responsibility to lead your own work is always there. This is not meant to say that leadership on a larger scale is exactly the same as for each individual, because that is also not true. Of course, leadership at different levels holds different demands for the leader in each case, but the fundamentals are the same as mentioned above.

The leadership carries the full responsibility for the work or project at hand. Every single comrade has his or her responsibility and carries it a hundred percent, but when we come to the bottom line, the leadership carries the final responsibility. It is also an important habit and tradition that we often “overlap” with each of our responsibilities, meaning that more that one person can have a stake in a certain matter, including a responsibility for it, even when others seem to have the same responsibility. This is in downright contrast to a custom of having very strictly divided responsibilities, such as you may see in a company or in other organizations of people. Nevertheless, it is totally paramount in the way we organize ourselves. Instead of each comrade “guarding” his or her “turf”, we put our forces together and at the same time we avoid that the responsibility is “watered out” by this. Each of us has 100% responsibility, so by sheer logic and mathematics, the matter at hand will receive more than 100% responsible attention and thereby, the prospect of being taken care of overwhelmingly is so much stronger. Why is this possible? Because what we want to accomplish is always so clearly necessary, as we deal with matters that matter, so following naturally from this fact, we want everything and everyone to succeed in all endeavors.

Taking full responsibility for the work at hand is an integral part of leadership and again, also in the leadership each of us has to practice within our own work.

Good cooperation spirit

We practice good comradeship all the time. That is one of the deep rooted fundamentals of lifting a project together - to treat each other with both love and demands, having an eye on each other’s well being, in health as well as in connection with the work, the general atmosphere, encouraging constructive actions and interfering in order to stop bad behavior, being each other’s guarantee as well as supervisor, in short, stick together in crisis as well as when moving progressively forward. As a leader, this is a must. It must be focused towards every single person you are leader of. You should practice good comradeship and demand the same from everyone, leading by example and also pointing out whenever the basic rules of comradeships are broken and interfering and straightening up the situation together with those involved. When this is done right, everybody will learn from the experience; sometimes, the process might be quite tough to get through, often because it may be a very ingrown habit to defend oneself, even when you can see what is obvious when it is pointed out by others; however, when a conflict like this is worked through and solved in a way which is in accordance with everyone involved, it brings everything forward and strengthens the comradeship. In other words, as a leader you cannot be afraid of conflicts, you have to confront them head on. This is also an important part of taking good care of everybody.

Leadership is work

A practical and simplified example is this: You are building a house together with a group, by hand. At first, you work together with the group, digging the trenches for the foundations. You work as hard as is needed, you make sure that the measurements are kept precisely, that everything is done to perfection, and in short you lead by your own practical example. However, you cannot stay in the trench until it is finished, you have to make sure that the next steps are prepared, both mentally and indeed practically, for instance that you have the cement, the sand and sufficient water and maybe a concrete mixer at hand, when the pouring starts. You think ahead. 

The two activities mentioned here are symbols of a good type of leadership; they are, 1. Doing the work together with your friends, and doing your utmost to practice the best standards; the same standard that you expect from everybody in the future, and 2. Leaving the work in order to make sure that everything that is to follow is well planned and prepared.

The leadership must always be ready to put the hands into the dirt in order to get things done and at the same time must always be ahead of what is going on right now, thinking ahead, planning for the future, thinking out new ideas and activities and how to implement them and when need be by taking an active practical part in it.

These are basics

Leading by creating perspectives

A very necessary part of leadership is to be able to come up with clear and progressive perspectives for the work, which everybody can see and imagine, brought to life and which therefore bring new energy into the work, project, productive unit or movement.

It is a fact of nature that any existing phenomenon needs an influx of new energy now and then; otherwise, it will slow down and eventually stop developing and perish. The same applies to such things as projects, where people work together to accomplish something good, like projects, schools, commercial enterprises and so on. Therefore, it is necessary that new input is thought out with regular intervals and put into play, being discussed and eventually agreed upon and set in motion, in order for the work to develop. New perspectives can have this effect of bringing new energy into our efforts, thereby supporting their growth in strength and importance, making the impact that much more evident. Instead of a project becoming more and more self-sufficient and staid, it recreates itself again and again, blossoms and radiates energy and purposefulness, qualities which reflect both upon all the people touched by the activities as well as those actively involved as leaders and performers of the said project.

It is also a responsibility of leadership to create new perspectives and elaborate the ones already there, all the time. And this kind of work does not consist of sitting there waiting for something to fall out of the sky. No, it comes from work, like anything else and in this case also from “holding your ear close to the ground and hearing the grass grow” as the ancient Nordic gods had it.

Serving the people is the motto, not leading the people

Leading the work, taking the full responsibility, guaranteeing the perseverance of good comradeship and not accepting bad behavior, taking your hands out of your pocket whenever necessary, thinking ahead, creating new thoughts and perspectives, being humble and yet firm, being strong and yet compassionate.

Serve the people!

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