What does it take to be a leader? We talk a lot about leadership and ways to develop ourselves as leaders, but the real essence of leadership often eludes us. Otto Scharmer, one of the authors of Presence:Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, provides a description of leadership that is at once clear and threatening:
The definition of leadership can be traced back to the word’s root—the Indo-European word root of leadership is “Leith.” The literal translation of this word is “to go forth across the threshold” or, in a different translation, “to die.” In this context, “to die,” means that you let go of the world that is known to you and go forth into another world that you may not be sure exists. This other world only comes into being after you step forth into this nothingness. Leadership is the ability to cross that threshold. The challenge you meet in the process is the challenge of fear, the fear to let your old self, you old identities, your old context, die in order to more into that which is wanting to emerge through you.
I don’t believe that Scharmer is calling for a physical death for the one who would be a leader, but he is calling for a radical step that means two things. First, a leader will be willing to put away old things and not let what is no longer necessary restrain him or her from moving in a new direction. This does not mean ridiculing tradition or condemning the past, but it does mean not letting those things deter one from moving into a new way of doing things. What is on the other side of the threshold is new and inviting and a little bit scary.
Second, a leader must believe in the future enough to stack her or his very life on it. There are no lifeboats or escape pods on this ship. Once it has sailed, the leader is committed to the voyage to the very end. He or she is also responsible for those who choose to go along for the ride. Therefore, leadership is not something to be assumed lightly.
This sounds a bit like Matthew 16: 24: “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.’” It also resonates with the Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This certainly puts a different perspective on leadership, doesn’t it?