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Idealism Without Illusions




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Issue No. 88 (May 1, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

The leadership we need now?

Whether you read the New York Times on the Web every day, or wander through inner-city Oakland CA every day (I do both), you can’t help feeling that this country is coming apart at the seams. How many more generations do we have left at this point? One? Two?

In response to the signs of decline all around us, many good people are beginning to yearn for “strong” leadership -- leaders in the mold of LBJ and Jack Welch -- leaders who’ll come in with their own firm agendas and make us all behave.

Trouble is, the world has become so diverse (and its fragments so empowered) that that kind of “leadership” no longer suits. If the 21st century doesn’t work for everyone, it’s not going to work for anyone for very long.

Fortunately, a new generation of conflict resolution specialists and management consultants has realized this and is acting on it.  A whole new leadership philosophy has been developed, variously called "third side," "level 5," or "integral" leadership.

Just as important, dozens of books, consultants, and organizations are assiduously conveying aspects of the new leadership philosophy to tens of  thousands of leaders in the political, corporate, and nonprofit realms (see RE:SOURCES section below).

Last month the first manifesto of the new leadership philosophy hit the stands, Mark Gerzon’s Leading Through Conflict (Harvard Business School Press).  Gerzon calls the philosophy "Mediator" leadership, and he claims it's the "emerging leadership archetype of our era."

Right person for the job

I am not surprised Gerzon carried this book off -- or managed to get HBS to publish it. Even in the 1970s, as a very young man, he was writing intelligently about the need to combine “power” and “innocence.” Eventually he became a mediator, and he’s worked successfully with governments, corporations, and nonprofits of every size and ilk.

In the 1990s, he helped bring about the first two Congressional Retreats of Democrats and Republicans. Then he got representatives of the pro-globalization World Economic Forum and the anti-globalization World Social Forum to break bread together. Two years ago, he mediated left, right, and center at the first Democracy in America conference (see our article HERE).

As a participant at that conference, I can testify that there’s nothing airy or immodest about Gerzon’s Mediator-leadership style. And his book is the same way.

Written in crisp, no-nonsense prose, it aspires to be the first complete synthesis of everything advocates of Mediator-leadership are now saying.

And it succeeds wonderfully well at that task. It is not a perfect book (see second half of this review), but it’s solid enough to assure us that there is a better way than tweedledee v. tweedledum forever, solid enough to assure us that we can -- and should -- and must -- all be heard and heeded in a 21st century democratic future.

Good ideas are not center-court

At the heart of this book is an insight that all journalists and policy analysts should take to heart.

Good ideas are relatively easy to come by, Gerzon says. Plenty of New Options have been devised by clever people over the years.

If we want to move forward as a society, though, it’s not enough to get most people to accept or even “buy in” to clever people’s good ideas.

Effective innovation is a collective process, Gerzon says. “It involves more than one person, usually several, often from different ‘sides’ or constituencies.” It requires a sense of ownership (not just consumership) by most if not all parties to a conflict.

For Mediator-leaders then, good ideas are important. But process is even more important.

Unless good ideas arise out of a rich and genuine dialogue among all parties to a conflict, you can’t build anything that lasts.

Demagogues, Managers -- or Mediator-leaders?

Gerzon frames his message by drawing a crucial distinction among Demagogues, Managers, and Mediator-leaders.

Demagogues aren’t just tyrants like Hitler and Mao. They’re leaders who rely on fear, threat, and intimidation to attain their goals. Dehumanization of “enemies” is another big part of their toolbox. They are still, sadly, everywhere.

Even more prevalent are Managers. The competency of some Managers is a marvelous thing, and activists shouldn’t disparage that. But being a Manager-leader isn’t enough today, for at least three reasons:

  • they are concerned only about the self-interest of their own group
  • they cannot or will not deal with issues that cross boundaries
  • they avoid, downplay, or deny conflict

Mediator-leaders, by contrast, are fit for the 21st century. Like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., they're advocates for the whole community. “Mediators have the critical capacity to see the whole -- and to act in its best interest.” They cross conceptual, professional, and institutional boundaries in the blink of an eye. Most important of all, perhaps, Mediator-leaders are “able to turn conflict into a positive force” for achieving communal ends.

How do they do it? Consciously or subconsciously, they draw on a “toolbox” consisting of eight key skills. And it doesn’t take an exceptional Mandela- or MLK-like figure to access the toolbox. Gerzon puts it beautifully when he says, “Each of us can learn to be Mediators simply by becoming apprentices and learning the tools of the trade.”

The Mediator-leader’s toolbox

Most of the book is a description of the toolbox, and you’ll soon see why -- it’s Gerzon’s vehicle for pulling together all the best insights of all the writers and consultants on Mediator-leadership over the last 10 years or so. (And I mean ALL: Gerzon seems equally at home whether he’s referring to “common ground” activist John Marks or “branding genius” Marty Neumeier, Jenny Wade’s theory of the evolution of consciousness or Larry Bossidy’s “hardheaded book on corporate leadership Execution.”)

It is not your father’s toolbox:

1.) Integral Vision. You commit yourself to holding all sides of the conflict -- in all their complexity -- in your mind. (And in your heart.)

2.) Systems Thinking. You learn to identify all the pieces of the puzzle and how they fit together -- e.g., you ask such questions as, What aspects of the local economy systematically prevent affordable housing from being built here? A magnificent table on p. 90 lists the simon-pure pro- and anti-globalization positions on 13 key issues, and Gerzon uses it to assert, “Because globalization is so complex, neither side of this polarized and violent debate thinks systemically.”

3.) Presence. Your whole self -- mental, emotional, and spiritual -- has got to be present and available in the conflict situation, and everyone needs to see that.

4.) Inquiry. You ask questions designed to elicit essential information (“generative questions”) -- including challenging and upsetting questions -- from all parties to a conflict. And you listen, really listen, to the answers.

5.) Conscious Conversation. You don’t just sit back and watch the antagonists brawl. There are eight possible styles of conversation, ranging from verbal brawling and stylized debate, to discussion and negotiation, to “council” and reflective silence, and you take responsibility for making sure that participants are mindful of how they’re speaking and what their better options are.

6.) Dialogue. You especially encourage dialogue, because it’s an “inquiry-based, trust-building way of communicating that maximizes the human capacity to bridge and to innovate,” which just so happen to be the final two portions of the toolbox. . . .

7.) Bridging. Eventually, words are not enough. You have to induce people to actually change their behavior toward each other or their way of dealing with the conflict. Gerzon puts it well when he says people need to build an “invisible bridge” spanning the chasm between them -- a bridge made up of trust, respect, empathy, understanding, courage, whatever.

8.) Innovation. Now, at last, with people finally open to each other’s minds and hearts and core concerns, you can successfully introduce / solicit / encourage the development of “new options” for moving through conflicts. Key proviso: the new idea “needs to be adopted by most, if not all, of the key stakeholders.”

That’s all folks. With Mediator-leaders in power in businesses, nonprofits, and government, this could be a very different and infinitely wiser country.

As steps toward that happy end, Gerzon offers a number of pertinent suggestions in a concluding chapter -- e.g., “raising a conflict-literate generation,” “teaching about other worldviews,” and encouraging the news media to host civic dialogues on the topics they cover.

And Gerzon adds, accurately, “these scenarios are already being explored.”

With so much at stake, who in the world might care to demur?

Unconvincing examples

Not me! Gerzon’s perspective and scenarios are very similar to what you can find in this newsletter.

But I am disappointed that Gerzon did not choose to explore some oft-cited problems with Mediator-leadership. It feels out of keeping with his own commitment, as a mediator, to explore all sides of all issues.

Too often, in fact, the book reads more like simple advocacy than what Gerzon calls “discussion.” This is especially glaring in the long “Applications” sections in each toolbox chapter, full of examples of organizations supposedly acting according to Integral Vision, Presence, Conscious Conversation, etc.

The examples -- albeit many -- are simply too brief to convince a skeptical reader, and are often drawn from advocates of the practices under discussion. Too often they read like testimony in a church.

Because the Mediator-leader is still a novel concept to most Americans, Gerzon might have been more persuasive had he included fewer examples but dealt with them in depth and over broader time swaths and with more nuance (as Michael Hammer and James Champy did in their 1993 bestseller about another then-unfamiliar concept, Reengineering the Corporation; see esp. pp. 36-47 and chaps. 10-13 in that book).

As for the theory: Two black holes

Something is missing from Gerzon's toolbox.  It may be embarrassing to mention in the egalitarian world Gerzon obviously prefers (and I prefer), but I'm going to mention it anyway.  CHARISMA.

Have you ever encountered a successful Mediator-leader without substantial personal charisma?  I know I haven't.

I am bothered by the fact that Gerzon fails to even acknowledge the charisma tool, let alone dissect its dangers (and explain its positive uses).

If you think Gerzon himself does without that tool, then I invite you to look at his picture HERE.

Another looming and difficult issue I wish Gerzon would have addressed is the Demagogic potential of Mediator-leader rhetoric.

Probably every activist in the world by now has heard mediators use New Age language to denigrate or exclude or put subtle peer pressure on others, and even a sophisticated Mediator-leader like Gerzon falls into that trap on p. 73 of my Advance Reader's Edition when he writes, “[I]f President Bush thought he would make America safer by invading Iraq, his vision was not integral (and his thinking, as we shall see in the following chapter, was not systemic).”

True, Gerzon has no way of knowing what Bush’s vision and thinking about the invasion actually were. (And true, that is not Gerzon’s fault!)  But it is not difficult to find patriotic arguments for the invasion of Iraq that are as “integral” and “systemic” as Gerzon might wish -- you can find them recounted in George Packer's award-winning book The Assassins’ Gate (2005), reviewed by us HERE, and you can find them passionately expressed in Thomas Cushman's anthology from the University of California Press, A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for the War in Iraq (2005), full of thoughtful, anguished, and caring essays from people like Sixties activist Paul Berman and Polish Solidarity activist Adam Michnik. 

To counter specific arguments for invading Iraq is one thing. But to declare all such arguments illegitimate -- on the grounds that they couldn’t conceivably be “integral” or “systemic” -- is New Age McCarthyism, plain and simple.  Few moves could be better designed to chill honest discussion, which is what Gerzon claims to want.

In cooler moments, I’m sure Gerzon knows this.  But the fact that Mediator concepts like "integral" and "systemic" can be easily abused should serve as a red flag: no leadership philosophy is immune from trippers, or tyrants.

As for the practice: Two generations of fumbling around

Most of the tools in Gerzon’s toolbox have in fact been around, here and there, since the 1960s (see, e.g., Art Kleiner’s marvelous book on the evolution of management theory, The Age of Heretics, 1996). Arguably, the Quakers have had them for eons. If Mediator-leadership is so great, then why hasn't it become conventional practice already?

It’s a question Gerzon should have explored in depth, especially if he wanted to produce a book that’s more than an advocate’s brief.

As it happens, I was centrally involved in three groups featuring principled Mediator-leadership -- the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme, the New World Alliance, and the Green Committees of Correspondence (forerunner of the U.S. Green Party). In all three, my experience has been that Mediator-leadership leads to paralysis when members disagree about the purposes of the organization.

In all three cases, the organizations would have better off -- and, not incidentally, would have contributed far more to society -- had leadership been more traditionally forceful and task-oriented and less open to the qualms (emotional and intellectual) of certain strategically placed dissenters.

For example, in Toronto I was counseling over 20 U.S. draft dodgers a day. They desperately needed accurate emigration advice, clean and friendly places to stay, access to jobs and short-term loans. Why in the world should I have had my work constantly undercut by far-left members of our Board of Directors, who wanted most draft dodgers to stay in the U.S. and make “the revolution”?

Nearly all of us Board members were sensitive, caring, fully attuned to each other’s views and personal histories. Didn’t matter. My antagonists had no business helping to run a draft counseling program! Ultimately I was purged, and thousands of young Americans failed to get the help they deserved. I am still sick at heart whenever I remember that the nice Trotskyist who became staff director after me routinely gave out incomplete or misleading information in order to induce guys to go back.

On the positive side, our Mediator-leaders had a “learning experience.” I am so happy for them.


Such experiences have not soured me on the concept of Mediator-leadership. I am sure that, in the hands of a master Mediator like Gerzon, or in the hands of the people and groups in the RE:SOURCES section below, it can lead to effective and empowering outcomes. Particularly if time is not a major factor (as it was with the Anti-Draft Programme) and the setting is right.

But I am also not adverse to what, for want of a better word, you could call Giuliani-leadership -- forceful leadership, can-do leadership, with a tough-love version of compassion built in.

The mayor before Giuliani, David Dinkins, was as close to a Mediator-leader as New York City is likely to see in my lifetime. One could argue that he wasn’t very good at it. But he genuinely tried to make everyone listen to everyone, and he listened to everyone too. And he hated to sign off on decisions that caused any key group to feel disempowered or disrespected.

And by the end of his term, the city was broken, socially as well as financially. My law school, for example, in the heart of Greenwich Village, was routinely surrounded by drug dealers, some of them with guns. And the professors at my law school were constantly saying that nothing could be done, that New York City was just too complex to govern, etc. Over 90% of them voted for Dinkins’s re-election.

Giuliani won that election. And within a week of his taking office, all the dealers around my school were gone. Four years later, the city was in better financial shape than it had been for decades, and the streets were safer and more vibrant than they'd been for decades.

If you read Giuliani’s bestseller from 2002, Leadership, you’ll encounter a sensibility that is less different from Gerzon’s than you might think. Although Giuliani is not what Gerzon would call a Mediator-leader, you’ll discover he has access to most of the tools of the Mediator (though they’re not always on display in every chapter!).

And it’s impossible to classify him as a mere Manager. For example, Giuliani’s two terms were characterized by a welling-up of (to use Gerzon’s language) “innovations” -- in budgeting, in crime-reduction techniques, in administrative reform -- that were in fact “adopted by most, if not all, of the key stakeholders” in the city.

To achieve that in a city of eight million cantankerous souls is no small feat.

The summing-up

Gerzon’s book is a wonderful introduction to the new leadership philosophy, the best single book we have now on that topic -- at once the most comprehensive, the most carefully ("systemically"!) organized, and the most exuberant.

But as I’ve tried to show above, it needs to be handled with care.

Mediator-leadership carries its own dangers, and they’re not sufficiently addressed by Gerzon. Even in an ideal world, Mediator-leadership would probably only work in some settings. It is not the leadership panacea of activists’ dreams.

Hybrid approaches to leadership also hold promise. For example, Giuliani-leadership -- an ideologically impure hybrid mixing some aspects of can-do Manager-leadership with some aspects of relationship-focused Mediator-leadership -- swept New York out of its doldrums.

On the core issue, though, Gerzon is spot-on: We must reject all leaders who fail to think systemically, lack the tools to work through conflicts, and care only about Us and not Them. We must be especially wary of such leaders now, when we seem to be coming apart at the seams.



Gerzon’s book is a grand, condensed synthesis; thus, many books make parts of his argument in more detail.  Among those published since 1998:

Warren Bennis et al., eds., The Future of Leadership (2001); Richard Boyatzis & Annie McKee, Resonant Leadership (2005); A. J. Chopra, Managing the People Side of Innovation (1999); Jim Collins, “Level 5 Leadership,” chap. 2 in ibid., Good to Great (2001); E. Franklin Dukes et al., Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution (2000); Daniel Goleman et al., Primal Leadership (2002); Frances Hesselbein et al., eds., Leading Beyond the Walls (1999);

Adam Kahane, Solving Tough Problems (2004);  John Paul Lederach, Building Peace (1998); Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (2003); Lederach, The Moral Imagination (2005); Susan Collin Marks, Watching the Wind (2000); Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture, esp. chaps. 7 & 9 (1998); William Ury, The Third Side (rev. 2000); and Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue (1999).

Organizations and projects teaching Mediator-leadership -- under that or any other name -- include:

Authentic Leadership Program (Naropa University);  Beyond Intractability Project (Guy & Heidi Burgess);  Emotional Intelligence Consortium (Richard Boyatzis & Dan Goleman);  Generon (Adam Kahane);  Global Leadership Network (Mark Gerzon);  Mediators Foundation (Gerzon);  Partnow Communications (Susan Partnow);   PassageWays Institute (Rachel Kessler);  Polarity Management Associates (Barry Johnson & Dana Wilcox);

Public Conversations Project (Dick & Laura Chasin);  Rockwood Leadership Program (Robbie Gass & Andre Carothers);  SARKADY | alignment transformation renewal (Marc Sarkady);  Search for Common Ground (John Marks & Susan Collin Marks);  Society for Organizational Learning (Peter Senge);  Spiral Dynamics Integral (Don Beck);  Strengthening Bridging Organizations Program (Synergos Institute);  and Viewpoint Learning (Dan Yankelovich).

For further evidence of Mayor Giuliani as a Manager / Mediator hybrid, see the “Rudy Giuliani -- 1997” chapter in John Avlon, Independent Nation (2004). Avlon was Giuliani’s twentysomething speechwriter and his articles now grace our Website, HERE.


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