Several years ago I was consulting in a highly structured organization that preferred to think of itself as collaborative. My objective was to turn around a failing project and in the process facilitate as much healing as possible; my formal role was project manager. One day I asked someone in the work group (not on the project team) if he would do something to help with this effort. The next morning his functional manager was hopping mad: “Don’t task my people! Don’t task my people!” I was dumbfounded. It took me some time to realize that since my formal role was “project manager” and because that role carried a lot of weight in that organization, any simple (and rejectable) request or even suggestion could be taken as a formal “order.” At first, this seemed funny to me, but I sobered up pretty quickly: It appeared I would have to be more aware of my own importance!
I also disliked it on every level. The notion that, because I wore the Project Manager Hat, any desire falling absently from my lips should bear the weight of the lash was pretty disgusting to me. It also got me thinking about classism in the workplace. While there may be a need for tasks to be identified and work to be done, in this environment, things seemed to have gone too far—and maybe so in others.
Recently I came across the term “shimmer effect” in Bennis, Goleman, and O’Toole’s Transparency: Creating a Culture of Candor. The shimmer effect occurs because of the deference that many followers pay to leaders, whether or not it is warranted or desired. In the example above, I did not know that I was “shimmering” in that organization by the very fact of the formal role I inhabited.
The next book I picked up (and am still making my way through this weekend) was Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans. Much to my delight, this book discusses in detail the social context throughout the long history of the evolution of ballet. Discussing French culture in the 17th and 18th centuries the author provides interesting insights into and analysis of the Sun King’s (Louis XIV’s) use of ballet, bureaucracy, and complex etiquette to distract the nobility from what would have been their natural power over him had they not been so distracted. He also used ballet to set himself apart from them by showcasing himself using contexts his rules of etiquette and practice of ballet created which made the most of his natural attributes and proclivities. Hmmm: Shimmer.
I am often interested in how leaders emerge, establish, and use their power in organizations. And, I became even more interested after my own awakening to my “shimmer effect,” though I didn’t know that’s what it was then. I had been aware that, when working with teams who were new to me, one of the most difficult things was to get them to collaborate with me in moving forward the work that was presented to us. They mostly just wanted me to tell them what to do–feed them with knowledge and wisdom as if they were baby birds—when, really, the reality was that we all needed each other to get out of the hole we were in.
I too, succumb to the shimmer effect in my own way. When leaders fail to lead or prove themselves to be dishonest, self-serving, lazy, ignoble, or cowardly, my response is such a deep disappointment that it has at times overwhelmed me. How could I have missed the fact of their humanity? And how, in turn, could I have assumed that they would, by virtue of their ascendancy to “leadership,” not be at any time or in any way dishonest, self-serving, lazy, ignoble, cowardly, insensitive, uninformed, or just not the sharpest tool in the shed? I still catch myself slipping into this disappointment sometimes.
If we strip away the notion that the leader is by nature set apart from the follower, what is revealed about followership and the nature of the need for leadership in our lives let alone what leadership is?
An interesting question, don’t you think?