Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
April 2017 - Volume 17, No. 4
Subscribe to this blog

Effective Leadership

History and the exemplar of many, both wise and foolish, have given us numerous theories and styles of leadership to teach and guide us through life. What I offer here is not meant to be definitive or the last word on the subject. However, these are ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for many years, and continue to help me define and enrich the topic.

A Personal Perspective (thus you can skip to the next section is you wish)

In 1971 I was ordained into the ministry of The Episcopal Church. Every year the Diocese of Michigan held its Convention, where the Clergy and lay (laity - a particularly ecclesiastical term) folks gathered for a few days to deliberate on various current matters and to transact the business of the larger organization.

That was the high time of the VietNam war, and I and many other clergy were personally and politically active against it - as were many whose support went in an opposite direction. I was one of the “young Turks” of the Diocese, especially due to my family pacifist heritage. Every year at Convention, with our ‘house divided’ we’d spend lots of time and energy debating these “critical” matters.

My Bishop, who was de facto chair of Convention, Richard S. Emrich by name, had the grace and wisdom to keep us all contained, in such manner that every year we’d leave Convention with the satisfaction of having had “a jolly good fight”.

It was some years later, and after a subsequent succession of bishops, that I’d look back and marvel just how well he did that. In truth, we never quite knew where he stood on those issues - his leadership was to stand in the middle, keep us all contained, and make it “safe” to contend with each other. In the years since his leadership, there’ve been a number of bishops heading our diocese, and each of them have had agendas of their own, political, ecclesiastical and social. Each would ‘lead’ us in terms of their own particular vision and predilection to the point where some of us would win and some of us would lose. None of them had Bishop Emrich’s talent and grace to just hold us together and make it safe for each of us to have our own agendas and visions, and without breaking fellowship. I’ve felt the tone of our gatherings to have had a bitter edge ever since then. It was no longer “fun” (a strange term but true). He had led us in a general win/win contention - which I’ve found missing ever since.

He was to me a true Bishop of the Church - he had the grace and wisdom to allow each of us to have and use our various gifts and personalities within a larger integrity. That was a major attraction itself that led me into the Episcopal Church in the first place.

That’s where I came to understand the secret of effective leadership. He could hold us together and make it safe for us to ‘contend.’ I miss that. I miss him.

My Bi-Polar world

My primary philosophic vision of things is that all Nature (creation) has an inherent sense of balance. The one exception is Human Nature, which on its own will tend to divide and destroy.[1] (That’s why indigenous peoples see Nature as their primary life textbook.) In mental health, we have bi-polar disorder, where there’s a strong tendency to split into oscillating opposites, sometimes even losing the middle altogether. It’s when that middle gets weak, or even tends to disappear, that great trouble appears. The poet Yeats speaks that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (‘The Second Coming’ 1919).

Seeking the Center

In mental health, it can be said that the center is the strength of ego, strong and resourceful enough to told together all the parts of the larger self - a more difficult task when the self has been fractured. (I know these can each be clinical terms, and therefore sometimes parochial in their reference.) The purpose and outcome of counseling, therapy, analysis and even chemotherapy (medication) can be summarized in this manner.

In our United States government, the center emerges in the checks and balances of our three branches of government (note the power of a third to break the deadlock of any two). And each branch of government serves the Constitution, and our Constitution in turn serves the People. This is the “center” structure of our constitutional democracy. Government ultimately serves the People, by which the People will prevail. When this center holds, the People are safe to become the best of their own native wisdom, which in turn is protected by the strength, fidelity and example of our leadership.

However, when our leadership is highly self-serving, this balance is threatened. Narcissism, both in mental health and in government is a splitting phenomenon (though frequently unconscious), in that it seeks to weaken (devour) the center, of an individual, of a relationship, or of a collective (i.e. a nation).

That’s why, in recent years, I’ve specifically sought to understand the narcissist, because of their almost unique and demonic ability to destroy that which feeds them while incongruously maintaining the favor of that which they destroy.

The 18th century Scotsman and economist, Adam Smith, the champion of modern capitalism, made the comment, now a couple centuries ago, that capitalism is the choice economic system for the time - except that it will take about 200 years for human greed to gain an ability to corrupt it.  (I don’t have an exact reference for this.)

I see that much of our business world today doesn’t serve the customer, but rather the stockholder or the banker. ‘Wall Street’ is no longer an address, it’s a frame of mind where money and business feed themselves. Our fear is that our current leadership serves Wall Street rather than the People. The consumer has been betrayed. (There are those who disagree with me on this, and in many ways they’re possibly right. Economics is not my strong suit. But it is a pattern I see before me.)

It does seem that many, if not most, religious belief systems acknowledge that human greed is a primary destructive source of human society.

“Congratulations, you’re a poor man.”

Some years ago I was present, in a Native American setting, at the election of a new tribal chairperson. A poignant comment was made, “Congratulations, you’re now a poor man.” Asking about this, I was informed that when a community or tribal person was in need, they could approach the Chief, who would be expected to share of his own wealth or goods for the benefit of the petitioner. Leadership involved self-sacrifice for the benefit of the people. And so it needs to be today.

We all know, at least from a mythic perspective, that a true leader in battle is out in front of his troops - leading through his own vulnerability and willingness to sacrifice. It’s the same with our deep traditional knowledge that the captain must be the last to depart from a sinking ship. Anyone who wears a uniform also carries the knowledge of duty before self. True leadership is born out of a deep love for those being led.

Several years ago, I was privileged to attend a regional gathering of my Scottish Clan (Clan Donald), where I heard a history lecture discussing the ancient Scottish Clan system, an effective means of government, which held the peace in the Highlands of Scotland from sometime before the eleventh century.[2] One of the characteristics of the Clan system, a kinship based system, was that the Lord of the Castle was of the same clan (family) as the villagers surrounding the castle. When a poor widow or villager in need would ‘knock on the castle door’ seeking help, the Lord of the Castle would give assistance to that person. Family cares for family.

Some centuries later, the Clan system was supplanted by the Feudal system, from England and Medieval European influences.[3] The result was that the reigning Lord of the Castle often had no blood connection or consideration for his villagers, except to extract taxes and soldiers from them for his “larger” (political) purposes. The people were virtual slaves of the castle owner, who probably came from somewhere far away. Leadership for the sake of the people had diminished or vanished. There are many who feel this strongly today.   

The Transcendent Center

Returning to my bi-polar model, I have always sensed that it is from the Center, which is the place of the effective Leader, that the “transcendent” is accessible. Strong for Christians is the image of Christ on the Cross - that sacred Center where the saving beneficence of the Almighty ‘descends’ for the sake of the People (for whom Christ ‘died and ascended’).

Look at the architecture of almost any royal crown, and you’ll often see golden tines (there’s probably a more official name) pointing upward - to symbolize or access that transcendent power and communication (thus royal headgear), granted to the bearer.

Any degree of narcissism in a leader, whether psychological or political (is there a difference?), impedes this transcendent element. “The center cannot hold” and the people bear the suffering. This is why the religious faithful are bidden to pray for their leaders, whether or not a leader is his or herself worthy or has any personal care for the people.

When people in power are stupid or selfish, even the non-religious tend to pray the gods to intervene. And then… from within the people themselves emerges a new leadership of “speaking truth to power” and “power to the People.”

And as I noted last month, in the meantime, it’s incumbent upon all of us (our own inherent leadership) to care for each other and the people injured in the often slow process of political transition.

This model of effective leadership can and does reside within each of us personally to 1) hold the center together, and 2) to make it safe for those who are most vulnerable.

Thus is our love for the world, and all its people - and the heart of all true leadership.


Pay Attention.


[1] I recall my own awakening to this when reading (the then newly published) William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954).

[2] The Clan system was the effective means of government in the Highlands of Scotland from sometime before the year 1000 AD until it was essentially eliminated by the British in 1745. It grew out of the similar system of Celtic Ireland, from whence the Scots came.  ( - Google)

[3] Feudalism is defined as a Medieval European political, economic and social system from the 9th to 15th century. In it the nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles, while the peasants (villeins or serfs) were obliged to live on their lord's land and give him homage, labor, and a share of the produce, ostensibly in exchange for military protection. For example, feudalism is someone farming a piece of land for a lord and agreeing to serve under the lord in war in exchange for getting to live on the land and receiving protection.  ( - Google)

Feudalism in England is the name given to the system of government introduced to England by William I (aka William the Conqueror). He was the first Norman King of England, reigning from 1066 (the Battle of Hastings) until his death in 1087. Feudalism then became a way of life in Medieval England and remained so for many centuries; as it made its way also up into Scotland.

Comments (2)

  • Ponderings


    The first thought that struck me was that of a truly inspirational leader – out front of his people, sacrificing himself for his people and truly transcending to provide power to the people. However, I don’t need to describe William Wallace to you – as a Scot, you know.

    Then I was taken back to a story in the local news this morning. Allegedly, the valedictorian and salutatorian were announced and lauded – yet the results were incorrect (reversed) leading up to a large debate. The Superintendent of Education suggesting again that the honors be removed as “every one is a winner”. No, not everyone is a winner. And yet these narcissistic children are stepping out into the harsh reality of society expecting heralds. We wonder why they act out?
    Perhaps we should spend more time teaching them the humility of true leaders, such as William Wallace.
    Just a thought.

    Amy, 4/1/2017
  • Dead Center

    Nice post. I agree that the center is where the solution lies. Right now, the center is dead. In today’s world of governance, everything seems to be a zero sum game. Issues are won and lost, but not ever really solved by finding common ground and seeing the good in the ideas of your opponents. Our political leaders perpetuate this thinking and those that don’t fall in line are likely threatened with loss of campaign funding when it comes to re-election. And the media feeds the frenzy with their agenda-driven reporting. In short, in a zero sum game, there’s no room to lead from the center. A most unfortunate state of affairs for us all.

    — Brad, 4/4/2017

Add a Comment

will be kept private

Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

FREE Monthly Newsletter

Whether you are a client or not, you can always benefit from some free monthly words of wisdom:
Your e-mail address: