#411  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 7          July 1999

Passionate Connections:  Leaders Out of Control
by Chip R. Bell

Chip R. Bell is a senior partner with Performance Research Associates and manages their Dallas, Texas office.  He is the author of eleven books including Customers As Partners, Managers As Mentors, and Dance Lessons:  Six Steps To Great Partnerships In Business and Life (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1994, 1996, 1998). His website is WWW.ChipBell.Com.

Larry Smith lost it!  And, of all places, he lost it in the big-deal quarterly executive meeting.  He absolutely went over the edge in his impassioned plea for some issue around a customer.  No,  he didn’t cry...although he did wipe his eyes before his cheeks got streaked.  No, he didn’t pound the table...although he did demonstrate a few gestures that would be the envy of any aspiring thespian. 

But, what Larry did do in his “out of control” passion clearly crossed all normal bounds of rationality and routine boardroom decorum.  And yet, he engaged the hearts...and commitment...of every single person in the meeting.  People were truly moved.  And, it did make a difference. Stuff happened.

The “Larry loses his cool” incident led me to reflect on the true meaning of contemporary leadership.  I thought about how much “in-charge land” contained artifacts of control, consistency and “keeping your cool.”  And, I thought about how little these artifacts had anything to do with spirit and passion in any other context of life... except the corporate world. 

People don’t brag about their rational marriage, their reasonable hobby or their sensible vacation.  There’s rarely “in control” behavior when Junior is seen rounding third base.  Exhortations of ecstasy are never restrained on the fishing bank when the cork suddenly disappears, and with surprising force.  But, somehow all that spirit is an unwelcomed distraction after entering the company lobby.  And, the closer one gets to mahogany row, the less tolerance there seems to be for the “sounds of the heart.”

And, I thought about how freeing it was for everyone in the room when “Larry lost his cool.”  Were we uncomfortable?  Yes!  Did we wonder:  “Where the hell is this going?”  Yes!  But, we all felt momentarily in kinship with real life.  At the risk of sounding morbid, it was like the famous moth and flame poem.  That’s the one where the poet describes the predictable dance of moth and flame and ends by commenting about “that moth feeling more alive in that final moment than I have ever felt in my life.”  Julia Roberts echoed the same theme in Steel Magnolias when, as a courageous and passionate diabetic expectant mother facing the life- threatening potential of giving birth, said:  “I had rather have thirty minutes of ‘wonderful’ than a lifetime of ‘nothing special.” 

Leaders are not rational beings...they are flame seekers.  They passionately “give birth” in the face of threatening circumstance.  The biography of almost every great leader who ever faced the potential of bodily harm accompanying his or her cause communicates a consistent theme... “Why we were there played so loud in my ear I never really heard what might happen because we were there.”   Passion played...and leaders put issues like  “in control” on some emotional back burner.  We know Larry.  And, Larry is not an irrational, illogical person.  Yet, somehow we trusted his passion more than his reason.

Passion Is Honest

I’m now going to step into a philosophical room filled with naysayers.  Here it is...passion is more honest than reason!  There it is!  Out in the open. To be sure, logic is more elegant, more sensible, and surely more prudent.   And, one feels far more secure and calm with the rational.  Predictability never makes the heart race.  Passion leaves a person feeling fearful of the on-the-edge, unanticipated outcome.  It also makes us feel free, alive and somehow “a real, whole person.”  And, when leaders surface that feeling in us, we are somehow more energized...like a knight ready for battle.

When I was an infantry unit leader in Viet Nam, young men were observed going into battle with no knowledge of the complex socio-political ramifications of the Viet Nam war.  Yet, these men were ready to die.  For what?  For “duty, honor, and country.”   How illogical and amorphous can you get?  What is the sensibility of courageously charging a well-entrenched sniper with an almost certain potential you will be among his body count...for duty?  Where is sensibleness of bleeding on a rice paddy far from Cincinnati or Charlotte...for honor?  What made GI’s from McRae, GA or Sterling, IL get silver medals and distinguished whatevers?   It was passion...not reason.  Action was enticed by the spirit of the day not the sanity of the moment.  What would you die for at work?  Is not business welfare as important to our global survival as national pride?

“Whoa!” you say.  We can’t have the chaos of unbridled emotion and the confusion of out-of-control desire.  What would the stockholders say?  After all, is it not the role of a leader to bring forth a sense of “grace under pressure,” or  “order when all around you is loosing their head?”   Should leaders not strive to be more anchor than sail?  More rudder than oar? 

“No!”  And again... “No!”

We have missed the boat on what it means to be leader.  The world...the organization...and, the situation offer far more “predictable” than is predictably required.  The truth is that rationality oozes from the seams of every business encounter.  Leaders don’t have to bring order, sanity, rationality or logic.  Every dimension of business life reeks with those qualities. Sane leaders foster insane passion.   Memorable leaders call up in each of us a visit with the raggedy edge of brilliance and the out-of-the-way corner of genius.  When we feel inspired, incensed, ennobled… we have visited the magical realm of passion.  And, we typically return from that realm renewed, revitalized...and slightly revolted.  The bittersweet taste of unexplored talent is the byproduct of a passion projection into that world.  And, when a leader has had a hand in that flight, there is at once a sense of security wedded to an otherwise solitary search. 

Passion is Invitational

“There is an energy field between humans,” wrote Love and Will philosopher Rollo May.  “And, when a person reaches out in passion, it is usually met with an answering passion.”  Passionate connections provoke passionate responses.  When leaders “pass-I-on” to another it triggers a “pass-me-back” response.  And, leadership is fundamentally about influencing.

Ask twenty people to name the greatest leaders of all times.  Sure, you might get a military general or two.  But, the list will likely be made up of leaders who stirred their followers with fire than leaders who lectured their followers with reasoning.  Kennedy, Churchill, King, Teresa, Schweitzer, and Gandhi were not famous for their rationalism...  nor is Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, Bruce Nordstrom, the late Sam Walton or the late J. Willard Marriott, Sr.  Leaders’ invitations to actions are embossed on their own yearnings to express their “cause” to others in ways that encourages others to join.

Passion is Magical

Passion takes the plain vanilla out of encounters.  It is a leap into relationships.  And, it is magical!  Philosopher Goethe called it “boldness” and said:  “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin in boldness.  Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.  Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too.  All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.”

Philosopher Hegel wrote, “Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.”

Followers need passionate connections.  Leaders who come soaring from the heart awaken boldness in others.  It builds a relationship platform that raises everyone to a higher level.  Civil War general Thomas J. Jackson was never again called “Tom” after someone spotted him on the battlefield and remarked, “There stands General Jackson like a stone wall.”  His troops developed the reputation of demonstrating the same spirited, “never say die” passion in combat.  And, who can forget the same phenomenon among leaders named Martin, Mahatma, and Susan B.?  Again, people may be instructed by reason, but they are inspired by passion.

Why are you here, in this role, at this time?  What difference will your being here make? What legacy will you leave behind?  Will you be forgotten for what you maintained or remembered for what you added?  Imposing mountains are climbed, culture-changing movements are started, and breakthrough miracles are sparked by leaders who took the governors off rationalism and prudence, letting their spirit ascend from within.

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