Use of “Thou” in Pervasive Leadership Principles

by Jean Richardson on May 5, 2015

A few weeks ago at the Intel Agile and Lean Development Conference in Hillsboro, Oregon I had a chance to talk to an audience about Pervasive Leadership. It’s always good to be able to do this as live, real time audiences give me a chance to get great feedback. This audience brought a particularly interesting bit of feedback. Some audience members were very uncomfortable with the use of “thou” in the Pervasive Leadership Principles, specifically:

Change your mental model of I and thou.

All the objectors spoke up with the same criticism. It reminded them of “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not”—a clear allusion to the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament Bible. This was new—not something I’ve heard in the last few years of working with this model. As I stood on the stage and tried to help them understand the intention behind the use of “thou” in this principle, my mind cast about for examples they might relate to.

I came up with the use of Sie and du in German—the formal and informal singular of “you.” One man in the audience called out, “Can you tell them about the duzen?” I had forgotten about the moment in German social interaction that is known as “the duzen,” so he had to describe it. It is the moment, typically in a familiar and informal context, at which a German may say, “Now you may call me ‘du’.” Then, it seemed to click for most of the audience, and they began to call out the familiar forms of you singular in a range of other languages.

The notion of the duzen and the use of thou in Pervasive Leadership principles goes beyond a part of speech, however. It is that moment and that sentiment wherein one says to the other, you may now come closer to me; I would like to be undifferentiated in status from you.

This may seem an odd notion in leadership. I don’t think it necessarily is. For instance, Dee Hock writes in The Birth of the Chaordic Age:

Leader presumes follower. Follower presumes choice. One who is coerced to the purposes, objectives, or preferences of another is not a follower in any true sense of the word, but an object of manipulation. Nor is the relationship materially altered if both parties accept dominance and coercion. True leading and following presume perpetual liberty of both leader and follower to sever the relationship and pursue another path. A true leader cannot be bound to lead. A true follower cannot be bound to follow. The moment they are bound, they are no longer leader or follower. The terms leader and follower imply the freedom and independent judgment of both. If the behavior of either is compelled, whether by force, economic necessity, or contractual arrangement, the relationship is altered to one of superior/subordinates, management/employee, master/servant, or owner/slave. All such relationships are materially different than leader/follower.

Induced behavior is the essence of leader/follower. Compelled behavior is the essence of all the others. Where behavior is compelled, there lies tyranny, however benign. Where behavior is induced, there lies leadership, however powerful. Leadership does not imply constructive, ethical, open conduct. It is entirely possible to induce destructive, malign, devious behavior and to do so by corrupt means. Therefore a clear, meaningful purpose and compelling ethical principles evoked from all participants should be the essence of every relationship and every institution.

The compelling question is how to ensure that those who lead are constructive, ethical, open, and honest. The answer is to follow those who will behave in that manner. It comes down to both the individual and collective sense of where and how people choose to be led. In a very real sense, followers lead by choosing where to be led. Where community will be led is inseparable from the conscious, shared values and beliefs of the individuals of which it is composed. Pages 67 and 68 (bolding is mine)

Pervasive Leaders are interested in minimizing decision latency and maximizing decision quality. In order to do this, they know they have to partner with the organization and the individuals they lead to support these goals. Their mental model of self and other is I and thou.

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