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Leading from Behind: Leadership in a Circle-Based Business

Aug 17, 2007
The purpose of a circle-based business is to benefit community through relationships that are nurtured by fair and equitable exchange. Every person inside and outside of the business is viewed as equal in their humanity.

The circle has been used as an alliance for as long as human beings have lived in community. I learned about how to work with circle from Paula Underwood, who held ten thousand years of her people's oral history.

Paula taught her workshops in a circle, where she consulted with business people and seekers. She listened to all the voices, allowing participants to explore and learn in their own way. Then, she would deeply consider the stories of her people, what she called her "data base". She would seek applicable parallel circumstances from her tradition, and speak from a depth invited us to go deeper into our own humanity.

"It you don't have a five hundred year plan," she said, "You aren't thinking ahead."

I loved her leadership style. She was not above us or below us. She was with us in a circle, equal as a learner. She called this approach, leading form behind.

How do I lead from behind in my circle-based company?

It starts with seeing everyone who works for me as part of an equal circle. Though I have different responsibilities, my employees are neither above nor below me. We are all equally on a journey that is spiritual in the sense that we all wish to have meaningful, fulfilling lives.

I do not have Paula's data base, but I do have my humanity, from which springs a genuine concern for all life that exists. Work takes up much of our existence. If tasks are not honoring, challenging, and ultimately, empowering, work becomes an expression of human tragedy.

Wait a minute. "You're the boss," my employees say. How can I lead from behind when the structure of business put me on the top? I hire and fire. I muster all resources, including human labor, toward the direction I dictate, which benefits, at least potentially, me the most. The cutthroat business world that operates on a dualistic war paradigm.

Now, I clash two world views: the circle and triangle.

Perhaps not triangle- but pyramid. The triangles connect at the top where the hierarchy gathers the benefit of all the labor of those below.

Once a year, my wife and I meet with a consultant who has run a multimillion dollar company. We hammer out "strategic objectives." Then we list action items with dates, looking at the resources that we can muster to accomplish the "big ideas."

This approach has been critical to our success as a company, but I generally leave the meeting feeling disoriented-which is exactly what I pay him to do for me.

Yet I am repulsed by the triangle approach which treats people and resources as commodity. It's inherently destructive to our ecology and community and it disenfranchises people.

A Harris Pole measuring the "execution quotient" of 2.5 million people, commissioned by Franklin Covey had these key findings:

* About a third of workers say they have a clear understanding of what their companies are trying to achieve.

* Only one in ten feel energized and committed to their company's goals.

* About one half feel their jobs allow them to apply all that they have to give.

* Three in five don't trust their employer to keep commitments to their employees.

My heart will not be part of this machine, yet I know I must be goal oriented. I pay my consultant to push up against my idealistic views to see if they stand up to best business practice.

If this circle-based model does not make profit, it will not be considered serious by any business person. How do you bring leading from the top and behind things together?

A few months ago, I brought raised this issue in a conversation with my current mentor, an Apache wisdom keeper.

"How do the circle and triangle work together?" I asked her.

"In a circle-based business, the triangle is used as a tool of the circle," she said.

Based on my experience, here's an approach to take when you have to make an important leadership that bridges these two perspectives.

First, let go of all agendas, other than to listen and gather information from the community circle. Talk to individuals and groups. Lack of trust or lack of information is information too.

Second, consider all that you have heard and see how it fits not into a tapestry that supports everyone's values and humanity. Circles support community; triangles are about movement and goals.

Third, call the company circle together in a circle. Be equal to everyone. Vulnerability and honesty count. Call out what you hear in terms of consensus.

To lead from behind means altruism is the basis of profitability. The leader's task is to build a consensus that is best for everyone and everything. The five hundred year plan means that greater community, our ecology, our life support system, is part of that equation as well.

It is a huge responsibility which involves a great deal of transparency, courage and humility. It is the opposite of seeing people as a commodity. It involves caring for soul.

In my company, my task is to assure all voices are respected in our circle. From that place, we are able to move toward objectives that are dictated to us by market opportunities.

We are not perfect. We try mainly to be who we want to be, stumbling along and like any other company. We honor mistakes as opportunities to learn, but we try not to make the same mistake twice.

From nurturance of our company circle, we treat our customer base with gratitude and service. From this, we create an upward spiral of self generating growth in support of community and ecology.
About the Author
Marc Choyt is President of Reflective Images, www.celticjewelry.com, a jewelry company that practices socially responsible business.Marc authors www.fairjewelry.org a movement website for consumers and jewelers supporting green and fair trade jewelry. He also originated The Circle Manifesto,
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