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June 25, 2009

We usually define leadership in terms of agency, that is the ability to influence outcomes.  Nevertheless, we have come to see leaders less as doers than visionaries, thinkers, meaning makers, and directors or conductors.  This raises a troubling question: If those who actually give effect to a leader’s vision feel disconnected from their own agency or sense of purpose and meaning, should we consider the leader effective?

In philosopher/mechanic Michael Crawford’s new book Shop Class as Soulcraft, he renders a scathing criticism of the soulless nature of much of what we consider modern work, especially that associated with the information economy.  What we do shapes who we are, and more importantly how we relate to the world and one another.  Work, he argues, has moral agency.

When work lacks intrinsic value or discrete objective qualities we can observe and measure, we look to one another rather than the task or its object for meaning.  Crawford argues that disconnecting the product of our labor from our work leaves us with little other than our relationships with one another to define who we are.  This may not be a bad thing in or of itself unless we seek to encourage conformity or consistency in place of quality.

Resistance to change often arises not from satisfaction with the status quo so much as an innate hostility toward the suppression of human agency required when we yield to change and conform our wills with that of a leader.  In contrast, leaders who help people make meaning for themselves through shared exploration, discovery, creativity, and craft often find people more than eager to fashion or shape a vision that reflects their shared experience.  A responsibility to give people a sense of agency over their shared future attaches to any true definition of leadership.

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