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'Leadership is about having genuine concern for others'. Interview with Bart C. Gijsbertsen

Bart started out in ecosystem management. After his studies, he lived in Sweden for several years, originally working on forest certification. He became a schoolteacher there and got into organizational learning before starting his first business. He recently moved to Italy, where he devotes his time to his consulting firm and writing. Today we ask him about his view on leadership.

What is leadership for you?

Well, people often confuse leadership with management. For me these are completely different things. Management is a job. Leadership is not. Leadership for me is about setting a direction, it is about guidance. And every human being needs guidance. The question is what compass do you use?

A manager is propelled by the needs of the organisation. There are predetermined results, and the manager needs to achieve them, sometimes at all costs. What is required from a manager is also what is desired by the organisation that he/she is working for.

A leader is notpropelled by organisational demands but motivated by the needs of others. The direction of his attention must face outward, and ultimately then, what is required often isn’t desired (that often makes it more difficult). You must go against the flow; it is always challenging.

Management can become isolated. That is also why there can be such a disconnect between what management does and what the world needs. For leadership, it is the opposite.

What was one of your first lessons in leadership?

In my early twenties, I became a teacher at a Swedish elementary school. I taught special needs kids, and that made my experience with leading very immediate. Teaching has everything to do with leadership. I found out that I was good with kids, which is why they gave me the job, but I also felt pressure to be a ‘real’ teacher. I had never imagined myself as a teacher. You need to really know your stuff, you must teach them something, right? So, I was a bit insecure at first. ‘Do I know enough?’ ‘Am I explaining this right?’ I was very much focused on myself, on whether these kids would see through me and notice that I was ‘Forrest Gumping’ my way forward at times.

What I soon found out was that kids will forgive you for not having all the answers. But they will not forgive you for not caring about them. And that taught me that the position you have as a teacher is the same as when you are a business leader or if you are a politician. Power is something that you can take, but authority is something that you need to be given. And nobody will give it to you if you are focused on yourself. In other words, leadership is about having genuine concern for others.

What are the challenges to building leadership?

My view on leadership is that it is not a constant thing. Somebody is not a leader all the time, nobody is. You can be a manager all the time. That is a function, a job that you have in an organisation. Leadership is something that is intermittent. It happens, in a moment, you connect with somebody, and that person gives you the authority to guide them. And then the next moment you could be an idiot again. Anybody can say they’re a leader, but who is following you? Why? When? Where?

If I think about what I found challenging in my life during moments that demanded leadership, it is not about overcoming external obstacles. I have been bullied, I have been threatened, cheated, deceived, silenced, yelled at, blocked, and sued. All very annoying. But I don’t think these are the challenges of leadership. Becoming a better leader is about inner life, as much as anything practical. I struggle with my ego and my emotions. And very often I fail. But occasionally I don’t, and then I can make a difference.

Could nature inspire us to become better leaders?

Yes. I have a background in forestry, which does sometimes help. The way nature works, really is not the way in which people think. But the way people think, is part of human nature. It’s a paradox. That is why we have all these problems. There is a single-minded focus on growth in the economy. If you look at nature, growth is only a phase. I believe that the guiding principle in life, is concern. But the guiding principle in our economy, where leadership mostly follows performance, is control. That is what I try to change.

What is the place of leaders in the current climate context?

I think the role of leadership is decisive. Leadership is very important; the challenges are huge. Humanity must rise to the occasion. Looking at our planet, it is a bit like Dorian Gray looking at his portrait. We are seeing the effect of what we are doing on our planet, in the same way that Dorian Gray sees the effects of his utterly selfish lifestyle on his portrait. At the end of the story, he is found dead on the floor in his apartment.

This comparison to Dorian Gray’s picture, speaks to a collective identity crisis. Humanity will also be found dead on the floor, unless we do much better than Dorian Gray. And we can do better, if we can adopt an image of humanity, that rises above that of an ape.

There was a brilliant Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef, the author of “From the Outside Looking in: experiences in Barefoot economics”. He was a bit of a dissident in his field. He wrote a lot about economics, ecology, about Human needs, and satisfiers. He was wondering what is unique about humanity and about our species, and he couldn’t find an answer. He tried on all kinds of things, always coming up short. Our intelligence? Our humour? He investigated many avenues. In the end, his father suggested to him: have you tried stupidity?

Whether at Bressummer foundation or elsewhere, we want to have positive impact on leadership. We must prove that stupidity is not the defining trait of humanity. I believe what is uniquely human, is our ability to rise above our own immediate circumstances. Stupidity is the visible result of the desertification of our inner life. It is a tragic reduction of what we are able to be.

A last message to the young leaders?

Elie Wiesel said, ‘Think higher, feel deeper’. If you believe that humanity can rise above its own circumstances, that we are more than our biology, that we are also spiritual beings, it is an important realisation in terms of leadership. Leadership is very much about deciding how you choose to use the creative freedom that is given to our species, and to every person.

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