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On ‘Otherness’ and Leadership in Today’s World

UntitledIn his recent memoir, “World Order,” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recounts an exchange between the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and himself during his first trip to China in 1971 representing the Nixon administration to arrange for diplomatic relations after 20 years of hostility. Kissinger remarks to the Premier that China is a ‘land of mystery’ to members of his delegation. Zhou Enlai responds, ‘“When you have become familiar with it, it will not seem so mysterious as before.” Then he adds that for 900 million Chinese, it is perfectly normal.’

I introduce this blog on ‘Otherness’ with this anecdote as it powerfully illustrates the social identity of the US diplomats, shaped by the assumptions and mindset of a Westphalian order,* which contributed to their perception of the Chinese, ‘the Other,” as mysterious. Their perception now seems naïve and lacking in consciousness of the larger global reality which, of course, included China. The Chinese response that we are not mysterious to ourselves nor will we be to you once you become acquainted with us, belies the ‘inscrutable Oriental’ stereotype. When I read this, I smiled to myself recognizing this ‘othering’ process from my own more quotidian experience when someone has attempted to place me in a box of their own construction, consistent with their identity and view of the world, separating themselves from me, no matter how inaccurate the representation might be.

Let me explain this social process, as well as its relationship to effective leadership.

It has become commonplace to emphasize the increasing interrelatedness of nations, groups, individuals, and other global actors, especially due to the acceleration, accessibility and ease of communication, travel, and exchange of goods, services, and money, made possible by advanced communication technology. However, the implications of this reality and evolving world order for what is required for effective leadership is less understood and discussed.

Almost every community, at least in the United States, is heterogeneous and facing the rewards and challenges of leveraging differences in race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, national origin, sexual persuasion, among other human dimensions. Further, groups responding to increasing violence and instability in many parts of the world are fleeing their homes migrating beyond their national borders in greater numbers. In the emerging migrant crisis, communities in Europe and the US differentially offer safe haven, based on their perceptions of themselves and others, their values, and their responsibilities. Perhaps less germane to this case, but certainly pertinent to global leadership is the fact that 24/7 communication available to every potential observer with a cell or computer throughout the world brings greater transparency to everyone, but also sets up a system whereby local communication can amplify in orders of magnitude and shift the interpretation of the original narrative, as it is shared through social media. Thus, a seemingly ‘local’ event can potentially resonate on a global scale with strategic consequences.

Leadership in such an interrelated world requires capacities beyond what has previously been required for effective action. A few decades ago, describing the differential between the challenges we face and our capacity to respond effectively, Bob Kegan of Harvard’s College of Education aptly stated we are ‘in over our heads.’ We see evidence of this in many communities and at many levels of governance and in diverse settings both global and local in scope. In the US, for example, there has been increased scrutiny of police brutality and inequitable treatment of suspected criminals which, in particular, targets Blacks and Hispanics. This crisis has surfaced because of observers having the ability to videotape police interaction on cell phones. It seems that the ‘otherness’ of victims contributes to inaccurate judgments on the part of some members of police forces.

Returning to the concept of ‘the Other,’ and the process of ‘othering’ another person or group, on the one hand it is a necessary process by which we understand our identity individually and collectively, based on how we differentiate ourselves from others. (This social process has been described by numerous sociologists from George Herbert Meade through Michel Foucault and others). In building a larger social identity we construct our group as different from others. Further, on a daily basis, all of us make quick decision about what action to take, based on inference and some measure of prediction based on this inference or assumption, especially if we don’t know someone or a situation well. All too often this process is used to demonize and delegitimize others, often with destructive consequences, especially when the other individuals appear to be members of another social group. It is used to create a mask of superiority in a valued social attribute or along the spectrum of whatever dimensions we choose in order to consolidate power, while failing to see how we are similar in so many ways. Importantly, although all of us construct our identity using this process, it seems increasingly important to become aware of how we unconsciously use this process in ways that are not helping us respond to situations humanely and effectively. It is important also to limit the ways we use the process to demonize others, to take power from others, to define others unfairly and unjustly, to project what we most fear onto others, and to blind ourselves to what we share or could share in common.

As our societies become more global and our divergent views, beliefs, and ways of life become more salient because of our physical or virtual proximity, an awareness and understanding of ourselves, our own assumptions and preferences, and of this process of ‘othering’ and its consequences are critical to effective action, to effective leadership, and may be critical to our survival as a species. It may be unrealistic to hope that all of us can reach this level of awareness and capacity for complexity and nuance in our thinking, but it is incumbent on our leaders – political, military, business, social, religious, and otherwise — to support us in reaching for a more expansive view of ourselves and a more inclusive view of our societies, to endeavor to enact our better selves.

An important hallmark of the adult stage developmental framework (a developmental perspective) is the maturity or self-mastery of a post-conventional leader which entails an awareness of oneself – that each of us has preferences and predilections, as well as a set of prescribed cultural practices and mindsets we have internalized from our social groups in churches, mosques, synagogues, in schools, in our neighborhoods, local communities and nations. In order to examine sets of assumptions and habitual ways of acting to identify if they are suitable, constructive and effective, we must first recognize and understand how they contribute to the way we interpret reality and by extension how they influence our behavior. We must endeavor to acquire an understanding that there are multiple ways of approaching an issue, multiple effective actions, and usually more than a single ‘truth.’

However, to reach this level of awareness an individual must engage in rather deep introspection — questioning one’s own assumptions and the prescriptions of one’s culture’ to reflect about their applicability and effectiveness in different contexts. This period of development leads to a more complex or expansive mindset that permits an individual to choose from a broader repertoire of perspectives and action (rather than default to the preferred and habitual reaction), a repertoire of behavior wider than the one to which they were originally inclined. The inherently uncomfortable and somewhat subversive period of growth, in what is called the first post-conventional adult development stage, evolves to give the mature strategic leaders more sense of purpose and the strength to challenge assumptions, ask provocative questions that allow for the broad range of diversity in approach required for developing relationships of trust across diversity and acting effectively in the global and complex environment we face every day

So I end this blog with an anecdote from my own experience. In June of 2013, I presented at the NATO sponsored Third International Transformation Conference on the subject of Leader Development for a Complex World at the National Defense University (you can view the entire presentation on this website, the Blog, Livestream of NATO conference). My co-authors, Colonel John Agoglia (ret.), Dr. Matthew Levinger, and I argued for the adoption of a developmental perspective to underpin the design and delivery of the education and development of security leaders. This proposal was well received by educator and security leaders. A member of the audience inquired how we would advise military leaders regarding how to develop cultural awareness, given that lacking such had brought dire consequences for coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Col. Agoglia, former Director of the US Army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute and the former Director of the Counterinsurgency Training Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, responded that, based on his experience, it was necessary to understand your own culture and how it had shaped you in order to work effectively with those from another culture, like the Afghan culture. Further, that developing this understanding required study and introspection. Only with this understanding could you interpret another culture and its people, anticipating and recognizing your own potential blind-spots and accounting for them in your interpretation of and response to other cultures and peoples. In the language of what I have described above, he was arguing for the necessity of a post-conventional perspective of oneself and the world for effective action. Col. Agoglia’s insight could be usefully applied to the leadership challenges of diversity we face today both domestically and globally.

*The Westphalian Treaty of 1648 following the Thirty Years’ War established a framework to maintain stability between sovereign states of Europe, excluding Russia, characterized by religious tolerance and the recognition of sovereign states within an unconsciously Euro-centric orientation.