An Ontological Approach to Leadership: From Being to Leading

When it comes to leadership, traditional models often prioritize what a leader does—strategies, tactics, and behaviors. However, this lens may overlook a profound dimension of leadership: the ontological perspective, which delves into the nature of being and the ways in which our underlying perceptions shape our actions. With inspiration from Werner Erhard, Michael Jensen, Warren Bennis, and the book “Tribal Leadership,” we will explore this transformative perspective.

The Nature of Being: Erhard and Jensen’s Insights

Werner Erhard and Michael Jensen emphasize that true leadership transformation begins from the inside out. Rather than just focusing on what leaders do, their work draws attention to who leaders are. Ontology, in this context, refers to the study of being; hence, an ontological approach to leadership looks at the being of a leader.

According to Erhard and Jensen, authenticity, integrity, and commitment to something bigger than oneself are integral to effective leadership. This resonates with Warren Bennis’ assertion that “leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential.”

In essence, an ontological approach to leadership transcends mere actions or skills. It delves into the deeper layers of one’s identity, beliefs, and worldview. When these foundational aspects are aligned, the resulting actions are not just effective but transformative.

The Levels of Tribal Leadership

Drawing from the book “Tribal Leadership,” we can see the ontological approach mirrored in the different stages of tribal culture. The book posits that groups or “tribes” in organizations move through five stages:

  1. Life sucks: This stage is characterized by despair and a disempowered worldview.
  2. My life sucks: Individuals recognize that others might be successful, but they’re excluded.
  3. I’m great (and you’re not): Individuals believe they’re superior, leading to lone wolf behavior.
  4. We’re great: The tribe recognizes collective success, fostering unity and collaboration.
  5. Life is great: Tribes see the broader picture and work for the greater good.

The progression through these stages parallels an individual’s ontological journey. As one’s perception of themselves and their world shifts, they can lead tribes from divisive, isolated stages to collaborative, purpose-driven communities.

Bennis on Leadership Ontology

Warren Bennis, one of the foremost thinkers on leadership, has always emphasized the importance of self-awareness and authenticity. He stated, “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It’s precisely that simple, and it’s also that difficult.”

This encapsulates the essence of the ontological approach. Leadership isn’t about donning a mantle or performing a role. It’s about deeply understanding oneself, one’s beliefs, and one’s worldview—and then leading from that place of authenticity.

Conclusion: From Being to Leading

In the modern world, where change is the only constant, leadership approaches that hinge solely on external strategies may fall short. An ontological approach, as championed by thinkers like Erhard, Jensen, Bennis, and as seen in “Tribal Leadership,” offers a more profound, sustainable pathway. It’s a journey from the core of our being to the vast expanse of our leading, showing us that true leadership is not about what we do, but fundamentally about who we are.

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