Are You Ready to Be a Leader? The Ontology of Leadership

Fig. 3.1
Leadership vacuum: The need for leadership in any given circumstance

More generally, to be a leader you must be able to exercise leadership with bosses, peers, those in other organizations, any others over whom you have no authority, and the people you’re the leader of before you have earned the right with them to lead.

Time has come for us to dwell deeper into the very nature of the human being from the ontological view point; specifically, that is to say the nature and function of being for human beings, and to deepen our ability to distinguish the ontology of leader and leadership. If such a goal could be accomplished, then being a leader, and the effective exercise of leadership, should happen as one’s natural self-expression, rather than as a learned activity in trying to emulate the characteristics or styles of noteworthy leaders, or learning what effective leaders do and trying to emulate them.

For those of us who are involved in the art of training young physicians to become surgeons, perhaps it may come easy to distinguish what it is to use a skill or a trait “as your natural self-expression”. We have certainly witnessed when some of our residents begin to perform in the operating room “naturally”; admittedly, this moment may come with experience, but we all have seen junior residents who are moving their hands “naturally” faster and earlier than some of our most vetted chief residents.

I believe this paragon may serve us well to advance through this chapter in an effort to share with the reader a number of distinctions that must be part of the basic core of the ontology of leadership. Leadership ontology is what we all would like to master in order to be able to communicate those valuable skills or traits that will leave them not just being surgeons but being leaders as their natural self-expression.

Although being a leader and being a surgeon are two completely different things, the previous example continues to be useful. If you are not being a leader and you are simply trying to act like a leader, you are likely to fail. This is a classic example of lack of authenticity that is deadly in an attempt to exercise leadership and most certainly deadly when pretending to be a surgeon. Fortunately, such circumstances occur infrequently in our surgical training programs. However, all of us have encountered individuals who eventually had to abandon their surgical residency program or their clinical practice because being a surgeon never came naturally to them despite that they may have mastered the epistemological aspects of surgery (i.e., the knowing of surgery rather than being a surgeon).

This chapter is our first attempt to introduce the ontological basis of being a leader in the setting of training surgeons; the distinctions shared here and the resemblances between teaching how to become a surgeon and allowing young individuals to discover by themselves what it takes within themselves to be leaders may not necessarily apply to all circumstances. But whenever possible, we will continue to move freely between these two parallels not with the intention of confusing the reader, but certainly with the idea of taking advantage of the fact that most of us who stand on the left side of the operating room table while we let someone younger and less experienced operate under our responsibility are in a unique position to distinguish what it means to perform as our “natural self-expression”.

The materials shared with you here are the result of participating in an innovative course on leadership that has been developed over the last 10 years, first under the auspices of the U. of Rochester Simon School of Business and later under the Air Force Academy. The technology and the course are founded on what the creators of the course term an ontological/phenomenological model of human nature. The ontological approach is uniquely effective in providing actionable access to being a leader and exercising leadership effectively. The course has been designed to leave participants being leaders and exercising leadership effectively as their natural self-expression, and to contribute to creating a new science of leadership. Some of the material is drawn from work published by Steve Zaffron: “Being A Leader and the Effective Exercise of Leadership: An Ontological Model” [5]. Other material summarized in this chapter is also based on program material of the Vanto Group, and from material presented in the Landmark Forum and other programs offered by Landmark Worldwide LLC [6]. The unique ideas and the methodology created by Werner Erhard underlie much of the original work [7].

An integral part of gaining access to being a leader and the effective exercise of leadership as one’s natural self-expression requires dealing with those factors present in all human beings that constrain each person’s freedom to be. When dealing with the ontology of leadership, our inability to find that freedom ends up constraining ourselves and shaping our own perceptions, emotions, creative imagination, thinking, planning, and actions. When one is not constrained or shaped by these factors, one’s way of being and acting must result naturally in one’s personal best. The “ontological constraints” must be discovered by the individual in his or her quest to become an effective leader. We will share with the reader some of the most common and basic ontological constraints so that they also begin to discover by themselves what stands in their way to effectively exercise leadership.

The objective of this chapter is to introduce a new model of leadership and leadership development, and adapt the distinctions made available in this material to the current reality of residency training in surgery as a platform to present this material to those interested in promulgating leadership during the formative years of training as a surgeon. Although the ultimate objective of the full course being summarized in this chapter is to leave participants being leaders and exercising leadership as a their natural self-expression, this chapter will obviously fall short of such promise; it will simply be an introduction of the methodology and its usefulness, with the hope that we gather enough interest so that those in charge of resident education may contemplate the possibility of incorporating the material to teach the ontological aspects of leadership during the residency program.

This material is significantly different from others the reader may have known or experienced. In fact, when teaching the ontological bases for leadership, we begin from the proposition that given being and action by the right context everyone has the capacity to be a leader and that in most cases there are personal obstacles (constraints) that everyone needs to discover and deal with in order to actualize that capacity for leadership. It is not about teaching leadership strategies or providing a “how to” guide, but rather it is simply allowing participants to create for themselves a context that will enable and empower them for being a leader as one’s natural self-expression.

This is only possible by “being aware of”, which according to Souba is defined as a state that grants us the ability to perceive, to feel, and to be conscious of events, objects, and sensations [8]. Awareness, as he describes it, speaks to the concept of a human being as an observer who is present in the moment especially to be attentive to distinguish one’s own filters and blind spots (ontological constraints).

What we would like to share with you in this chapter is highly relevant, and certainly complementary, to those issues related to management be it of an academic nature or business nature. It is also related to organizational behavior, organizational change, and development. All of these topics are undoubtedly related to leadership, yet what we are referring to here IS NOT any of these other disciplines. Therefore, we request that during the reading of this chapter you (the reader) avoid any attempt to make what you read “like” any of these other disciplines listed above.

We would like to further emphasize this point by sharing with you a quote from Claude Bernard, the father of modern physiology and the founder of experimental medicine as a scientific method: “It is what we already know that often prevent us from learning”. While reading this chapter we request that you do not attempt to make this like anything you already know. We understand this may be a human tendency, but allowing yourself to think that this is like something you already have seen will prevent you from distinguishing what will be discussed next.

In the following sections we will share with you a number of distinctions that, given under the methodology on the ontology of leadership, are designed to provide actionable access to leader and leadership. We are concerned specifically with the nature and impact of being when being a leader.

As we mentioned earlier, we would like to generate enough curiosity and interest on the distinctions of the ontological bases of leadership that the reader will seek to participate in the full content of this material offered elsewhere. This material is being taken up by the academic realm, and many universities in the United States are incorporating such material in full semester courses that continue to burgeon. The complete material can also be taken in a full 8 days compressed format as well [9].

At the end, however, the ultimate objective of distinguishing the ontological basis of leadership is to get the participants to live a personal transformation; the participants are not expected to have all the experience and knowledge that is necessary to be a truly extraordinary leader. However, they should leave ready to be who they need to be to be a leader and with what it takes for them to exercise leadership effectively.

There are three major components that make the ontological bases for leadership. The first one is the foundational elements of leadership and these are:








Being committed to something bigger than yourself and



Being aware or as other refer to being cause in the matter.


The second component is the Contextual Framework. The third component is the ontological constraints that we mentioned briefly earlier.

3.3 The Four Foundational Elements of Leadership

3.3.1 Integrity

“Integrity is a matter of a person’s word-nothing more and nothing else” (Michael Jensen). Integrity refers to the condition of an object, person, or organization as being whole, complete, and perfect [10]. Integrity is an indispensable condition for functionality and workability. In fact, when we act with lack of integrity, our performance is diminished and the degree of energy required to maintain our own functionality is directly proportional to the lack of integrity.

Integrity is what it takes for a person to be whole and complete. An individual is whole and complete when their word is whole and complete, and their word is whole and complete when they honor their word. There are only two ways of honoring our word: first, by keeping our word, and that means keeping our word on time; and second, by realizing that when you cannot keep your word you immediately inform all parties who were counting on you to keep your word and clean up any mess that you have caused in their lives by not keeping your word. When we do this, we are honoring our word despite having not kept it, and we have maintained our integrity [10]. If you fail to see that who you are as a person is your word, that is, thinking that you are anything other than your word, it leaves you unable to see that when your word is less than complete, you are diminished as a person.

Being your word requires transparency about what one is giving one’s word to, to whom it is being given, and by when the promise given by the word will be attained. In the absence of this foundation, exceptional performance is not possible and definitely not sustainable, making any attempts to effective leadership completely futile. In being a leader, you must think very carefully before giving your word to anyone or anything and beware of giving your word to two or more things that may be mutually inconsistent. If you want to be up to anything important in life, you will not always be able to keep your word, and that is alright, but if you are a person of integrity you will always honor your word. At the end, honoring your word is the only actionable route to being trusted by others.

The distinction of integrity is easy to follow and most of us would agree with the statements made above, yet a conversation about integrity is not complete unless we all recognize that the most important aspect of integrity involves the relationship one has with oneself. By not being solemn when we give our word to ourselves, we lose the opportunity to maintain our integrity, that is, honoring our word to ourselves. As a direct consequence of our own lack of integrity, we create unworkability in our life: people will see our inconsistencies, and we will appear unreliable and unpredictable. Unfortunately, most of us are quick to rationalize and justify the “background” mess of our own everyday life and fail to see that such mess is a direct consequence of not having integrity.

A common mistake is to consider integrity as a virtue instead of an essential condition for performance. When held merely as a virtue rather than as an element of production integrity is easily sacrificed when it appears that a person must do so to succeed. Furthermore, when seen as a virtue it may then generate the admiration of others. Admiration turns out to be something more valuable than money and as such is venerated as the highest currency existing today. Let me explain why. We all want to be admired. Any situation that threatens us with a loss of admiration can easily lead us to out of integrity behavior.

Integrity is a mountain with no top. It is our human condition that constantly makes us unaware that we have not kept our word. Most of the time all we see are the reasons, rationalization, or excuses for not keeping our word. In fact, people systematically deceive themselves about who they have been and what they have done. “Put simply, people consistently act inconsistently unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their actual theory, i.e., between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act” [11].

In fact, the combination of: (1) often not seeing our own out of integrity behavior, (2) believing that we are people of integrity, and (3) soothing ourselves with the notion that next time we will restore ourselves to being a person of integrity keeps us from realizing that these perpetuating rules place us in a mountain with no top. Our best bet is to recognize this fact and keep climbing; indeed, life should be about learning to enjoy the climb rather than whining about the slope, and not forgetting that the higher you climb the steeper it gets [10].

Therefore, to empower and enable yourself as a leader, you will have to be rigorous in honoring your word – with yourself, with those you lead, and with those who lead you. Living in a constant quest for integrity can be seen as the best practice for being a leader.

Lastly, integrity must be looked at as a purely positive proposition. It has nothing to do with good versus bad. It is rather, a law, like the law of gravity. There is no such a thing as good or bad gravity. Like integrity, it just “is”. More importantly, integrity is a necessary condition for maximum performance. As integrity declines, workability declines and as workability declines, value also declines. Attempting to violate the law of integrity generates painful consequences just as surely as attempting to violate the law of gravity [12].

3.3.2 Authenticity

The word authentic originates from the Greek word authentes meaning “one acting on one’s own authority”. In other words, one is accountable for one’s actions and behaviors. Being authentic is being and acting consistent with who you hold yourself out to be for others and who you hold yourself to be for yourself [8]. Being authentic has a direct implication on our ability, or lack thereof, to recognize our out of integrity behaviors. Said in another way, it is our desire for approval and admiration that often drives inauthentic actions and behaviors. Souba, in writing about this subject, describes our attraction to the six As – admiration, achievement, attention, authority, appearance and affluence – as powerful lures towards inauthenticity. He goes on to say that “this inevitable ‘thrownness’ to self-concern dislodges us from the full possibility of being with others and is a major source of our inauthenticity” [8].

Being authentic is critical to being a leader. Inauthenticity is one of the barriers to being a leader and to having access to the effective exercise of leadership. The ideal scenario to empower students to be effective leaders is best realized by giving to them the opportunity to recognize their own inauthenticities. While most of us don’t like seeing them, by distinguishing these weaknesses in ourselves, we will open the doors to the pathway towards authenticity. In fact, it is easy to recognize that sometimes we find ourselves being limited in our ability to perform, out of fear of the loss of admiration, fear of being accused of being disloyal, or fear of looking bad. When you are appreciative of such insights and welcome them, you will benefit from them.

How can we begin to overcome such fears? Is there an ontological response to these challenges? Tillich in his book “The Courage to Be” states: “courage as the universal and essential self-affirmation of one’s being is an ontological concept [13]. The courage to be is the act in which a man or a woman affirms his/her own being in spite of those elements of his/her existence which conflicts with his/her essential self-affirmation.” Yet in our world it is perhaps something even less threatening than fear that prevents us from meaningful leadership. A tendency to accept a simple role of spectator by allowing ourselves to sink into a stalling realm of passivity may be the prevailing attitude of modern society. There is a disengagement associated with submissiveness that according to John Gardner is the greatest danger looming on our world. Our comfortable way of being is thwarting us from seeking the experience of participating in meaningful decisions concerning our own life and work [14].

The emphasis on authenticity while sharing this material on the ontology of leadership refers to the simple fact that being authentic is a requirement for being a leader. The trainer is not concerned on the good or bad or the right or wrong of neither being inauthentic, nor do they offer an examination of anything normative. The ultimate goal is to help our students to discover their own path to authenticity.

We all want to be admired, and almost none of us is willing to confront just how much we want to be admired, and how readily we will fudge on being straightforward and completely honest in a situation where we perceive doing so threatens us with a loss of admiration. Indeed, we spend a lot of our time on the run “doing” – achieving, impressing, acquiring, and parleying in order to measure up, be popular, and be accepted. We always appreciate and listen carefully for confirmation that what we are saying is accepted as right. In fact, “admiration is the highest coin in the realm” [4]. We will do anything to be admired and the loss of authenticity seems a small price to pay, especially when we don’t even notice that we are being inauthentic and even if we did, are unaware that being inauthentic costs us being whole and complete as a person. In addition, most of us have a pathetic need for looking good, and almost none of us are willing to confront just how much we care about looking good – even to the extent of the silliness of pretending to have followed and understood something when we haven’t. The threat of looking bad destroys the possibility of being authentic. Here is when courage becomes extremely handy; anyone who wants to be a leader needs courage to be straight when he or she is wrong.

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May 26, 2018 | Posted by in GENERAL SURGERY | Comments Off on Are You Ready to Be a Leader? The Ontology of Leadership

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