The leadership field is currently in a bit of a mess. Universities teach leadership courses where students study past leaders. They come out of these courses knowing about leadership. It’s an epistemological approach and it doesn’t create leaders. We’ve created a course based on ontology, where they leave ‘being’ leaders.
We’ll leave you to google ‘epistemology’ and ‘ontology’ since a complete description of these philosophies is beyond the scope of this article. It is sufficient to say that as an ontologist, Jensen is in the company of men like Aristotle, Plato, Spinoza and Rene Descartes, the seventeenth century philosopher of cogito ergo sum fame.
First introduced at the University of Rochester in 2004, Jensen’s course on leadership is less about learning and more about unlearning. One-third of the course involves putting stuff in and two-thirds is about taking stuff out. We all have our world-views, our frames of reference, our cultural biases. These act as hindrances and we confront students with them. We also provide an environment where they can cleanse their minds and put on leadership lenses over their world-view lenses.
The ontological constraints that the course addresses are of two kinds. The first set is perceptual constraints where the brain, through pre-conceived notions, filters external perceptions, leaving us to see only what we want to see. The second set consists of functional constraints, subconscious triggers that set off negative responses to anything we are conditioned to believe is physically or emotionally damaging. Human beings see what their brains are conditioned to see, not what their eyes see. That’s why we miss things that are totally obvious. This stops us from opening up, appreciating other points of view. They also take away free choice. To become leaders, we need to loosen the grip of these constraints.
The leadership course incorporates bits of Eastern philosophy, which is not surprising since Jensen’s main collaborator in this ambitious teaching program is Werner Erhard, a Buddhist and the recipient of the Mahatma Gandhi Humanitarian Award in 1988. There is a fair amount of harmonics between Indian philosophy and ontological model of leadership. A lot of Indian students cite the Bhagwad Gita. The idea of creating things by taking something away is very Eastern.
We must actually look at leadership very broadly, starting from the individual taking control of his or her own life. Everybody has leadership capacities. They might want to use it to change the world or they might use it to make their own lives better. Those who would go out and do a Gandhi thing need to have a sense of awareness, of the risk they will put themselves through.
What prompted him to risk shifting his focus from the tried and tested area of financial economics to the wholly new area of leadership? After two failed marriages, says Jensen, he needed to have fun: “I’ve always been interested in understanding who I am. I’ve also been interested in individual freedom. Besides, the stuff I was doing before had become rather boring.”
Jensen’s understanding of his own ontological constraints though came in the classroom one day, when a highly wrought student had an emotional breakdown when he asked her a question. That was the first time he had to deal with an emotional upset. He had always been a good teacher and his classrooms were always full. But he realized then that he had always been afraid of his students. He was afraid of emotional upsets.
How is the academic world taking to his radically new model of leadership? “My work has always been rejected by my colleagues. That’s because it challenges their world-views, their frames of reference. They obviously have to get over their ontological constraints. Corp.