Interest Based Process As Leadership

by Ken Cox
First Light Software Inc.

In the early 1950's the United States Marine Corps discovered the Interest Based Process. Is that surprising? It was to the Marines. Like Columbus, they were looking for something else; in this case, a practical theory of leadership.

The Marine Corps had commissioned a study of the emergence of inner city gangs. The Corps was specifically interested in knowing how gang members became gang leaders. Maybe there was something there that could be used to teach leadership skills or identify "natural born" leaders.

What they found out was not well suited to the military society of that era. Consequently, it was only briefly touched upon in leadership schools and eventually became lost information. However, that which was lost is found, and here it is.

The member of a group who consistently identifies wants held in common by the group, and who suggests that the group fulfill those wants, ultimately becomes the group's leader.

If that seems simplistic or improbable, please consider the writings of Richard Wolters, a man of intriguing insights; a few of which are about the relationships between people and dogs.

Wolters' method for teaching a dog to turn left or right on command is to walk behind the dog and let it go wherever it wants. When the dog turns left, Wolters says "turn left". When it turns right, he says "turn right". After awhile the dog forgets which comes first, the words or the action, and begins to turn left or right when it hears the words.

Note: Wolters is reminding (accidental pun? I think not) the dog to do what it is already doing, which is what it wanted to do in the first place. The dog is not coerced or persuaded in any way.

The dog is then assured that its pertinent behavior has value (praise and recognition) and from that point on the dog's wants and volition are part of a circle of cause and effect that includes the words and wants belonging to Wolters. In the end, the dog will turn left at a time and place that is useful to Wolters because the dog's wants have been addressed.

How does any of this connect Interest Based Process to leadership? Imagine a person who wants to lead a group in a purposeful direction. S/he could begin by letting the group do what it wants to do. Since most groups are the outcome of a selection process it is reasonable to expect a fair number of shared motives and desired results.

Our imaginary leader could improve the quality of the group's effectiveness by first surveying what the individual members of the group want. That survey would include both his/her own needs as well as those of the greater organization.

From the survey of interests s/he would identify the common wants and share them with the group. S/He would then authorize the members of the group to fulfill their common wants, or remind them that they have a common future. Over time the group would "forget" which came first - the group's wants or the leader's authorization to the group to satisfy those wants. Eventually the group would associate the leader's authorization with satisfying its wants and respond to the leader's authority. As long as the leader does not create jarring contradictions between the group's core wants and his leadership, and continues to satisfy enough of the group's wants while also satisfying his own, his authority will be recognized and the group will respond to his direction.

In order to make the next step and become a truly effective leader, s/he must also realize that the illusion of authority is actually the group's authorization to become a facilitator for achieving the group's wants. S/He would ensure that each person had access to the material, systems, and authority necessary to make their shared future a reality. If s/he could do that, s/he would have addressed the wants and served the interests of the group. The leader would have become the servant of the group, and the group would turn left at the right time and place.

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