Leading Through Scary Season – Part 3 – (Don’t)Kill the Leader

This is the third in a series on leading in these scary times – with Covid, economic pressure, BLM and the reaction(s) to it, the election, and now the loss of RBG.  I think it’s one of my best.  I know it’s one of my longest :-(.  I hope you’ll find the time to give it a shot and offer you responses. 

[Recap: The first was on seeing this as a system of pressures not as personal. Last week’s second was on the power of staying in your zone of control. If you want to see an awesome example of how to work in this zone of control, see the comment at the bottom from Cathy Raines!]

Today, I write for both Authorized Leaders and for Everyday Leaders about a pair of dynamics. Dynamic One is something I am seeing in and with almost all of my clients. Dynamic Two is one which I am seeing in a national and global context but also more locally. They are flip sides of the same dynamic. I will offer a strategy for the authorized leader and one for the everyday leader.  Many of us are both, e.g., reporting to a boss and having people report to us; or “looking up” to a boss but also having children looking up to us.

Dynamic One:     

In the crises and stress we all are living through, individuals and groups can rebel, scapegoat, and even kill off their authorities. Who else are kids going to blame for their frustration than their parents and teachers? YOU are the problem: you keep me inside, away from my friends, make me go online to those boring classes, and won’t let me have the car. YOU, boss, cut our budgets. YOU don’t listen. YOU are old, white, male and don’t get it.   YOU are only looking out for you. YOU – the police, the politicians, the capitalist pigs; you are the problem.

I have many clients who have been crusaders for example, for political change or to serve the poor or protect the environment. Over decades, they have risen to the highest authority positions. And they tell me they have never been under so much fire from within as they are today. They aren’t perfect, but they are trying to navigate hurricane-churned waters with whatever limited skills and experience they have. 

As a parent and consultant and facilitator, I don’t ever remember a time of getting so much pushback. Most of the time I actually love the feedback, because I can grow as a leader and teacher.  I welcome it gladly – with open mind and open heart. But some of the pushback sneaks around my cool rational mind, cuts through my human defenses to get at me – and I react.  (Typically, I punish myself; occasionally I punish my perceived attackers with my defensiveness!)  

Strategy when we are the authority: Try not to be reactive and respond too personally, because it’s not about you as a person (though it may well feel that way).  It IS personal for them. They are often frustrated, in pain, confused, afraid with all these pressures:  Will I ever see my friends at school again? Will I be fired? Will my grandmother die? Will Trump be re-elected? Will Biden be elected and change my America? People want someone to fix all this! And consciously or not, they blame you/authority and want you to to get it right. So, care for yourself, and understand their pain is not a personal attack on you.

Strategy for everyday leaders: Speak truth to power. Push back so that decisions align to principles – fairness, inclusion, data-driven, etc. Yet shift from the child-to-parent impatience we all came factory-loaded with, into the adult-adult capacity we continually need to build upon. So, see the multiple pressures on the authority. Appreciate the complicated set of constraints upon them. Ask yourself and perhaps vocalize, “What can I do to help?”

Perhaps one way to help is to appreciate the authority!  I have a client – the CEO of a large business which is heavily affected by COVID – who said this to me last week:  “I’ve never been the kind of person who needs a lot of strokes. I signed up for hard work. But I find myself appreciating a kind word more than I ever have at work.”  This is not about child-to-adult communication, like a kid who wants to get the keys to the car on Friday night and so vocalizes their love for mom or dad’s (or dad or dad’s) lasagna. This is about adult-to-adult communication. So for example, if you’re the CFO pressing for necessary cuts – and you know how hard that is to make the numbers work – take a minute to appreciate the weight the CEO feels as they struggle with the numbers, but also the human cost of layoffs and the crushing impact on reaching promised goals. 

Dynamic Two:

My brief analysis here focuses on national and global history, but you’ll see the strategies below point to our everyday leadership world.  In tough times, people look to leaders to save and protect them. Followers, (I prefer to think of us not as followers but as everyday leaders) when threatened, will cede almost all of their power to authorities to “fix it.”  This is quite clear as we look back at times of severe economic and cultural stress, like in the aftermath of World War I.  The devastation, grief, poverty and harsh inequality produce conflict, loss and internal strife. And people will capitulate to a strong leader who promises to take their pain away.

The authority gains and holds power by promoting intense nationalism that bonds people together and binds them to their leaders.  Thus, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Hirohito all rose to power under their countries’ economic and social turmoil. Woe to those outside who are labeled “other,” to the point of complete dehumanization! And, woe to those inside – Jews in Germany, Blacks in America, some would say children in cages – who are made enemies. I leave it to you to decide whether the same story is being played out in the effort to Make America (or Argentina, Mother Russia, Brazil, England, China, etc.,) Great Again. All have elected so-called “strong” men. I don’t think strong is the most illuminating adjective.

Strategy for authorities: Watch yourself! Watch your promises. Watch whether you are “pretending” you can solve everyone’s problems. Watch your use of power for short-term fixes. Watch when you ignore the means because the ends are all that matters. Watch your sense of urgency – that email you’re going to dash off in a heartbeat to “solve” the problem – that may create more havoc in the long run.  We have hard work right now, and authorities’ jobs – whether as parent, pastor, principal, etc. – is to help people face real issues, and collaboratively do that hard work. Short-term, power-concentrating solutions will almost always fail to engage people to do the hard work. What can authorities do on the positive side?  Keep building capacity in others to tackle hard problems. Hold back the sense of urgency that seems to come with every problem these days. Tap your sense of deep patience.

Strategy for everyday leaders:  Believe in us more than any “savior.” Speak truth to power . . . but also understand (if you want to be effective) that “power” is under extreme pressure right now! For instance, school administrators face ENORMOUSLY hard decisions. Let’s face it, the underlying system on which hundreds of years and trillions of dollars are based – of 30 humans in complete proximity (or 300 in many universities) is for now DEAD. So, raise issues of principle – like economic/political justice and the need for quality – in how we design around COVID.  Yet exercise the virtues you seek from them: patience, inclusion, values-focused, data-driven decisions.

It’s a time for all us to bring out each other’s

Best Self Leadership.