"Leadership in the age of rage"
In the comedy western Blazing Saddles, one seminal moment has the sheriff point a gun to his own head, threatening to blow his own brains out if everyone doesn’t do as he says.
There have been echoes of this persuasive technique recently in the U.K., whose populace voted to exit the EU. A cabal of leaders fell on their own swords like dominoes in the days after the referendum, the biggest casualty being Prime Minister David Cameron. Was such a bloodbath necessary? I would argue that in critical times, the case for reflective rather than reactive leadership, in society and organisations, has never been stronger.
Keeping in touch with changing emotions
Humans are, at an anthropological level, reflexively programmed to recognize threats and act on them. Fight, flight, freeze! Daily, we see instances: the angry soccer player fronts up and butts heads with an antagonist. The small child runs from the playground bully. The brain reacts, the person acts. In organisations, however, strong emotional reactions take longer to emerge and build gradually below the surface.
The challenge is that leaders enacting change (their primary task) are not only slow to recognize what is going on, they are also generally ignorant of how to deal with it. Why? For one, there is a constant pressure to act. We have become “human doings”, not human beings. Reflection is undervalued and frequently impossible in a world where leaders are incessantly battered with information. As a consequence, the rage, anxiety or sadness building up in the substrate of organisations, like volcanic magma, is both invisible and untapped. And like volcanoes, it has the potential to explode out destructively.
The power of collective emotion
Leaders protest that diagnosing organizational systems is complicated and there is insufficient time. Symptoms of dysfunction however, are often hidden in plain sight. In 2015, Marissa Mayer, struggling at Yahoo! described a rash of departures from her senior bench as “part of the design”. However, the welter of departing talent should have signified that something was rotten. It was reported at the time in Business Insider that “the world is crashing in on her...she has stopped listening to what people have to say”. A few weeks ago, less than a year later, the company was sold to Verizon. One wonders if Miss Mayer, beset by pressures, ever stood still to consider what was happening.
Worse still is failing to reflect on the emotional landscape of your customers. Seaworld Inc. is a salutary example. If you are unaware that people are concerned with our ecology, then you have been living under a rock. Yet the company took three years to announce the cessation of the breeding programme for orcas, after the damning 2013 documentary Blackfish revealed how these magnificent animals suffer in captivity. In spite of the outcry, it failed to act. It has now missed forecasts in seven of its eleven quarters as a public company. It remains to be seen whether the company can reinvent itself.
Jack Welch said many years ago: “The problem is that leaders fail to ask often enough the question: What is wrong around here?” To pre-empt disaster, I would like to suggest that actions should be “reflective” not reflexive.
The danger of failing to listen
Political leaders who fail to do the hard work of comprehension allow demagoguery in through the backdoor, permitting crafty opportunists to tap in to popular anger, polarizing opinion and creating exclusive “others” who are the enemy. Even worse, they can end up on the end of a “Brexit style” backlash, when the silent majority is finally given a voice.
Similarly, organisational leaders who misread smoke signals in their organizations will be subject to sabotage of their plans, passive resistance, whispered treachery and ultimately oblivion. In a globalizing world, leaders, therefore, should keep close to society, their teams and themselves through “reflective” action, if they are to avoid stigmatisation and remain at the vanguard of value creation.
“This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2017”
INSEAD Knowledge, 2016Read more
"Leadership lessons from a tumultuous time"
Published on 13 Dec, 2016
"Self authoring to take control of our destiny"
This article addresses how in order to take control of our destiny and to create alternative destinations some of us may need an external intervention, one of which is the technique of self authoring.
Published on 1 Jan, 2012
Good leadership requires self-aware and vulnerable leaders
The coronavirus crisis facilitates the rise of autocratic and narcissistic leaders just when we least need them.
When asked what the post-Covid world might look like, French author Michel Houellebecq said, “The same – only worse.” While the quip is funny on the surface, there is indeed reason for all of us to wonder where the world is headed.
Published on 29 Jul, 2020
"What happens in the transitional space during coaching?"
Book chapter in The Coaching Kaleidoscope: Insights from the Inside Palgrave Macmillan, p. 71-85.
Published on 1 Jul, 2010
"Leaders need emotional intelligence to create meaning"
Published on 1 Apr, 2016
"For many executives walking away can be the hardest part of the job"
As a leader you need to focus on your successors early in the game. Doing so will not only underpin the long-term sustainability of your enterprise, it may give you a shot at immortality.
Published on 21 Sep, 2016
"Leadership in a digital age"
To become more effective and refective leaders, executives need to learn to improve their behavioural reactions to diffucult situations and develop greater emotional intelligence.
Published on 24 Jul, 2016
"Talented leadership in the European Union"
This article explores the complex network of relationships requires extremely talented leadership in the European Union.
Published on 1 Aug, 2005
Patience is one of the more difficult challenges of being human
Nine ways to develop this important “muscle” and reap its mental health benefits.
Published on 1 Jul, 2020
When is it appropriate to share decision-making power as a leader?
Leaders shape their organisation through the decisions they take; it is one of the main expressions of their power. In fact, it can be seen as their main role. In this blog, Christopher explores how leaders can overcome the binary top-down/bottom-up perspective to leadership and decision-making.
Published on 4 Dec, 2018