Reflective Leaders Needed in the Age of Rage (2016)

Graham Ward

"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.


Reflective action


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.


  • First, leaders need to make an imaginative leap into the emotional world of their followers, to identify the prevalent feelings. They need to call those feelings out. If they are wrong they will stand corrected, both vulnerable yet courageous.
  • Secondly, and importantly, leaders need to learn the habit of listening both actively and critically, recognizing and acknowledging their own defensive. To that end, they need sparring partners with whom they can parse information, offload their own feelings and problem solve. This can take the form of a coach, chairperson, mentor or trusted advisor.
  • Finally, leaders need to take into account the other constituencies that connect them to the outside world: customers, shareholders and broader society. Reflectively seeking to understand will mitigate misjudged statements.


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, 2016

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