The Leadership Paradox

Stephanie Denning, Forbes   •   December 30, 2018

“The most effective leaders I’ve seen in any setting―business, government, nonprofit―are driven by purpose, mission, and the sense that their work is making the world a better place.”  ―Brian Gallagher in Harvard Business Review

Every December, when the new year starts speeding towards you, there’s a brief moment, before you get on board, when you stop to reflect on the choices you’ve made, and what, if anything, you would like to do differently.

For many, this year in review overwhelmingly felt dominated by politics. Amidst such a tense political landscape, political catastrophe appears to be staring us in the face and yet for many of us very little has changed in our day-to-day lives. What had I done this year, I thought, to really create change?

I recently had dinner with a group of friends, all of us living somewhere along the coasts, when one person facetiously declared that he was moving to South Dakota in the new year to affect change.

I believed in the power of any individual to create change but I also knew it wasn’t self-evident. People are often only anointed leadership-status based on the scale of their platform. We were all stuck in some version of the leadership paradox. How do you create the platform you need in order to create the change you want to see, we wondered.

Friend: It’s like crystals. My theory on crystals is that they’ve become popular because of the outrageous cost of healthcare. You need to find your version of crystals.

South Dakota: You should just get into self-help. You should become the next Brene Brown.

My friends might have offered the advice in jest, but the next day, I bought and read Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. (Random House Publishing Group, 2018.)

Two Models Of Leadership

Brene covers two models of leadership. The first she labels “Armored Leadership,” a style of leadership defined by the following characteristics:

  1. Driving perfectionism and fostering fear
  2. Working from scarcity and squandering opportunities for joy and recognition
  3. Numbing
  4. Propagating the false dichotomy of victim or Viking, crush or be crushed
  5. Being a knower and being right
  6. Hiding behind cynicism
  7. Using criticism as self-protection
  8. Using power over
  9. Hustling for our wroth
  10. Leading for compliance and control
  11. Weaponizing fear and uncertainty
  12. Rewarding exhaustion as a status symbol and attaching productivity to self-worth
  13. Tolerating discrimination, echo chambers, and “fitting in” culture
  14. Collecting gold stars
  15. Zigzagging and avoiding
  16. Leading from hurt

Armored Leadership is the style of leadership most of us accidentally fall into. By any account, Armored Leadership is the type of leadership currently used to govern the United States. Organizations, too, support and breed Armored Leadership. It can certainly be effective. But at what cost?

“Today we pay a lot of lip service to the idea of ‘bringing your whole self to work’—yet the organizations that actually allow employees to do that are few and far between….what I often observe is that many organizational cultures and leaders still subscribe to the myth that if we sever the heart (vulnerability and other emotions) from our work, we’ll be more productive, efficient, and (don’t forget) easier to manage….These beliefs lead us to consciously or unconsciously build cultures that require and reward armor….where heart and emotion, especially vulnerability, are seen as liabilities….”

Few organizations or people graduate to the second leadership model Brown profiles, “Daring Leadership.” This style of leadership, by contrast, is defined by very different characteristics based on vulnerability:

  1. Modeling and encouraging healthy striving, empathy, and self-compassion
  2. Practicing gratitude and celebrating milestones and victories
  3. Setting boundaries and finding real comfort
  4. Practicing integration―strong back, soft front, wild heart
  5. Being a learner and getting it right
  6. Modeling clarity, kindness, and hope
  7. Making contributions and taking risks
  8. Using power with, power to, and power within
  9. Knowing our value
  10. Cultivating commitment and shared purpose
  11. Acknowledging, naming, and normalizing collective fear and uncertainty
  12. Modeling and supporting rest, play, and recovery
  13. Cultivating a culture of belonging, inclusivity, and diverse perspectives,
  14. Giving gold stars
  15. Straight talking and taking action
  16. Leading from the heart

Daring Leadership can sound soft. But it takes a very confident and assured leader to adopt this more advanced kind of leadership. It’s usually after experiencing the suboptimal outcomes of Armored Leadership that we choose to graduate to Daring Leadership.

A Modern Definition Of Leadership

Oftentimes we identify leadership with those who are in a position of power. The dictionary reinforces this idea with its definition of leadership: “the action of leading a group of people or an organization.” But by today’s standards, that definition is outdated and narrow. You do not need to lead a group or an organization to be a leader. You can lead at any level, at any given time. (If anything, this year has taught us that.) A better definition of leadership should include courage: “The ability to do something that frightens one.”

It’s the paths that ask you to face vulnerability, that ask you to face your fears, that ask you to come into your own power that define leadership. Brown advocates that a real leader is someone who is willing to be vulnerable. “The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome,” Brown writes.

On a subconscious level, we probably already know this, which is why we gravitate towards leaders who have thought through what they want to accomplish in their lives, usually for the greater good, and then set about trying to figure out how to do it, no matter how indirect or imprecise the path may be. It’s probably also why when we adopt this style of leadership, we feel most like ourselves.

“Choosing to live and love with our whole hearts is an act of defiance. You’re going to confuse, piss off, and terrify lots of people—including yourself. One minute you’ll pray that the transformation stops, and the next minute you’ll pray that it never ends. You’ll also wonder how you can feel so brave and so afraid at the same time. At least that’s how I feel most of the time….brave, afraid, and very, very alive.”

We can only step into Daring Leadership, as Brown suggests, when we step out of our defensive crouch. Realizing that leadership already lives within us is the genesis of creating change. Only then can the work we do really transcend us. Because our work, whatever it may be, ultimately isn’t just for the betterment of ourselves, but should always be for the betterment of others.

That’s a lesson we could all take with us into the new year.

Stephanie Denning is a Forbes Contributor. Article originally published here

By |2019-01-27T16:54:57+00:00December 30th, 2018|Latest Articles|