Conscious Leadership

The Perils of Leadership

Written by Charlie Efford

Have you noticed how many of our top leaders have been deposed in the last few months? I have and I wonder what’s going on. Are we weeding out an under-performing elite or is something else happening? First, let me list some of the recent casualties.

  • Sean Price, Chief Constable of Cleveland Police
  • Sir Norman Bettison, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police
  • George Entwistle, BBC Director General
  • Bob Diamond, CEO of Barclays
  • Christopher Kubasik President, Lockheed Martin
  • David Patraeus – Director of the CIA

Each resignation has a plausible explanation, but when the group is viewed as a whole it seems that a lot of executive talent is disappearing all at once. So what could be happening?

Two separate streams of thought occurred to me

An increase in Human Consciousness

It seems to me that all over the world the collective level of consciousness is rising. People are waking up and questioning and challenging the authority of those in power. Dictators are being overthrown and new leaders chosen. In the West we haven’t returned to revolution, but our awareness of the way power is used (and abused) is growing. We are less obedient and view our leaders with more suspicion than ever before. In this light, removing those who fall short of the standards we expect is not surprising. Some of these leaders have left honourably, some have had their arms twisted with considerable vigour and a few have been deposed.  I hope all have realised that the authority that comes with leadership is a privilege and not a right.

Collective Madness

Wilfred Bion in his theory of group dynamics argued that for every functioning group there are actually two groups present; a “work” group that allows the members to operate rationally and service the task, and a “basic assumption” group that describes the collective emotional state of the members. When the “work group” is to the fore the group operates effectively and is focused However, there are times when the group stops functioning and “descends into madness”. In these moments the “basic assumptions” take over. Bion identified three basic assumptions:

  • Dependency – where the group looks to a leader for salvation in a bid for security
  • Fight / Flight – where the group comes together to tackle or avoid a threat
  • Pairing – where the group splits into factions as members look to partners for support

The basic assumption that I suspect is contributing to the downfall of so many leaders is “Dependency”. When the group is operating from a position of dependency, it seeks to achieve security through the protection afforded by a powerful and omniscient leader. The leader may be idealized into a kind of god who can resolve all issues. However, resentment at being dependent may eventually lead the group members to “take down” the leader, and then search for a new one to repeat the process.

The “taking down” can be brutal and to some extent reflects my unease at the witch hunts I see going on in the media as senior leaders are deposed.

Whether we are losing senior leaders through our reclamation of power or through our collective madness is open to debate. Whichever view you take, there are some powerful issues for those who want to lead.

The obvious question is why would anyone want to take on these high profile roles if they are liable to be deposed or found out for misdemeanours that would have gone unnoticed in the past? I can only speculate – and guess that the allure of power is too tempting. However, power has an uncanny abiliy to corrupt. My advice therefore would be – find a way to stay connected with the people you serve. If you can operate ethically from this perspective you should avoid the temptation to get yourself into trouble.

Being grounded and ethical doesn’t help you when your team descends into “madness” though. Even the good guys get chopped when this happens.  To avoid this fate I suggest developing your awareness so that you can pick up the warning  signs early on. Notice when the group starts looking to you to solve all their problems. Notice when they put you on a pedestal and expect you to deliver miracles.  It is flattering to be adored in this way – and you are being set up for a fall.

When these signs occur your best bet is to say something – notice out loud what is happening and resist the temptation to be the Messiah. Don’t get sucked into promising all will be OK, do acknowledge the fear (which is often present) so that you and your team can deal with the issues – not brush them under the carpet. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if our politicians admitted they are not sure what the answers are, but with our help they can discover the way forward? Can they take the risk to be “Real”? or are they going to carry on giving us the same old flannel?

I think you know the answer – and I wonder who is going to get the chop next!

About the author

Charlie Efford

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