How to Redesign Leadership w/New Strength
The old, outmoded understanding of strength depends on exerting power over people in a zero-sum game of dominance contests, oppression, and exclusion. This kind of "strength" is all too familiar. You’ve probably worked in teams led by insecure bullies, aloof neglectful supervisors, or witnessed mysterious decisions being made by members of the old-boys-club. Or perhaps you notice yourself relying on it when you're stressed out or insecure.
This “old strength” leadership creates dependency or resentment instead of empowerment and it stifles creativity. Organizations led this way are too rigid to pivot when conditions change, and too hierarchical and guarded to develop a new generation of innovative leaders. Old strength leadership dooms individual leaders, their organizations, and, ultimately, the culture. Unfortunately, this old leadership mode prevails when individuals haven’t done the inner work to replace it or when outdated structures prevent new modes of thinking and sharing power.
Years ago, I was promoted to a top leadership position for which I was just barely qualified for. The combination of my drive to do well and my fear of failure caused me to drop everything I knew about collaborative, servant leadership. I became demanding, rigid and aloof. I was a drill sergeant when I should have been a mentor. I was so afraid of judgement from above and the tenuousness of my position that I fought with my direct-reports over capitalization standards in their weekly reports. This top-down approach sabotaged my relationships with my team and their performance plummeted. Instead of investigating my role in the dysfunction, I doubled down on my power-over, oppressive leadership and while feeling more and more frustrated, lonely, and scared.
I came close to ruining the organization and my career.
Fortunately, my board believed enough in my potential to call me to the carpet and get me some executive coaching.
I could have chosen a performance-oriented coach who could have given me some tips and exercises for better collaboration and listening. Indeed, I offer some similar tips at the end of this post. But I knew my fall-back leadership habits were deeply rooted in unhealthy self-concept AND an outmoded understanding of what leadership actually IS. In order to really shift myself decisively from one leadership mode to another, I chose a coach skilled in deep, transformational techniques.
The work I did with my coach started off with an assignment to describe my leadership style. I was stymied. That fact that I could not even describe my style or explain what I was trying to do with my leadership was a strong indication that I was leading from an automatic, un-self-reflective place and therefore susceptible to all the ingrained but unhelpful cultural memes about Old Strength leadership.
As my coach and I continued, he introduced mindfulness meditation to help me shift out of fear and anxiety and into a more confident, conscious readiness for change. We then tackled the task of personal purpose definition. My coach had the good sense to make sure I approached this part of the work from a deeply personal perspective. Rather than just ask me what I thought my purpose was and to list my broad goals, he had me imagine my own death and funeral [gulp] and write down what I would like said about me at that memorial. After staring at a blank page for a handful of minutes, embarrassed at the prospect of eulogizing myself, I found the words pouring out of my pen. I discovered how much I cared about leaving a lasting, meaningful impact with my work. AND I realized how much that impact would depend on my relationships with people… not my ego, not my ideas, but my relationships.
This reflective inner work helped me understand that my worth as a human was not and is not tied to my place in a rigid hierarchy but to how much I’m able to lift other people up so that they feel powerful. I was now ready to move my frightened ego out of the way and into its proper place behind purpose, impact, relationships, and the greater good. With deep introspection and support, I discovered that beneath my fear of failure was a powerful passion for the organization and its work. That passion gave me the courage to ask my team (the same team I’d battered with unreasonable demands and unceasing control) for help to become a better leader. Over the next few years we thrived and succeeded together, tripling the impact of our programs while keeping the budget contained.
Here are my key learnings from my fall-back and recovery:
My personal story is not an exceptional one. Despite decades of organizational change research and cultural progress, old, outmoded, unhelpful, and unhealthy leadership styles and modes remain in our psyches and systems. You can see old strength ideas in quotes like:
Fortunately, even with the prevalence of old school leadership memes, practices, and expectations in our culture, it is possible to shift leadership modes and organizational culture toward those powered by New Strength. For individuals, deep, transformational work may be required. For organizations, a thorough audit of practices and procedures may have to take place.
Call to Action
Take the simple leadership assessment that Lisa Barnwell and I created. It will help you determine how much of your leadership style is unhelpful and how much is based on brave New Strength. At the end of the assessment, you’ll have access to some additional leadership resources.
In the meantime, Choose 2-3 of the following personal leadership actions to try on for size.
Also, if it is in your power, consider making some institutional changes like the one’s below.
You can take these actions to consciously push back against any unconscious or habitual use of old strength leadership. Try it out and let me know how it goes! I suspect you will find relief and relationships that sustain you and your mission.
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Charles Matheus grew up in an old mining town in Arizona. He managed to graduate from an Ivy League University and knows that you won't hold that against him.