Leading From Authenticity Rather Than Fear
Who wouldn’t want to be a hero? It is easy to get the sense from our current leaders that the preferred model of leadership in society is one of heroism. There is a great deal to commend heroism and aspects of it that we find seductive and alluring, but a great deal also that can be damaging and counter-productive. Most of us would be willing to follow our heroes; some of us would be happier being the hero ourselves, especially in the face of seemingly impossible challenges. I grew up as a young boy watching and adoring heroes – that stood out because they could solve the impossible. War movies, Westerns, space missions, climbing mountains – films that fed a young boy’s belief in larger than life characters. But as I get older, and as we face this new unprecedented challenge, I have a suspicion that the drive to identify heroes, and the drive to be heroes might act against us. Whilst we may acknowledge a common appetite for, or for some a tendency towards, the heroic, let’s also recognise that whilst ‘many are called, few are chosen’. Few of us, if any, will really achieve that grade, and instead we will be surrounded by (and will show ourselves as) fallible human beings. Let’s accept that and know that often, that can be more than enough. A recent Harvard Business Review reflected on the fact that across the world we are sharing successful lessons that we have learned, but perhaps not sharing lessons learned from failure. Of course, the current environment might feel too vulnerable for that at the moment, but we are missing an huge opportunity for learning.
As part of a team building a surge hospital in our National Stadium (Dragon’s Heart Hospital), and designing and building up to 2000 beds in 4 weeks, I constantly feel a sense of fear, responsibility, and a deep sense of unreality. These are features of a phenomenon described as ‘imposter syndrome’. My wife is a Clinical Psychologist, and over breakfast (I know!) is talking regularly about the ‘tiger in the room’ during these days of the pandemic. For those of you who haven’t been ‘fortunate’ enough to have those mealtime briefings – the ‘tiger’ being the virus or the related seemingly impossible challenge or tasks on your shoulders. That ‘tiger’ is keeping our fight and flight response turned on far more than usual – perhaps acutely, and certainly for much longer than we often face. What do we do? Well it is certainly worth acknowledging that the tiger is there and not ignoring it. By being there, I feel for me, the tiger leads to us being far more reactive than we are used to, often acting from our ‘gut’, as though acutely threatened, rather from our heads and more strategically. Perhaps you, like me, have found yourself reacting in ways you don’t usually as you push this impossible challenge uphill? Perhaps you have noticed a tendency to micromanage slipping back in? Perhaps tempers are fraying, you feel low, disappointed, irritated and out of sorts? “Congratulations!” – you are human, and you are aware of it. Awareness may be key. Let’s try and accept the ‘tiger’ and how it may trigger us to react in different ways, and that we can step back from it, choose our response rather than react in a knee jerk way, and then lead from a different position. It is about acknowledging one’s weakness, learning from it, and leading with those lessons in mind, rather than leading from a position of unacknowledged (and therefore hidden) weakness itself.
Jon Kabat Zin, the US mindfulness leader, talked this week about the need to be ‘our best selves’ at this time – for ourselves, our families and our communities. I want to suggest that for most of us, our best selves are not ‘heroic’, but that our best self is when we acknowledge the ‘tiger in the room’, and step back, make choices about our responses, lead from a position of authenticity not reactivity, and demonstrate that for our ourselves so others feel safe to do so.
I am sure there are heroes out there – I certainly know a number of people who are heroes to me, and I am proud to work with some. However, I don’t think we need heroes to get through the challenge ahead. I suggest we need great teams, built with leaders being their ‘best selves’, and authentically acknowledging their humanity in the face of fear, stepping away from flight or fight mode, enabling others to achieve the outcomes we need. In the words of one of my heroes – Marshall Ganz – “Leadership is accepting responsibility to create conditions that enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.”
Whatever it is that helps you be your best self, not the one in fear of that ‘tiger’, go do it! Be that exercise, meditation, sleep, talking to a trusted mentor – I suggest all of those are needed in these crazy times. Make sure you are doing it so you can take your best self into the leadership positions you occupy – and leave the heroes to the movies.
Next blog (coming soon): Fire Break! Be the leader who breaks the train of transmission of fight/flight response
There is something more contagious and damaging to our fight than even COVID itself. It is reactive, fight/flight repossess. Highly contagious and leaders are probably the most dangerous vectors of this condition! Yes we have to work fast, yes we have to work long hours, yes there is a tiger in the room (see previous blog).
But we also need to step away, we need to engage our frontal cortex more than ever and not run on our amygdala. Just think what we are passing on to our teams!
About the author
Prof. Jonathon Gray has over twenty years of experience in the field of health and is an expert in healthcare improvement and innovative service development. He is the executive lead for the transformation of the largest temporary hospital in Wales; Ysbyty Calon Y Ddraig-Dragon’s Heart Hospital. Jonathon is also the Executive Director of Transformation at the Cardiff & Vale University Health Board.”