“There is a crack in everything…that's how the light gets in”
So says the late, great philosopher, poet and singer Leonard Cohen. He is talking about us and our humanity. As a leader, I’ve certainly struggled with my ‘cracks’ and vulnerabilities.
Leaders want to do well, they want to succeed, they want to be on top of their game, they want to get things done, they want to achieve their goals, they want to bring others along with them. They want to present a polished exterior, because they don't want to be seen as fragile, weak, failing, falling, or the cause of problems for others. But the truth is, we are all a little cracked, a little damaged and far from complete. None of us have it all together, however much we try to pretend - like peacocks showing off their feathers - that all is fine with us. The key to developing the muscle of moral leadership is not about perfection, it’s about integrity, honesty and humility.
Failure, Suffering and Pressure reveal the cracks within us as leaders, that are so easily labelled as weakness. In reality these could be seen as three friends who offer us the light with which to do some serious leadership development within ourselves.
What is the Role of failure in leadership?
We will all fail. It’s impossible to achieve anything without falling down, picking yourself up, falling down again and picking yourself up again. Lincoln failed as a businessman and was impractical and temperamental as a lawyer. Churchill failed at school, failed to get into Sandhurst Military Academy and had the searing failure of the Dardanelles Campaign, that haunted him most of his life. Freud was booed off the stage when he presented his first academic paper. Jack Welsh practically blew up the laboratory at the start of his career at GE. Edison failed 1000 times before he got it right with the light bulb.
There are all kinds of failures. Moral failures, because we broke the principles we looked at in Chapter 2; burnout failures, because we were trying to run at a pace we couldn't sustain; knowledge failures, because we didn't do our homework; relational failures, because good friendships turned sour; HR failures, where we dealt badly with someone’s poor performance and it rebounded on us.
The issue is not so much the failure, but whether we got the wisdom from it.
Did we learn from the failure? How much time did we spend processing the experience on our own, with our journal, or with a trusted mentor or coach, to harvest the learning out of what felt like failure?
What is the role of suffering?
Suffering is anything that disrupts us with pain. I have had cancer twice and while I have gained so much through the experience, I would be lying if I pretended that it hadn’t disrupted me and caused me pain. There is physical pain, there is psychological pain and mental pain. I have a Coach and he openly admits that he struggles a lot with his mental health, but strangely that's why I go to him…. because his pain has made him who he is, a deeply perceptive coach.
Suffering reveals the cracks, it doesn’t make them. The cracks are there and hidden from our sight, but the suffering reveals what has always been quietly undermining our fitness for moral leadership.
Letting life open me up and not making light of the suffering, by shrugging it off, is the key here. Suffering either opens you up to become a bigger person, or it closes you down and it makes you a smaller person.
We can try to minimize the immediate suffering by saying to ourselves and others that it doesn't matter, or embrace it to reveal the powerlessness and challenge of the personal change that is needed.
What is the role of Pressure?
If you look at the anatomy of most moral failures they happen when we are under pressure. Why? When we are under pressure it forces the hairline cracks to split open. When we are under pressure, we don't have time or mental space to work out what the right response is, we resort to allowing our old defaults to kick in.
Study corporate failures like Enron and you see these incredible multi layers of pressures.
- There was the pressure of the market and Wall Street on the Directors
- There was the pressure of the Directors greed and dishonesty
- There was pressure on everyone through Enron’s ruthless performance management system
- There was the pressure not to blow the whistle
- There was the pressure of abuse and shaming – ‘you’re not with us; you’re not one of us; you don't belong in this team; you’re not up to it are you!”
- There was the pressure of hierarchy – one boss pushing hard down on another boss, who is pushing hard down on the next level below
And then there are all the internal pressures we bring to these situations – our own ambitions, values and ego’s.
Working with the cracks, forced open by pressure, suffering and failure, allows the light of self-awareness to come streaming in and gives us the opportunity to increase our leadership wisdom, by learning new defaults, mindsets and behaviors.
- Moral leadership means owning our vulnerabilities
- Everyday life gives us opportunity to grow, in the shape of Failures, Suffering and Pressure
- Embracing the reality of our ‘cracks’ and working with the wisdom they can give us is a core leadership skill
- Take one area of your life in recent weeks where you have been affected by failure, suffering or pressure. Journal for 10 minutes to downloaded everything your learned/ are learning from it.
- Reflect on the difference between the word weakness and vulnerable?
Reframe the word ‘weakness’, with the word ‘vulnerability’ and give yourself permission to both be human and to grow.
This is an adapted extract from Chapter 7: of the book
Doing The Right Thing – Getting Fit For Moral Leadership, by Trevor Waldock
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More leadership blogs at www.trevorwaldock.net