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This post is based on Ed Kless‘ presentation at Sage Summit called “Healing Leadership,” which in turn is based on the book of the same title by Ed’s mentor Howard Hansen.”

Leadership, Ed posits, is fundamentally broken. Leadership itself is in need of healing. There are many books on this topic that may actually engender more problems instead of solve them. Therefore, the session was based on one of the few books that rejects traditional notions of leadership: “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix” by Edwin H. Friedman. In addition to addressing the issue that leadership needs to be healed, Ed also suggested that good leadership can actually be healing. Here are a few takeaways from the conversation.

  1. Leaders and innovators evaluate new ideas and solutions with an open mind. Instead of asking, “who has done this before?” ask: what do we want to create? What could we learn from others who have attempted this?” If you’re only ever traveling roads that others have walked, you’re not in the business of creating.
  2. Leaders take responsibility for the relationships they are in. Leaders understand that they are responsible for their actions and that, while they cannot change others, they can work on themselves. For example, in a struggling relationship, a leader must ask: am I committed to this relationship? Do I want it to succeed? If not, you should exit the relationship. However, if so, the responsibility is yours alone to stay in it, and work on yourself.
  3. Leaders build an environment for the people they want and the people they trust. This is in stark contrast to the reactionary habit of creating policies around the behaviors of the least mature people in the organization. If your organization has a culture of responding to immature behavior by creating new policies, then you are guilty of this. This causes organizational gridlock, makes your happy people miserable, and is a symptom of avoiding dealing with the actual problem. The person causing the issue is the one you need to speak with, correct, or eliminate.
  4. Leaders re-frame questions instead of always looking for answers. Sometimes the issue needs to be further interrogated as a first step. For example: Is this what we should be doing? What are the other ways we could approach the issue? What do you think our options are?
  5. Leaders use humor, not anxiety. Humor is one of the most powerful tools a leader can deploy. It disarms and lowers tension. Too many leaders fall into tropes based on transactional anxiety. The “power” trope tries to influence others to do what you want them to do. The “rescuing” trope tends to work to rescue people from the bad decisions they’ve made. Instead, if you can lower the baseline of anxiety by breathing and not getting immediately embroiled in interpersonal problems, you will be closer to creating a leadership culture of confident calm.

In discussing the ideal leader, Friedman says that he does not mean “someone who autocratically tells others what to do or coercively orders them around, although any leader who defines him- or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Rather, I mean someone who has clarity about his or her life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”

Check out Friedman’s book here for further enrichment.

Leadership

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