Menu Close

The biggest mistake with our perception of successful leadership

In a world dominated by popularity polls, division and how ‘exciting’ a leader should be, Dr Karen Morley explains the crucial traits that real leadership needs today.

Successful Leadership

I was staggered to see a news article entitled ‘Joe Biden isn’t exciting’. I read on to discover the article claimed that it was a good thing that he wasn’t. I am dismayed by the continuation of this either–or personality cult of the leader.

My strong hope is that we stop promoting misleading caricatures that too frequently limit discussion about leaders and what we expect from them.

I was heartened by the key themes from the US Presidential inauguration – reconciliation, healing, openness and renewal – that pave the way for a better kind of leadership. One that is about followers, community and nation, not an individual.

The kind of leadership we need was encapsulated beautifully in the poem written and performed by Amanda Gorman, the “skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother”. Her poem laid a framework for the role of the leader, and the leadership role for everyone in the community, which is to invoke:

  • Hope – not broken but simply unfinished
  • Acceptance – far from polished and pristine but we don’t need perfection
  • Purpose – striving to forge a union of purpose
  • Connection – we seek harm to none and harmony for all
  • Creation of common ground – from every nook of our nation our people will emerge
  • Inspiration – there is always light

Gorman’s advocacy of ‘both and’ was a wise poetic lesson. To be a fully-fledged 21st century human society, to enjoy our progress and do something useful with it, we need to be able to accept differences, navigate dilemmas and resolve complex paradoxes.

When we promote extremes – exciting versus not exciting – we fixate on binary, and extremism results. It is inbuilt in humans to categorise. In or out, good or bad, black or white; that’s our default. Yet here we’ve been given a wonderful lesson in abandoning extremes and creating something that truly represents the sum of all we are. It shows that we don’t need all of our leadership guidance from the guy in the top job; what we need is a leader who will encourage such voices to flourish.

The task of the true leader is to lead across contradiction and paradox, to face into the dilemmas that thrive within the rich mix of humanity they govern. We are diverse and contradictory; we have competing commitments and needs. And the job of the leader is to guide and help us to reconcile our differences and meet our needs.

We need to stop asking our leaders for quick fixes when there aren’t any. We need to be helped to understand the complexity of our lives and our world and to understand the different stories and experiences of our community. We need to unite to share in the challenges of creating better fixes.

We need to be shown that the quick simple solutions that we keep asking for – the ones that get good spin treatment – aren’t what’s necessarily going to solve our problems and make life easier and more enjoyable.

We need to stop avoiding conflicting views and opinions and embrace disagreement as a way to develop better solutions that allow us all to prosper.

We need to stop expecting our leaders to be ‘in control’ all of the time; it’s yet another paradox. By retaining the illusion of control, leaders erode their ability to influence and stand in the way of the superpowers their position and status grants them.

Ron Heifetz wonderfully describes leaders as needing to be able to disappoint their followers at a rate they can tolerate. Disappointing people is part of the deal. It’s not just followers who need to stay with their leaders even when a decision is not to their liking; leaders themselves need to check their ego and not overplay to others’ disappointments.

We need to stop expecting leaders to be ‘exciting’. In doing so we shackle them to their egos and we to adoration of them. We are bound for quicker, deeper, disappointment when they stop exciting us. They are not responsible for our excitement. What we need them to be is a bigger person, able to learn and grow, to admit mistakes, to recover, to hold true to purpose.

“That is the promise… the hill we climb, if only we dare… If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Dr. Karen Morley is an Executive Coach, an authority on leadership coaching, and a thought leader on gender and inclusion.

Read next: Reasonable doubt is the leadership tactic you’ve never heard of

Leave a Reply