Cut ego down to size in leadership

By Martin Vogel

How can we presume to lead until we understand from where we’ve come?

Book review: Leadership for the Disillusioned by Amanda Sinclair

Amanda Sinclair published Leadership for the Disillusioned in 2007, shortly before the financial crisis that has done more than anything in my lifetime to undermine public trust in corporate leadership. It’s telling that the most resonant example she cites of leadership that chips away at our illusions is the collapse in 2001 of the energy company, Enron. The most resonant corporate scandal of its time, the Enron affair could nonetheless be explained away at the time as an isolated if grand case of fraud that didn’t call into question the contemporary view of corporate leadership as a largely benign practice that broadly benefits society. Since the banking crash, our social system has become more widely perceived as governed by an ideology of corporate self-interest that nearly brought society to its knees and continues to serve the enrichment of a tiny minority. Throw in (to name a few UK examples) the phone hacking scandal, the Mid-Staffs Hospital scandal and the Jimmy Savile scandal and, if there were grounds for disillusion in 2007, there is widespread acceptance now that leadership as traditionally construed faces a crisis of legitimacy.

Sinclair’s book brings home the extent to which corporate thinking shapes how we view leadership. We’re culturally attuned to a managerialist model that construes leadership as invested in figures of formal authority at the apex of hierarchies. Leaders are action-oriented and ego-driven, their self-regard pumped up by status or absurdly inflated remuneration. The trend towards authenticity in leadership is of a piece with such ego-massaging, encouraging managers to identify themselves with their work role and self-actualise by bending others to their agenda.

Because this view is so prevalent, we collude in unrealistic expectations of what management can achieve and concede too much credit to corporate leaders when things work out. Sinclair, a teacher of leadership in Australia, documents how most people in positions of authority experience feelings of powerlessness. She puts this down to social relations which trap people into systems of domination. This may indeed be part of the answer. Another part is that collectively we fail to recognise that the complex scenarios in which we lead do not lend themselves to resolution by the exercise of management power. It is a blindspot of managerialism that complex decisions, where there is no obvious right answer, call for orientations that are not part of the armoury of heroic, ego-driven leadership: humility, comfort with uncertainty, experimentation and tolerance of failure. As Sinclair observes, following leadership orthodoxy can be the antithesis of leadership.

Sinclair criticises leadership orthodoxy for its fixation on the “how”. Its object, she says, is enlisting people into organisationally mandated goals:

“This traditional view of leadership rests on the flawed assumption that it is the job of leaders to change the behaviours, actions and beliefs of others. This assumption should be challenged as neither feasible nor morally defensible. To use one’s role as a leader primarily to transform others is often to treat people as instruments – as a means to someone else’s ends.”

She complains that there is insufficient consideration given to the “why” of leadership, its purposes. I would quibble with this. It may be more accurate to say that the purposes of corporate leadership have become misguided: too focussed on the instrumental interests of the organisation and its senior leadership; not focussed enough on the organisation’s broader responsibilities to customers, staff and society. Consequently, the “who” of leadership is too narrowly construed as well. If the corporate view of leadership is that it is invested in those who are formally in charge, the reality is that it is distributed widely – including among those who are delivering the organisation’s purpose on the front line and those in the organisation who are resistant or hostile to the official leaders’ intent. Leadership is everywhere. But, as Sinclair observes, so prevalent is the managerialist view that many people she encounters who exercise influence as leaders won’t recognise themselves as such – preferring to describe themselves as change agents, community organisers or whatever. The job of leadership, she maintains, is to liberate so that more people can exercise their leadership – though she recognises that to what end is likely to be a contested matter.

If we accept her argument that how we view leadership needs to change, it follows that the work of developing leaders must also adapt. Sinclair describes her experiments in teaching leadership differently: moving away from an approach that is concerned with banking ideas of how to do leadership towards one which aims to foster experience of how to be a leader. She is keen on self-awareness – but not in the sense of a narcissistic shaping of one’s leadership style in pursuit of self-actualisation, more an enquiry into how we are shaped as leaders by where we have come from. This entails exploring one’s family and cultural background and deconstructing what she calls the “implicit leadership theories” that we carry based on how we were formed as children. This challenges another blindspot in management, which offers leaders ahistorical prescriptions for present action. But how can we presume to lead until we fully understand from where we’ve come? Sinclair draws on stories of leaders from groups who have been marginalised from power – such as indigenous Australians and women – to show how life experience can shape approaches to leadership that eschew the norms of the corporate model but are nonetheless highly effective.

She also advocates cultivating awareness of how our bodies influence how we show up as leaders and using mindfulness to become more grounded:

“In my experience of leadership development, encouraging people to be in their bodies more consciously changes their mindset towards themselves and others. It can foster a capacity to read and feel more empathically what is going on for others as well as for oneself… Working with a sense of one’s own body is a reminder of mortality and a check on feelings of invincibility and hubris. Awareness of bodily symptoms such as bowed posture or shallow breathing allows leaders to come into the present, to pay attention to others, to notice where they themselves ‘are’ physically and mentally, and to put issues into perspective.”

She pulls it all together into an approach that she describes as “less-ego leadership” – not, you will note, ego-less leadership. She recognises that ego has its place in leadership but asks that it show up with less grandiosity. Less-ego leadership draws, to some extent, on Robert Greenleaf’s notion of servant leadership. It concerns itself with connection with others and helping them to realise their aims and downplays questions of shoring up one’s own status.

It characteristics include:

  • A relationship with oneself that is reflective but not anxiously preoccupied with securing the self or personal reward.
  • Less striving towards goals and struggling to prove oneself, more attention to being present in the moment.
  • Being with others in ways that do not use them for our own purposes.
  • Abandoning the pursuit of leadership as a means to a greater self so as to open to new ways of being.
  • An appetite for doubting simplistic solutions and a commitment to the test of daily conduct.

A good list. I would add to it less focus on organisational imperatives and more attention to what society asks of one as a leader.

None of this comes easy. Sinclair’s inclusion of “a test of daily conduct” hints that this is the work of developing a discipline of intent as much as anything else. The commitment she recommends is to the daily practice of meditation:

“Meditation encourages a detachment from the self in order to see how the mind acts as master and servant, prison guard and escapee. It encourages a detachment from attachment – that is, it enables us to see that our feelings towards others are often clinging and instrumental rather than the expressions of love or concern that we claim. Meditation encourages us to move from a stance of needing others to validate ourselves to a condition of non-judgmental compassion towards self and others. Meditation, in most traditions, is also supportive of efforts to expose the limitations of thinking – of illusions and false dichotomies. By dispassionately watching and then detaching from the mind, there is movement towards a purer, less cluttered sense of being. The sharp boundaries of ‘self’ become less important, replaced by a sense of connection with the whole.”

Back in 2007, Sinclair was writing this before the fashion for mindfulness in corporate life took hold. Far from presenting it, as has become common, as panacea that can further various instrumental objectives at work – less stress, enhanced performance and so on – she portrays meditation as a foundation for an approach to leadership that detaches from all that noise. I concur with the whole passage. But for me, the kernel of truth is that meditation encourages non-judgmental compassion towards oneself and others.

In our stressful work environments, the quality of non-judgment is rare. Corporate life is intolerant of error and we internalise this attitude – putting pressure on ourselves and others to get it right. It would be easy to carry over this attitude into the pursuit of less-ego leadership. But few of us are likely to be paragons. A practice of mindfulness can not only help us to be more grounded and liberating as leaders, but it can also help us to be kind to ourselves when we fall short of the ideal.

Leadership for the Disillusioned, by Amanda Sinclair. Available from Amazon.

Image of Audre Lorde courtesy K.Kendall.

Hat tip: Chris Grey.