Some years ago, I co-wrote a book called, Driving Fear Out of the Workplace, regarding the dynamics of speaking up in organizations. My co-author and I described typical “undiscussable” issues – undiscussables being issues that people hesitate to talk about with those who can do something about the problem – and how to approach them to create a more open workplace. Based on interviews from a wide range of organizations, we spelled out the reasons people most frequently don’t speak up, the negative effects of that and we also suggested specific techniques that enlightened managers might use to create high trust, high performance environments. The publication of this book propelled me into a national consulting practice with private and public sector clients of all kinds.
What I quickly discovered as a leadership consultant was this: if you want to drive fear out of the workplace you must start by fostering courage among its leaders. At its simplest, this courage comes in three forms: the courage to listen to difficult messages, the courage to have a real voice, and the courage to act from a strong sense of personal purpose. These, in my view, are the most important interpersonal tasks of a leader, the ones that either build or undermine trust, that either lead to shared, collaborative, aligned action, or to desertion of a leadership role in favor of formal power and control. These tasks are not for the faint-hearted and, because of the depth of human potentials, they are never-ending.
The outcome of mastering these challenges is the development of a relational field among people that is open and mutually influential, a place of dialogue even when people otherwise might seem disconnected from one another. It is the place where the “best selves” of people show up, where there is a free give and take of feedback with a minimum of tension or indirection. It is filled with the stories of lives as much as the stories of work, a place a seriousness, laughter, play and difficult but worthwhile combined efforts. It is the home of trust. To reach this place requires a new journey each time people come together and especially when people are new to one another. For the leader is requires reflection, the process of opening and challenging oneself to ever greater levels of awareness.
The first form of courage involves listening to others’ challenging personal views and perspectives, especially when that involves negative perceptions about the leader. In many organizations, taking the risk to bring such issues to the surface can easily savage a messenger’s reputation and credibility if not tenure in an organization. The term, “kill the messenger” is not folklore. It is an embedded part of American culture, although it may happen as a less conscious aspect of a leader’s style than is often imagined. Whether intended or not, however, before openness can replace fear, a leader must understand the dynamics of retaliation – which may not be a conscious act at all — and be able to sustain feedback that may be personally quite uncomfortable.
Over the years, some of my clients have had little trouble with this responsibility. They understand that hearing and acting upon the perceptions of their reports are critical supports for their leadership success. From the standpoint of their own integrity, these clients see hearing and understanding tough data an essential part of modeling what they want from others, particularly because it means modeling a standard for both speaking up and hearing others’ truths. They understand that feedback is useful, maybe even more useful, when it comes with a sting, and work hard to separate negative projections of others from constructive feedback. But other clients have had a very difficult time responding at all. They recoil into a sense of personal offense, rationalization, or inaction, as if the core of their integrity has been challenged by another’s disagreeable views, no matter how much truth is involved. This is such a profound distinction that it is perhaps worth noting as a fundamental test of whether someone should occupy a leadership role at all. Either a person can get feedback as a leader or cannot.
The second form of courage is as the energy needed to distinguish the leader’s presence from others. Courage liberates a personal and professional voice to become real, a true reflection of the essence and values of the person. People without authentic voices can never take the risks to serve as effective messengers within the complex of systems that keep us captured by the status quo. They have trouble setting boundaries for themselves and others in the scope of their professional responsibilities and are often under- or over-involved in the day-to-day work. They cannot usefully initiate change.
This is different from the classic term, “assertiveness.” Assertiveness as a stand-alone quality primarily implies adult-to-adult communication in order to get one’s needs met. Voice by comparison represents the broader qualities of a unique personality resulting from radical self-trust. It emerges from the hard work of learning to accept, love, and care for self; allowing the self to stand up to the invasions of others without becoming impermeable or cold. The very strongest of people with voice are more quiet than boisterous precisely because they need no artificial strengthening in order to be heard.
The third form of courage, and this kind undergirds the first two, is reflected by the will toward deep self-inquiry and therefore, after trials, meaningful self-knowledge. Those who cannot look into the private, subjective aspects of their own past conditioning are not likely to find a great purpose and a role through which to galvanize action. Money and the personal accumulation of it are not such a galvanizing purpose; in fact, money is usually just the opposite. Courage is required for wakefulness in life. The possession of too much wealth may keep people asleep by removing the learning that comes from adversity.
Without courage in these forms certain things decrease in likelihood: the desire to see reality for what it is; the articulation of a vision stronger than being better than others; the capacity for operating in a personally ethical manner when pressures mount to break principles. It might even be argued that the greatest of human virtues, compassion and the forgiveness of others, require courage, as these are hardly accessible to us without the personal strength to evaluate our own flaws.
Sadly, some leaders appear to believe just the opposite, that leading is really all about insensitivity to their own shadows, about hiding their voices in favor of manipulating circumstances – or using their voices simply to dominate, and about the denial of purposes that don’t serve corporate ends. Their methods are more about cover-ups, threats, and impersonal relationships than about honestly marshaling the great capacities of human communities and enterprises. In their view, ethical action and compassion are either simply naive or a matter for media relations. Because of the way society is constructed, these people nevertheless may end up in very powerful, controlling roles. This distinction was noted years ago by Ronald Heifetz of Harvard as the difference between an authority and a leader. My sense is that pure authority seeks to crush out leadership the way a male lion kills the cubs of its predecessor. By comparison, leaders spread their trust, encourage others to lead, and foster a broad vision in which all may participate.
What is clear is that each of the three tasks requires that we risk ourselves in one way or another. This is the foundation of trust. The lesson is that leaders who really want to drive fear out of the workplace, who want to create genuine openness, collaboration, and alignment, must take leadership personally. It is a road, a journey, a path to personal and societal wholeness. It is a transformation of the leader, but more importantly, the transformation of everyone else, too. This is pre-eminently not about blaming others for the problems of an organization or society at large, or setting ground rules for other people while breaking them yourself. It is about the deepest form of congruence; about the unfolding process of leading by learning more and more about oneself, sourced both in understanding one’s inner states and one’s external results.