On White Knights

White knight is the term we might give anyone who rides in at the last moment, pulls order out of chaos, saves the kingdom and wins the love of the people with a spirit of true virtue and innocence. In organizations the term can be applied to any new colleague or leader who has an answer and an ideal, an inspiring should. The term white knight can also apply to others, including and maybe especially consultants, who are there to save a workplace from some kind of distress. (I know the role well).

The problem with white knights is their naivety and their penchant for a little too much self-love, believing so deeply in their ideals and good intentions that they create a blind spot about their own superior behavior. They keep their clothes clean and stay out of the muck while generously diagnosing problems of good and evil, often good and bad leaders. In the end it’s no surprise the white knight often gets shot in the back for doing what seemed at the time to be the right thing.

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This is the view of leadership as heroism, of course. We appreciate the idealism but spurn the narcissism. We yearn for rescue but not a rescuer who then takes home a triumph as a personal possession.

My personal view of the real problem with white knights is that they are fundamentally uninvolved in the very thing they are saving. As they see it, they are not guilty of having helped create the problem they have ridden in to solve. It is this lack of a human stain that begs for a more complex story, one in which the knight is thrown from the horse. It’s only then, after the fact, that the knight has a chance to “come to,” potentially discovering a different kind of consciousness.

I think of a recent client, highly placed, specifically engaged to bring deep technical change to an organization with a history of lax controls, thick politics, and considerable waste. “I did this to myself,” he said to me honorably. “I put myself in this position.”

What he was referring to was how responsibly he took on his charge, attempting to single-handedly bring the organization systems and measures that would help the whole place rationalize the work. Months later, however, I’m called because his reputation is in jeopardy. While people honor his innate knowledge and even brilliance, many also feel he has called their competence into question. He seems to lack the requisite interpersonal skills, especially to those with less stature. There is an attitude of dismissal, a failure to get back to people on the problems they think are important while demanding rapid change on the problems he does. My job seemed to be to convince him that being pulled off one’s horse could be a good thing, that the challenge is a truly soulful one. The problem isn’t being a white knight, per se, but rather — I say in so many words to him — if you take a closer look at the muck into which you have fallen, you then have a chance to discover how your own personal evolution as a leader is part and parcel of the workplace and organizational changes that also need to be made.

We all have this part of us — the desire to act on others rather than to be with them as part of a shared struggle. It’s a triumph not so much of ego as a culturally valued analytical mindset that thinks rather mechanically and puts too much emphasis on the technical skills of the mechanic. But organizations are not toasters or automobiles. Equipment does not reach up and grab you to say, “I don’t like the way you are turning my screws.” Perhaps the screws do need to be turned, and in exactly this or that direction, but people will naturally defend themselves from what they see as emotional harm.

Many organizations in the midst of needed changes face these problems. Technically correct but emotionally destructive, the leaders defend their actions based on the logic of needed changes, but cannot understand its impacts in human, soulful terms. In such an environment, the compromised white knight must learn to honor the muck, stop pretending, voluntarily get down off the horse, listen to what people say they need, ask for advice, display personal learning, and above all be vulnerable. Having sat for awhile on the dung heap, that smarter white knight needs to do the “unthinkable” by both reaching in and reaching out.

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18 Comments

  • I often get on my high horse and ride off in all directions at once. Thanks for the reminder to reach in and out.

  • David, thank you. You are a generous spirit!

    All the best
    Dan

  • I was once hired as a part of a team to BE the White Knight and save the castle. Problem is that there was so much pressure to fix, we never had the time to understand. When we were above the disaster (that of course we did not start) we just saw the mess and ultimately, we became a part of the mess as we chose to tinker instead of quietly find clarity in the chaos.

    Insightful post, Dan and one that rings so true.

  • HI Alli~

    I love this line, “there was so much pressure to fix, we never had time to understand.” That’s a wonderful observation about a trap that’s so easy to fall into! Many thanks for taking a moment to share your experience and wisdom, Alli.

    Many best wishes
    Dan

  • Hi Dan,
    Your post delivers the essence of what not so great leaders do … stay detached.

    Your missive: “My personal view of the real problem with white knights is that they are fundamentally uninvolved in the very thing they are saving. ”

    Leaders who connect and can deliver both encouragement and realistic assessments unite teams in success. They move people past their own hangups and awaken greatness.

    In that sense great leaders do rescue the team from inner obstacles that could block success.

    Another tremendous post w/ imagery and poetry that takes us far.

    Thank you and best wishes!
    Kate

  • Beautifully written Dan. The thing about having ‘skin in the game’ comes to mind too. None of us, as sociatrists (organisational helpers) or leaders can absent ourselves from the systems we find ourselves in.

  • I have found myself in the role of white knight before, both as self-appointed and externally appointed. It’s interesting – and humbling – to consider the shadow side of white knighthood. I’m reminded of Stephen Covey’s 5th habit, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

    I’m also reminded of a story I heard this morning during my morning commute from Tara Brach’s audiobook, Radical Self-Acceptance. She described an episode from the legend of Parsifal, one of the young Arthurian knights seeking the Holy Grail, who was instructed by more senior knights not to ask any questions of an ailing king. A sorceress convinces him to challenge authority, and upon his simply asking the king “what aileth thee?”, the king is healed and prosperity is restored to the kingdom.

    My takeaway from that story – and the way I believe it relates here – is that questioning, humility and a genuine concern for the well-being of others are vital tools of any successful quest.

    Thanks for helping shed more light on the shadows and potential gold of white knighthood!

  • Dear Kate~

    Thank you, and I agree whole heartedly that leaders who can deliver realistic assessments integrated with encouragement are positioned to do great things. I believe that to do that, of course, you really do have to be an insider to the issues, to feel and experience them and show the capacity for true empathy while helping lift the bar that everyone must carry. In doing so they inspire with their example, influence without special techniques to do so, and as you say, “rescue the team from inner obstacles.”

    I very much appreciate all your contributions here, Kate. It’s always a pleasure to learn from you!

    Best
    Dan

  • Dear John~

    I wish I’d thought of that phrase, “skin in the game,” as I was writing. It is so apt!

    All the best
    Dan

  • Dear Joe~

    It’s always so great to see your words here! I love the reference to Parsifal, and Tara Brach’s book. The phrase that caught me on the pages you linked was this one from her:

    “…no matter how much we meditate or pray, we still need others to help us dismantle the walls of our isolation and remind us of our belonging. Remembering that we are connected to others and our world is the essence of healing.”

    Perhaps part of the lesson is that the White Knight who rigidly maintains isolation, even with the best of intentions, will be ineffective. It takes a certain amount of inner “sorcery” to manifest genuine, courageous engagement. The only way to heal the kingdom is to risk becoming part of it, to also heal as part of it, from the inside out. The corollary is that the Knight who refuses to get down from the horse voluntarily will be forcibly pulled off. Without that happening there’s no hope of true healing for anybody.

    All the best and thanks again, Joe, for stopping by with your usual acute observations!

    Dan

  • Once again, another brilliant post highlighting part of the root cause behind what currently ails and plagues us as a society…

    These are my favorite quotes from you post which so happen to remind me of a movie I watched just the other night with my daughters. Ender’s Game.

    The problem with white knights is their naivety and their penchant for a little too much self-love, believing so deeply in their ideals and good intentions that they create a blind spot about their own superior behavior.

    We appreciate the idealism but spurn the narcissism. We yearn for rescue but not a rescuer who then takes home a triumph as a personal possession.

    My personal view of the real problem with white knights is that they are fundamentally uninvolved in the very thing they are saving. As they see it, they are not guilty of having helped create the problem they have ridden in to solve.

    We all have this part of us — the desire to act on others rather than to be with them as part of a shared struggle.

    Technically correct but emotionally destructive, the leaders defend their actions based on the logic of needed changes, but cannot understand its impacts in human, soulful terms.

    Ender’s Game would be a perfect ‘imaginary’ case study on this whole topic of white knights and how we groom them. How WE are groomed to either be one ourselves and/or groom others to fill that role. This isn’t so much about who is to BLAME for it…that’s not really so important as to understand that our beliefs we’ve created collectively stem around this hero model and image.

    On the one hand, the good hero/heroine taps into significance that we each need to know and feel on an experential level in life. We need to believe that we matter. That each one of us has a purpose in life that is an important part of the collective whole. Yet balanced with a realistic understanding that there is no single solitary person that can SAVE the whole, or is more IMPORTANT then the whole, although someone may be inherently gifted with skills that the majority of the collective may not possess. Such as the case of a savant or extremely UNIQUE talent or intelligence.

    On the other hand, we also need to collectively understand how the powers that be intentionally (and unintentionally) prey upon the egos of the masses to groom us to fulfill their greed and meet needs. Exploiting the ego of someone who is gifted and intelligent like Ender was in order to build up certain aspects of his psyche so he could do the task they needed him to do.

    Narcissism is alive and well in the world, and the internet has enhanced our tendency to feed this side of ourselves. We can SAY anything in order to manipulate people to do what we want, we are so conditioned to believe the words before we experience any real modeling in action.

    I’ve mentioned this before in the pass a time or two when tweeting.. how the concept of leadership itself contains a trap from the outset, in that in order to buy into the concept of leadership AT ALL, we must believe that we are superior to others and that another person or group is inferior to ourselves.

    Ok…so I realize we aren’t getting rid of the word or system any time soon. It’s more of a recognition then anything else.

    WONDERFUL post my friend. Thanks for sharing.

  • Dear Samantha~

    What a great comment! You challenge us “to go up a level” in our awareness of how white knights are part of a larger system, how we are seduced into becoming them in order to hold fantasies of purpose while serving others with less sterling motives. As you say, this is mostly a matter of recognition, consciousness being an antidote for the subtle drug of narcissism.

    Thank you so much, my friend!

    Dan

  • What a keen reminder to get involved in the things we want to improve. Yes – we CAN become the change – and others see it in our tone and actions modeled. Thanks Dan!!!! Best, Ellen

  • Dear Ellen~

    Your energy and positivity lead the way!

    Dan

  • Lolly Daskal wrote:

    AMEN Dan!!!

    Your words that are worth repeating…

    Many organizations in the midst of needed changes face these problems. Technically correct but emotionally destructive, the leaders defend their actions based on the logic of needed changes, but cannot understand its impacts in human, soulful terms. In such an environment, the compromised white knight must learn to honor the muck, stop pretending, voluntarily get down off the horse, listen to what people say they need, ask for advice, display personal learning, and above all be vulnerable. Having sat for awhile on the dung heap, that smarter white knight needs to do the “unthinkable” by both reaching in and reaching out..

    Let us spread your message… it needs to be heard!

    Love this article.
    Lolly

  • Terrific, Lolly! Thank you so much!

    All the best
    Dan

  • Dan,

    A very insightful post. A key insight is that the white knight leaders are also the ones who created the situation. Some may look at the white knights of saving the siutation yet the ones with the keen insight will see they were responsible for letting the situation happen. Whether bad culture, incentives, processes, etc., leaders need to take note of what they are creating and adjust prior to the letting the “white knight moments” happen.

    Getting self-awareness right is a key leadership skill. All-in-all, this skill and practice may be the only way to prevent the white knight syndrome.

    Thanks!

    Jon

  • Dear Jon~

    You make such an important point, Jon, that sometimes when white knights are invited in it is because a leader does not want to face the situation that he/she has let happen. That’s a set-up for everybody and a displacement of where learning needs most to occur.

    Many times in my career it has been evident that I’m being asked to resolve that kind of circumstance: simply make the issues go away without the actual engagement of all those who participate in creating it. Then there is a delicate dance and gentle work to help look at the entire context of a problem — with the usual answer being that we are all contributors. The good news is that many leaders making small changes can effect larger, more lasting change for an entire organization.

    All the best
    Dan

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