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.
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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