"In order to be able to bring others together, those who lead must first of all be collected in themselves."

–I Ching

The Leadership Cave

It’s a tru­ism old­er than the hills: lead­ers must at times make deci­sions that do not make oth­er peo­ple hap­py. Because such deci­sions involve con­fi­dence, sen­si­tiv­i­ty and the use of indi­vid­u­at­ed author­i­ty, the process may cause those who lead to come up against their biggest adver­sary — them­selves. Lone­ly at the top means mak­ing judg­ments that no one else actu­al­ly can share. Per­haps this is a mat­ter of imple­ment­ing a per­son­al vision or mak­ing a tough deci­sion about who will get resources and who will not. Per­haps it will come down to choos­ing who will suc­ceed and who won’t. 

Here the path inevitably leads to a cave where the imag­i­na­tion and pro­jec­tions and past con­di­tion­ing of the leader come for­ward. The flash­ing lights and pass­ing shad­ows on the walls of the cave, like those of Pla­to’s Cave, may result in self-decep­tion or escapism. When­ev­er a leader makes a deci­sion while chained to those pri­vate walls, there is risk although in real­i­ty there may not be anoth­er way. Even if the num­bers back it up, even if the deci­sion solves an obvi­ous prob­lem, even if some peo­ple, even key peo­ple already agree, indi­vid­ual deci­sive­ness risks con­tro­ver­sy, and con­tro­ver­sies can become in their worst case dev­as­tat­ing. Peo­ple nat­u­ral­ly observe the fall-out and depend­ing on what that is, the worst of it can be what hap­pens for the per­son who made the call and who now inter­nal­izes the uncom­fort­able outcome.


Peo­ple yearn for safe­ty in an unsafe world and blind­ly task those in lead­er­ship roles with pro­vid­ing it to them. Yet the lead­ers them­selves may oper­ate in a cul­ture unsoft­ened by any such eth­ic. From up, down and side­ways, the risk may be there implic­it­ly and explic­it­ly. It may be incred­i­bly easy for oth­ers to stand back from the leader who decides as they eval­u­ate and take sides, hypoth­e­size motives, bad mouth or back stab or say noth­ing at all while oth­ers do so. The leader feels this, of course, and may hes­i­tate, a part of an ever-present temp­ta­tion to deflect, min­i­mize, ratio­nal­ize, assign respon­si­bil­i­ty else­where and gen­er­al­ly pull away from gen­uine­ly step­ping up to the plate; from being true to one­self and one’s respon­si­bil­i­ty in a vis­i­ble, account­able way. How the leader does not yield to this temp­ta­tion is what makes their lead­er­ship real.

This is one of those places in the dis­ci­pline of lead­ing where receiv­ing advice about what deci­sion to make is more com­mon but often less valu­able than sim­ply hav­ing a friend or col­league be present while fac­ing the dark­ness of the cave. Such pres­ence can help dis­pel the past, unwrit­ten, iso­lat­ing cul­tur­al rules that sug­gest lead­ers should be lone­ly, should be qui­et about their own jour­neys through the under­ground, except in super­fi­cial, care­ful­ly rehearsed ways. 

Which, of course, is pure non­sense. Those who try to hold in all the fear or pre­tend no cave is too dark for them, or worse, that they have no cave at all, who are in this way in denial — they are the ones to wor­ry about. The cave, after all, is meant to be there, part of the tale of human life with which we can and do iden­ti­fy, part of the way we find out who we think we are and are hum­bled, and if lucky have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to claim our courage. We learn about real­i­ty from fac­ing those pic­tures on the walls, our hal­lu­ci­na­tions; learn about about kind­ness and human­i­ty from attend­ing to our worst mis­steps, mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions and bad choices.

What good and effec­tive lead­ers do is share their jour­ney and learn to help one anoth­er as equals not supe­ri­ors, becom­ing stronger and more enlight­ened via a shared pas­sage through the dark­ness of indi­vid­ual chal­lenges and pri­vate dilem­mas. In this way they devel­op open­ness, grav­i­tas and credibility.

One might say, extend­ing the metaphor, that in front of every cave is a pos­si­ble camp­fire where we share our sto­ries and get and give help — while look­ing deeply into the self-same flames.


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