At a deep level, self-reflection can be a bridge across troubled waters, a way to liberate ourselves from that most damaging disease to which leaders are prone – which is defensiveness. Defensiveness is the instinct to protect who and what we are. While it is important to be able to defend oneself from unfair attacks, false narratives, and various forms of oppression, where leaders often fall down is in walling out possibilities that contradict their view of themselves and their desires. It’s one thing to hold boundaries but quite another to ignore the mirrors that grant us insight. Defensiveness is what keeps an unreasoned status quo in place — whether that is the status quo of our personal identity or of our organizations. When insight is blocked, so is meaningful growth and change.
What’s to defend, really? Mostly old ways. Very old ways.
Old norms, beliefs, reactions, patterns of thinking, feeling, behaving. As a photographer, if you take a picture of birds sitting on a power line, it will likely be a dull picture unless one of those birds startles our eye by being out of place — suddenly taking flight from its perch on the wire, for example. It’s in our capacity to break the pattern that we see a chance for progress, for creativity and hope to shine through. While it’s often vital in a business context to value replication and stability, it may be even more valuable to know how and when to break old patterns. And that won’t be possible unless we can forgo our own, often very private, personal defensiveness. We need our flow, but we also deeply need the interruption.
Too often we talk a good game about the need for resilience, innovation, adaptation. Yet nowhere is the interruption more important than for those in leadership roles as we learn to break our own habits of mind and heart. A client, for example, struggles with a difficult decision that will directly and significantly affect the work of a key report. Usually, my client is exceptionally good at convincing people to “buy into” his decisions as being in their own best interest — but this time it won’t happen. As a result, he’s stressed by the need for executive action. It may cause his report, someone for whom he feels responsible, considerable pain. There’s risk he could engender long-term resentment, anger, bitterness. He could lose a person in whose success he’s become heavily invested. Yet the choice is in front of him and he can’t make it go away. He keeps rehearsing the arguments why what he wants and needs to do on behalf of the organization is good for the report — if only that person would just realize it! He will do almost anything to figure it out!
If only he could. The client persists in defending his approach via his reluctance to act and attempts to convince, even as there is a good chance the report can see through what he is doing. It is only when the client begins to fully notice and genuinely acknowledge this old, old pattern of persuasion that it is interrupted and begins to change. Freedom and regret can coexist in him, part of what it means to lead. The bird on the wire takes flight.
For most of us there are places in ourselves where we haven’t yet learned to mutiny, places we are triggered when those sensitivities are poked and then we go back to what we know. All the internalized bullshit that keeps us and others small comes forward, interfering with our experience of our full possibilities and choices, masking our honesty and true presence. We anticipate the hurt and we don’t like feeling it and work to avoid getting too close to these places, so that in fact we remain stuck in them, not yet free.
For too long now it’s been fashionable to keep defending, keep protecting at all costs ourselves and our habits, our views and unexamined values, clinging to an illusion that our patterns are essential to us. But that’s going in the wrong direction. What’s tough is rebelling against the patterns. Much tougher.
It requires a hell of a lot of love sometimes to break those patterns, to transcend them, as it must. Defensiveness, after all, is the sharpest, thorniest problem of leading in our time.