Defensiveness is the Problem of Our Time

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.


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