When I started 3,5 years ago with The Future Leadership Initiative, I had no idea where my journey would lead to. Meanwhile I know one thing: leadership is riding a bumpy road through a vast landscape. The landscape stretches from “how to make the world a better place as a global leader”, over “how to lead your own inner theater and build circles of trust”, to “how to lead a project, a team, a group towards clear objectives”. And certainly by embracing the notions of authenticity and shared, there’s no place to hide, no clear signposts to follow, no certainties to hold on to.
While bumping along the road of leadership development and research, I created a lot of tensions. I engaged with many different stakeholders and got tangled up in very diverse expectation patterns. Inner demons of uncertainty and need for recognition raised their unpleasant voice. I had to let go parts of myself that were successful in the past. Last and not least, I share the steep ambitions of my employer and aim high. The result: a high level of tension in all directions of Steven Snyder leadership tension map:
Struggle is a good thing. No leadership without struggle. That’s part of the reason why leadership is also a personal choice: “Am I willing to leave safe ground?” The clue is how to keep the struggle healthy or how to make the struggle sustainable or even enjoyable. Brené Brown describes in her book about vulnerability three wrong and very common patterns to deal with struggle and pain. The first one is distrust: every moment of happiness or satisfaction is overruled by the thought ‘It won’t last’. The second one is perfectionism: it’s never enough. We’re never satisfied. A third option is sedation: we eat and drink out of self-pity, take medication, watch television and/or surf the internet in zombie mode.
“Yep, that’s me. Yep, that too,” I said to myself, reading Brené’s chapter about how people shield of their vulnerability and pretend how they are in control. This pretending comes with a high price in the long term: isolation, alienation, health problems. The paradox is clear: no leadership without struggle, but struggling in a wrong way is even worse. Leadership is the art of constructive struggle and at the heart of this art lies vulnerability: admitting limits, asking for help, seeking feedback, engaging in reflection and introspection, being grateful.
Leadership is riding a bumpy road through a vast landscape full of tensions. An important question in that adventure is: “how strong is my vehicle and how careful do I drive it?” Strong doesn’t mean being ‘invulnerable’ and shielding off all pain. On the contrary, it means allowing feelings of weakness, pain and loss and letting those feelings show how to move forward.