”Leadership without easy answers.” (Heifetz, 1994) It’s the title of one of my all time favorite books about leadership. And it’s what comes to my mind day after day after the terrorist attacks in Brussels.
I’m not so tempted to comment on the words and actions of our leaders as I was after the attacks in Paris. Yes they shouldn’t have pass the bucket to someone else. Yes they could have organized their departments more effectively. Yes they could have been better prepared and shared intelligence more effectively. Yes they could have communicated more or less or differently.
“So what?” I wonder. “What’s the point?” Life is not perfect. Our leaders are not perfect. They do their best, struggle to lead in unprecedented conditions. Crisis after crisis. The financial crisis. The debt crisis. The climate crisis. The refugee crisis. And now the security crisis. Our leaders do what most of us do, day in day out. They do their best to keep things in order and safe for the people they feel responsible for. They sacrifice part of their personal wellbeing trying to improve and change things for the better for themselves and for others.
I only see the superficial stuff of leadership, what leaders do and say in front of the camera. The rest is interpretation and opinion making by the by-standers, the press, the people. Everyone who has been quoted in a newspaper knows how large the gap is between felt reality, the report in the newspaper and the resulting perceptions. And how much energy explaining and managing the resulting perceptions can take.
I don’t know how our leaders are changing personally, how and what they are learning and discovering about themselves, their collaboration and their organizations. I don’t know the sources of wisdom and courage they tap into. The difference between leadership surface and underlying dynamics is huge and only knowing the dynamics could bring valuable meaning to what I see at the surface.
It’s an idea that I cherish more and more in leadership research and practice: the importance of safe spaces to reflect and learn. Leadership is imperfect, muddy, fuzzy action. It needs moments and places of reflection, to look in the mirror, talk straight and listen, to share and hold emotions, to include and connect to outsiders.
So do opinions don’t matter then? Isn’t it important to express our voice, share our thoughts on social media and with people around us? Isn’t it necessary to hold our leaders accountable? The answer is yes. But as with leadership, I’m not so tempted to comment on the quality of these expressions of followership as I was after the Paris attacks. They are superficial and don’t show or even hide how hundreds, thousands of people are changing their attitude, taking new initiatives, making small but irreversible life and work decisions.