Why are our institutions spaces for human suffering and how can we as leaders alleviate it? It’s Saturday and I’m suffering for the week that passed. For the stories I’ve heard from the groups we work with. This suffering is caused by a kind of historical, social and personal blindness and we must talk about it. Decisions of short-sightedness studded with political point scoring for the sake of preservation have ruled our world this week. We have been embroiled at the very top of an organisation where a corporate leader, masquerading as the benevolent rescuer has twisted the system for their own political gain. We sat in the middle of an organisation to hear the human heartache of a failed change process and see our customers being asked to toe the line as ‘company yes people’. We’ve sat with leaders and uncovered their personal narratives that have them blind to the brutality they unleash in their unconscious deprecation of the human beings in their midst. If this provokes you as a leader, tune in. We are talking about the propensity we all have to make decisions from a deep unconsciousness and not see the impact – sometimes ever, sometimes only in reflection. The blind, reactive and unconscious leader. A leader seeking to conserve their personal sense of safety and groundedness in the face of turmoil and change. The leader seeking to regain footing after being shown up by others close by in a way that has them feel unworthy, incompetent or not good enough. The leader who fears failure and is happy to plan the demise of others (even the best intended) for the sake of that point score. The leader who fears losing favour, so twists and manipulates whatever is required to ensure their place in the pecking order. The leader who uses ‘micro-aggressions’ to subtly undermine the capability and brilliance of others that loom as a threat to their control base. What’s common in these leaders? A leader who fears suffering. One who cannot (either consciously or unconsciously) stay with the raw emotion that threatens their identity and who pursues a path of blame, punishment, control, neglect, dominance and undermining. The leader who chooses a destructive but habitual side road that alleviates the presenting pain – no matter the cost. The cost you say? The mental, psychic and physical wellbeing of those in the way. Seeing people as speed bumps (go over them) roundabouts (go around them) or dead ends (a complete waste). Anyone or anything that presents some form of barrier or threat to the goal. These innocent and mostly well intended bystanders suffer in the face of this buried aggression. The impacts sound deeply human for those people in the leader’s line of command – “This decision means I can no longer see my family on weekends; this decision means I cannot help the client, even when I want to; this decision sees my case load rise and I’m now working longer to make sure I can help them; this decision means that I have no means to manage poor behaviour in my team; this decision means I’m losing touch of the happy vibrant person I once was and my wife and kids feel far away; this decision means we can no longer help the people we were employed to, this decision means I cannot tell the truth ….” And so on. Suffering from poor quality decisions made by leaders happens inside all client spaces – private and institutional. Decisions more for self-preservation and political favour than with a sensitivity for the real need, courage for future potential and decisions that make sense for the ‘long conversation’. This suffering is historical. We share insights from Australia, inside a historical narrative of white colonisation, the command of the British, subjugation of the convict and decimation of the Indigenous owners of this land. These historic roots breed moods of resentment and resignation that sit deeply in our psyche. This suffering is social. We are writing inside an expanding global village, where the gap between rich and poor is vast – those with power and those without more obvious. We exist inside political and institutional structures, largely unpopular, that we fail to question but which influence our lives and frames of reference every day. This suffering is personal. We live every day with a deep inner narrative that is provoked when circumstances don’t meet our standards and as leaders, we fall victim to this unconscious play. We react based on our deep concerns, habituate this and soon enough, we become actors on our life stage, unconscious that not only do we cause the suffering of others in our blind play, we too are suffering. Suffering sounds like the propensity to aggression. To rise in anger, to strike back, to ruminate on what’s not right, to recruit others to your agenda as an alliance, to undermine, control, manipulate. But there is a way out. We cause our own suffering by choosing not to see this. This is our attachment to a ‘standard’ or identity and not being able to tolerate uncertainty, seeing everything as a ‘threat or a promise’ based on an age-old concern or personal narrative that we choose not to confront. We cause the suffering through our interpretation of reality and how involved we are in our version of it. My version of life is not yours. It’s a narrative. It’s something we can question, see and change – if we can see this as a possibility. As leaders and humans we live in layers of narrative. What life is, what a ‘good’ life is, what life should be, what constitutes right, what standards constitute success, how ‘people’ should behave, how ‘we’ should be. Inside these narratives there’s always a judgement. It’s when we take the time to reveal how we have constructed this narrative and how it plays out in our everyday-ness that we really begin to liberate ourselves. And those around us. When we catch ourselves in the moments of habitual response and extract ourselves in that very moment, conscious of hooks, routines and old payoffs that no longer serve us. The desire to move down this pathway is a brave move. It means seeing and facing the things we don’t necessarily ‘like’ about ourselves and learning a way to ‘make friends’ with these as a means of moving on. That means we need a different mood. A mood of ambition as we unravel the layers of story we live in and shine the kind light of compassion on our old wounds, learning to sit with them. A mood of courage to face ourselves and the world we have crafted. A mood of resolve. To be a different kind of ‘being’ inside the system. To see the system for what it is and stand in righteous indignation for the injustices levied on the ordinary folk. To live a life we are proud of. To be the person we never imagined because we were brave enough to unmask and step beyond that which we were born into. And to marvel at the ripple effect we can have when we free the space around us to choose new pathways consciously and courageously – ones that actually benefit the other humans we work with. This is your work. This is our work. It is every leader’s work.
Paula & Tony
Tony and Paula are the Founders of Liberated Leaders and Lead Practitioners in Resource Advisory, a boutique advisory practice based in Sydney, Australia. They specialise in enabling leaders with skills practices to powerfully navigate change and disruption, via applied learning experiences in Australia, New Zealand, Asia-Pac, and the US. Click here to find out more about Tony and Paula