Leadership and Safety Part 1: Consent

Let me tell you about an email (actually a series of emails) I received, pre-pandemic. Here’s a lightly edited version:

"Dear Lisa, you probably don’t remember me but we met a long time ago. I’ve been following your work for years. Like you, I’m an acupuncturist; unlike you, I failed to listen to my heart. I’ve always wanted to include more people in my practice, but I was so afraid of other acupuncturists’ reactions, and of course I saw how badly you were treated when you put your model out in the world. I should have followed your example years ago, but I didn’t, I guess I’m just a coward, unlike you who’s shown SO much courage and integrity. Anyway, some things have changed in my life (insert details here) and I think maybe, finally, I MIGHT be able to consider having a community practice. But I have so many bad habits ingrained over the years from individual practice, and also I have so many questions and misgivings, so very very many, about taking this huge leap that I really need to talk to you in person. I have so much regret that I haven’t followed my heart and my conscience all these years -- but I also don’t feel ready or capable of starting a community clinic. I know that spending time with you and getting all my questions answered would help me move forward and be more courageous."

Can you hear the subtext of that email? “Help me override my own objections to taking a big risk. I don’t really want to do it. Make me want to do it.”

That’s what inspirational leaders do, right? They make other people want to do things that those people were otherwise not motivated enough or not confident enough to do on their own. They get people to transcend their own self-interest to serve a bigger vision. That’s wonderful, right?

I used to assume it was wonderful; now I’m dubious. My experience is that it’s not wonderful for the leader. I suspect the whole scenario might actually be sketchy.

Over the years I’ve had a number of conversations with private-room acupuncturists about community acupuncture that reminded me of “bi-curious” flirting -- from the perspective of the queer person being flirted with by a straight person. I’m so conflicted about community acupuncture! I might want to do what you do but...I don’t know, it’s so transgressive, what will my friends think? I’m so attracted, and yet at the same time, so repelled by you! The concept is so compelling, but it’s also kind of dirty, and actually that’s...kind of hot? You make me feel so many things, it’s so confusing. I want you to convince me, seduce me, overwhelm me with your irresistible inspiration --

and then whatever I do next -- once I’m inspired -- won’t be MY fault. It’ll be yours.

On the one hand, ambivalent people like inspirational leaders because they don’t have to take responsibility for getting themselves off the fence. On the other, ambivalent people hate inspirational leaders because of being, you know, ambivalent!

There are a lot of ambivalent people out there. By the time I received that “help me follow my heart/sorry I’m such a coward” email, I had met enough of them that my response was, no thanks. I’m not going to take on your ambivalence, that’s 100% your responsibility. Let me know when you figure out what you want.

The trap of being inspiring is that people can expect you to be the fountain of energy and commitment that makes up for everybody else’s doubts, hesitations, and fears. That’s a completely unrealistic expectation for a job, but the flip side is even worse. When you’re successful in motivating people to take risks that they wouldn’t take on their own, and either things don’t work out (definition of a risk!) or people simply hate the experience of uncertainty, regardless of how things turn out, they can get angry at you for being too inspiring and pushing them out of their comfort zone.

I’ve had people angry at me for being too inspiring and also, not inspiring enough. At the same time. This might be because I’m a woman and by definition can’t do leadership right, but I think it also has a lot to do with unexamined expectations about both leadership and responsibility.

I wrote elsewhere about some of the problems with the mystification of leadership. Since this is a blog about safety, I’ll add here that the mystification of leadership, and people’s intense and conflicted feelings about leaders, can contribute to safety problems. Which is another compelling reason to work on demystifying leadership and organizations.

Safety depends on organization, and organization requires leadership. One of the problems with inspirational leadership is that people tend to like it better than the sometimes boring work of taking care of organizations, and if they have the option, they’ll try to replace that work with feeling inspired. Feeling inspired has some overlap with being entertained (and also with getting high -- it can be an altered state in its own right.) In my experience, some people think that being inspired by a leader is a lot more effective and more meaningful than it actually is, at the end of the day.

I’ve observed both a vicious cycle and a virtuous cycle related to work, responsibility, and inspiration. The vicious cycle involves over-emphasizing inspiration, including making the feeling of being inspired a prerequisite for doing actual work and making actual commitments. The less that real work gets done, and the less of themselves people put into their work, the more that the work itself begins to go poorly, to get harder, and the less rewarding it becomes. The less rewarding it becomes, the more people feel uninspired; the more uninspired they feel, the less of themselves they put into the work, the more poorly it goes, the harder it gets -- and so on. (And if there’s an inspirational leader anywhere around, this is a good time to blame them for ALL OF IT.)

The virtuous cycle involves being able to find inspiration in the work itself (rather than waiting on a leader to provide it). The more people feel inspired by their work, the more of themselves they put into it; the more of themselves they put into it, the better it goes, and the more rewarding it is. The more rewarding it is, the more inspired they feel. Etc. Here’s a good article about the power of “small wins” at work: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive” (ahem, inspirational).

It took me a long time to clue in, but my life improved a lot when I started thinking about leadership in terms of explicit consent rather than inspiration.

I consent to leadership as a job if the people I’m doing it for, and with, agree that it’s what I’m doing (as opposed to wanting me to do other incompatible things, like please everybody), and that it’s a job (that requires job-like things such as time, energy, support, and compensation). I don’t consent to being a magical fountain of inspiration that lets everybody else avoid taking responsibility for the organization, themselves, and their commitment or lack thereof.

I consent to doing the work of clearly articulating the mission of my organization and the passion behind it, in both internal and external communications, both formally and informally. I don’t consent to being the only one to do this within the organization; I need everybody to be willing to pitch in with the work of inspiring, encouraging, and lifting each other up and I REALLY need everybody to participate in communicating.

I consent to being 100% committed, publicly and privately, to the organization’s mission; I don’t consent to responding to, or being the repository for, anybody else’s ambivalence. If you don’t want to do this, I’m not going to try to persuade you; you should go do something you wholeheartedly want to do. I’m here because I want to be, nobody’s making me commit to this organization -- and my example isn’t making you do anything, either.

And finally, I consent to lead only people who consent to follow. Leadership is a job -- a demanding, technical job -- not a prize, and I don’t want to fight over it with anybody. Fighting over leadership in an organization is as unproductive as people fighting over who gets to do the payroll or the bookkeeping; it means the work itself isn’t going to get done. If we can’t agree about who’s doing such important functions, we shouldn’t be working together.

Consent is key to social safety, and leaders need social safety as much as anybody else.