What can I do if my leadership doesn’t “get it”?

As I have traveled to speak throughout various regions of Canada, I have frequently had this question asked of me – enough so that I finally decided to sit down and record practicable principles, with the hope of encouraging those who find themselves in this situation.

 Auschwitz Entry Gate, Poland

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human
freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,
to choose one’s own way.” Viktor Frankl

The question follows sessions where I have spoken about culture being leadership behaviour, and the necessity of leadership modelling; about how (bilateral) accountability and grace are imperative for optimal performance, and about how leadership must evolve to become highly facilitative (not dictatorial) to be effective in today’s workplaces. The intuitive types in the audience always understand quickly, and the liner-thinking waver only a little as I try my best to stay on track with my illustrations. It just makes sense. The evidence is solid and the application is practical.

“The only thing of real importance that leaders do
is to create and manage culture”
Edgar Schein

When people have suggested to me that their leadership does not “get it”, I have seen a few common themes emerge as potential reasons for the situation:

  1. The employee has an overzealous sense of what level of perfection a leader needs to live up to and is ready to criticize any and every person in a position above, or even beside them (of course, this is not you, I only see this is rare circumstances).
  2. The leader is a black and white, algorithmic-style thinker, with a high value for the numerical aspects of performance and little regard for the importance of sociology, psychology and/or change management processes in an organization. It’s not that they are daft, they just value the safety and security that numbers-based KPI’s have to offer and don’t (can’t?) very well understand the concept of the health and well-being of people being inextricably connected with the health of the organization. This kind of leader mistakenly believes that their highest responsibility is to give orders that direct. They have never heard of Edgar Schein – but they are far from being evil.
  3. The leader struggles with deep insecurities and views dictatorship as a means of exercising their value for control. They distance their self from vulnerability – especially the messy kind that comes from dealing face to face with other human beings.
  4. The leader is a shape-shifting, chameleon type and their true value is self-preservation and/or advancement and they view their team as only being there to serve this purpose. The interactions with this leader are highly disingenuous. They might agree to strategies and articulations of vision, values and practices, but much worse than “not getting it” this leader states that they are on side, but disingenuously work against any and every effort toward progress as it serves their hidden agenda.
  5. Lastly, a leader may just be in over their head. They have been promoted to a level of responsibility that exceeds their competence. This may be paralytic to progress, but forgivable. (Whenever I wonder if I should be gracious and patient, I need only recall how many times I have needed grace…)

Of course, you can choose to leave the organization and search for better work elsewhere – arriving at a place that is more in alignment with your work-life values. But this decision may be more difficult, depending on your life stage, appetite for change, training, and the availability of work for you elsewhere.

Assuming that you like where you work and would like to stay, here are a few tips to bring some sanity to your work-life situation:

  1. Lead your self. We all possess what Viktor Frankl has labelled the “final human freedom”, the ability to choose our response to our circumstances. We are free to choose our attitude and actions, no one else is responsible for this, and no one can take this away. Our attitude, and the actions we choose to take, are the key contributors to the character that we will form over our lifetime, so we ought to take the time to consider how we will respond. Solid character requires that we work toward a deep congruence in our life; we cannot betray values to uphold values. If you esteem values such as inclusion, honesty, encouragement and collaboration, then you must be model these for all who would be watching as you wrestle through your dealings with weak leadership. If you seek to build a culture of safety and ownership of accountability, then you must model it and extend the same to your leadership.
  2. Lead your team. There is never a good reason to stop loving people, especially those who need us to stay engaged as we provide leadership (and accompanying sanity) to their work-life efforts. Every cause is nobel when it touches another life, for all life is sacred, therefore all leadership responsibility calls us to bring our best efforts to our work. I am not suggesting that you become a self-imposed martyr for the cause; there are situations where you may need to consider stepping down and/or moving on, especially where you are instructed to provide misleading and potentially hurtful information to your team, which would cause you to be acting in a manner that is out of alignment/integrity. Having said this, as long as you lead, give it your best and don’t waste your energy complaining about those above you.
  3. Be patient. If you become a safe relationship for your leader, you may well be able to facilitate growth in, and along with, them. I am not suggesting manipulation as a tactic; I value your character development far to much to go there. I simply believe that most people want to be their best, but at the same time they wrestle with insecurities and paradigms that hinder their potential.  There is only one style of leadership that I see as more or less impossible to work with – being illustrated in number 4 above. A disingenuous leader who exhibits a lack of basic integrity and alters their behaviour and decisions to match hidden agendas is severely problematic…but take heart, life often has a funny way of dealing with situations involving poor leadership character; nothing last forever.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Viktor Frankl

The more I study and work within the context of corporate “culture”, the more I realize that it is much more about character than culture. Culture is an arms-length program for many, with only the best of the best morphing a program into the way that they do what they do. Even this great effort falls short of a trustworthy foundation for resilience.

Character draws us into the very substance of who we are, and as we practice consistent exercising of our attitude and actions, they will begin to flow authentically and more reliably from a matured source. As Frankl puts it, and as his experience in Auschwitz undeniably proves, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”