Can leaders take a step back?


We often talk about the importance of vulnerability in relation to leadership. In this blog I am going to explore this topic from a different angle, starting from a question:

“Can leaders take a step back?”

If I have to answer this question with the average Italian for-profit organization in mind, the answer is simple: no!

The competition and the drive for success that characterizes many organizations does not grant it, or rather, does not allow those in a leadership role to indulge in it.

But, just for the sake of the organization, shouldn’t a leader sometimes also be countercultural and show that something else is possible? Sometimes, in fact, the right thing might be to just take a step back.

To explain this concept, I want to take up the words of Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister, who unusually decided not to run for a second term.

Jacinda Ardern said:

“I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility – the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not”.

There is much wisdom in this sentence, and it would be interesting for those who have a leadership role to reflect on it in depth.

Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab, has perfectly described how the power paradox (The Power Paradox, 2016) derives from the fact that leaders gain influence over others when they create value for others, but that it is precisely these positions of power which can lead them to consider themselves better, indispensable, special  – which makes leaders lose empathy and the ability to make a difference: exactly the reason why others end up taking away our power.

Does it remind you of anything? Isn’t it a story already seen with politicians and business people hundreds of times?

In traditional organizations, the resignation of a leader is seen as a “loser” choice or, in any case, an extremely difficult one. In fact, when one feels that they are losing lucidity, or that they are no longer the right person at a certain time, making room for others who can better serve the purposes of the organization is the right thing to do.

The right thing, however, becomes rare and unusual in rigidly hierarchical organizations, in which those lower down cannot discuss the choices of the top, and in which it is assumed that a successful life is one in which you always continue to climb to the top.

However, there are organizational models that make this kind of choice much less painful, with a benefit both in terms of less stress for leaders and in terms of well-being of the entire organization.

Just think of sociocratic or agile organizations, which have distributed governance models, where power is allocated in self-governing teams by coordinating with other teams in the organization.

By distributing leadership among several individuals, people are driven to give power over a particular issue to those they recognize as most competent. These people can change over time, as the problems faced change and new hard or soft skills are needed.

This point is key: normalizing and legitimizing the “step back” of leaders is not only about culture but also about governance, of organizational structures.

In fact, sometimes, all it takes is to intervene on governance models to normalize some choices and to see people feel comfortable asking for help from colleagues and sharing leadership instead of feeling its entire weight.

Yes, because leadership has a weight and often people do not realize the price leaders pay in maintaining what, in the eyes of many, turns out to be a privileged position.

And this is not only a beautiful sociological concept but it is a scientific truth.

According to the study “Life at the Top: Rank and Stress in Wild Male Baboons” (Gesquiere et al., in Science, July 15, 2011), those who are higher in the hierarchy suffer a higher level of stress.

In this long-term study of rank-related stress in a natural population of savannah baboons (Papio cynocephalus), alpha males showed much higher levels of stress hormones than second-rank males (beta), suggesting that being at the top may be more stressful than previously thought.

Now, the jump from baboons to humans is not very big.

An alpha individual at the top of the organization, whether male or female, suffers a very high level of pressure and chronic distress – with all that this entails in terms of well-being, health, but also interference with the ability to think and judgment.

What I wonder is:

If we really want an organization to thrive, regardless of the risks associated with personal abilities to handle stressful situations, wouldn’t it be better to design organizations capable of reducing the pressure to which leaders are subjected?

If you want to learn more about leadership models that improve the lives of organizations and the people within them get in touch.

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