Why fearsome leadership inflicts trauma
Leadership constantly requires us to pull from our strengths, values, and expertise, and contextualize them at the moment. It is an adaptive ability and leadership approach I call Ferocious Warmth. It is doing a constant dance between ferocity and warmth, high support and high challenge, head, and heart. Ferocious Warmth is all about excellence in results, yet also excellence in relationships.
Our general leadership history is one focussed on logic, cognition, and technical skill, with results often at the expense of the people doing the work.
At its extremes, it becomes fearsome leadership that minimizes empathy, feelings, and connection. A top-down hierarchical structure where our ‘level’ within an organization defines our voice and value. To make it as a leader, fearsomeness has too often been the way of success.
Competition, sabotage, and a dog-eat-dog climb to the top is the only way many organizations set up their systems to achieve results. This can lead to a culture where the norm is judgment, sarcasm, and put-downs to those that are not lifting high enough, quickly enough.
It encourages a culture of unprofessional behavior with negative impacts. Research shows that amid this style, disengagement, mental health issues, and low morale are rife. As we emerge from two years of a pandemic, many are voting with their feet to avoid this type of leadership and culture, with surveys such as Gallup showing high percentages of disengagement and dissatisfaction.
When leaders are stuck in judgment and condemnation, the leadership becomes myopic and focussed on faults only. When this is the default style, the fearsome leader rules through fear. They are also closed to ideation with their teams or senior leaders. There is a lack of psychological safety for those they lead, with people not willing to take any interpersonal risks for fear of retribution.
They are the archetypal extreme authoritarian leader – my way or the highway. At its worse, the fearsome leader inflicts trauma on those they lead. Their focus is on being right. Their style of feedback is based on harsh criticism rather than growth. Forward momentum is difficult as people are not working at their best.
Toxic behaviour is either brewing or in evidence when transformation is demanded and delivered as an ultimatum and through compliance. People do not buy into change due to a feeling of powerlessness. Trust is very low and people are fearful. Self-preservation becomes the driving reaction. People exposed to this type of leadership over time can suffer wellbeing issues and productivity and performance lowers.
The last twenty years has seen research delve further into the impact of the concepts of trust, empathy, warmth and joy in the workplace. Neuroscience and the use of fMRIs (functional medical radio imaging) is unearthing more connections that show that these things impact the neural pathways our brains use and the engagement of the more evolved part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. The connection and interaction of the prefrontal cortex and the limbic brain is impacted by factors such as trauma and lack of positive connection to others. When are prefrontal cortex is not as engaged – our decision making, problem solving also suffer.
As leaders, our role is to support our people to be their best, not beat them into the ground with a results-at-all-cost approach. As leaders, when we are able to stand in balance between creating high levels of challenge to reach goals and vision, yet also connect to the people they lead to help them be their best, we move faster and with more momentum.
We need ferocity to even contemplate our aspirations and turn them into action. But more than ever we also need warmth to authentically convey: I care for you as people and I’m here by your side every step of the way.
Do you have the balance of Ferocious Warmth to be able to inspire transformation and the warmth to support people to get there? Or is a fearsome style of leadership becoming your default?
Written by Tracey Ezard.
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