The demise of the invulnerable leader

by Didier Marlier on Friday December 5th, 2014

Maybe was it synchronicity? A dramatic article and a book, both having the theme of bullying in the background, were offered to me recently.

In a November 2014 “The New-Yorker” article, Allen Kurzweil recalls the traumatic experience he lived as ten years old, in a British Private School, located in Switzerland. Having briefly been a boarder in a catholic, boys only school, I can easily identify with the tale of abuses Allen describes (except that, having given two warnings I would escape if forced to stay, I was finally caught at the Italian boarder, having fled this prison of abuse and humiliation).

Recently, a British friend of mine offered me a book published in my 2014:  “Wounded Leaders: British elitism and the entitlement illusion”. The theory behind it is interesting:

  • People tend to follow their “elites” (which in Business terms resonates with Hay Management Consultants and Nordstrom University who both claim that their researchers found that 70%, respectively 69% of an organization culture comes from the observable behaviours of its leaders).
  • British “elites” are separated at an early age from their parents and sent to “Public schools” (which the rest of the world calls “Private Schools”). There, children discover abuse, the survival of the fittest and the law of the toughest.
  • In order not to suffer too much and not being ostracized, they learn to “stiffen their upper leap”, hide and deny their emotions and appear tough. This is then reinforced at university and, of course with the Army, another classical rite of passage for the “elite”.
  •  Consequently, claims Nick Duffell, Great-Britain has let emerge a culture and a leadership model of invulnerability, where showing emotions is mocked at and seen as a sign of weakness.

What I found more interesting is the parallel one can draw with business culture and leadership (and not just Great Britain). Although Nick is pretty radical in his expression (“There are hard reasons why ex-boarders, particularly early boarders, do not develop qualities necessary for good leadership”) and that boarding schools are more of an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, I believe that parallels can be drawn with Business leaders, wherever they come from. Duffell (a clinical psychologist with a long experience in treating victims of this system) quotes five reasons that will prevent emotionally impaired leaders to do their job well:

  1. Having to disown feelings, softness, in fact all form of vulnerability, so severely during childhood means that all vulnerability is seen as threatening. Consequently, the personality organises itself in a hyper-defensive way”: Leaders acting in such ways, will create a culture of “Power Distance” where trust level, the main consequence of Power Distance, will be low and control very high.
  2. The most easily recognized symptom of an ex-boarder is a difficulty with emotions […] Humans cannot take good decisions when […] their feelings and emotions are not fully accessible to them. Unsurprisingly, regardless of personal charm and attractiveness, maintaining authentic relationships is also difficult under those conditions” : I have seen leaders, that are so polished from the outside that I was unable to spot behavioural traits that would explain why their organization was rejecting them. Their people created a distance with them because they thought that their leaders were political, manipulative or a kind of “imposteur”. In fact, it is far simpler than this: those leaders sadly reject their emotional side.
  3. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that the ability to conceive the world from a purely left brain (rational/logical/factual) hemisphere bias presents a person with a conceptual world in which people my easily be treated as if they were objects”: People are our biggest asset! I am sick and tired of reading this statement when people in such organizations are treated as pawns and overhead. At a time where war on talent rages whilst futurists predict 50% unemployment rates as possible, treating people as objects will reinforce the old model of pyramidal and hierarchical leadership and severely limit the capacity to create an intelligent organization where people are fully engaged behind a Higher Purpose in which they believe.
  4. When this personality (Strategic Survival Personality) senses challenge to its survival, it reacts instantly with aggression and frequently bullying, rather than with calmness, curiosity or self-refection”[…] while narcissistically self-preserving leaders may charm at the beginning, they inevitably become politically harmful and cannot deliver value-driven leadership”: In order to strive in the Disruption Economy, curiosity, capacity to balance exploration and advocacy, willingness to graciously request and receive feedback are fundamental. This type of “wounded leader” will not survive for long.
  5. When Rationalism becomes extreme or excessive […], whatever does not count as rational is made into an object of derision and loathing. It subsequently morphs into an object of fear because it is unfamiliar and unworthy of curiosity”: Radioactivity was mocked at when indigenous population referred to its location as “Taboo”. Epigenetics increasingly demonstrate that old and traditional ways of thinking about health and trivialized by today’s rationalists, were in fact well founded. Humour is a powerful and positive mechanism in a team. Mockery and loathing are highly destructive.

I don’t think that everything Nick Duffell says about the British Elite is applicable to the wider community of leaders around the globe. But I surely wanted to bring those five points to our attention, in the hope that they will help us better understand some of the suffering that affects “emotionally impaired leaders” and help us realize that accessing our deep self and being in peace with our emotional self is a part of our duty, if we are to remain a successful leaders in the Disruption Economy.

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6 Responses to “The demise of the invulnerable leader”

  1. Hi Didier,

    Having spent formative years (age 10-14) in the UK in a boarding school environment run by clergy I kind of understand this topic all too well.

    Interesting reading and also familiar in the journey I’ve made/am progressing in to move from the “elitist/Rational” behavior to the more “balanced/emotional/grounded” personality.

    Regards, Raf

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment dear Raf… I have no doubts that the wonderful human being you are is on his way to connect with his emotional side and continue being an outstanding human being and leader. Thank you for sharing

      Reply
  2. Book is out of stock. N/A. Any ideas how to get a copy? regards Raf

    Reply
    • They will replenish. Give a try on Amazon.co.uk or take an electroonic version?

      Reply
  3. Hi Didier: My approach to those subjects is a bit different as I work with Conflicts for 40 years now. Of course the emotional consciousness is a very important one and usually I refer to “thinking with the heart”. I also observe lots of “mobbing” in Germany as well as the use of the founders as a “model” of behavior at corporations mainly familiar business one with lot of problems in Sucession when the son start running the business. Of course irony, so common in Great Britain makes people feel there is no trust around to make the interrelationship happen… Of course Mediation can help leaders when there is no mental disease involved. The use of temperaments also helps in order to develop better leaders skills considering UK is already at the consciousness soul level of development. This is an interesting approach Didier as you see, I have another way to investigate and propose developments…

    Reply
    • Thank you dear Sonia,
      I guess my post, reflecting on Duffell’s work and the damages made by leaders refusing to access to their own (and others’) emotions is aiming at describing the danger rather than the solution. I would fully agree, when it comes to solution, that what you suggest certainly helps such “wounded leaders” (as the title of the book is): I find it sad to claim that such people can not be leading. That would deny their free will…
      Have a great day and thanks for your worthy comment
      Didier

      Reply

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