Leadership Lessons for Effectively Speaking Up
Leadership can be more than a role.
Posted April 2, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
As we begin to emerge from the tragic worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have reexamined our priorities based on what we truly believe in and care about. How can we reenter the post-pandemic world so that it supports what most matters to us, rather than just letting old habits take over? In these times, we need all of us, as parents, workers, citizens, and friends, to call up the leader within, so that we can rise to the occasion in the ways only we can do. Some of us may then also help to build organizations, institutions, and entire societies that reflect the possible evolution of human community that is gestating, ready to happen if we choose it.
Leadership can be more than a role. At best, it is a calling to care about the world and those around us.
The purpose of my work on heroic archetypes (universal characters and stories) has always been to help people be fulfilled as they make a difference in the world. It therefore is particularly important to the growing field of transformation leadership. James MacGregor Burns, the founder of this field, described such leaders as those who inspire others with a vision that promotes the greater good. In this process, such leaders also bring out the best, even sometimes the nobility, in everyone involved.
Some transforming leaders seem to be born this way, but working with archetypes can help any of us be transformative enough to realize our purpose. Archetypes are universal patterns available to humans in all times and places, and thus to you and me. Becoming conscious of them can help leaders link their inner desires with outer behaviors that have a transformational impact. We can begin by recognizing the positive archetypal energies that can infuse an authentic desire to make a difference, and then help clarify what we want to contribute toward what end. For example, the inner Lover wants us all to get along, the Creator to innovate, the Sage to analyze the issue, and the Jester to lighten up and enjoy life.
Through understanding the archetypal stories that shape our values, character, culture, and capacities—and those of other people and groups—we, as individuals and organizations, can better realize our unique potential and experience greater success and fulfillment. Archetypes also inform the stories we think, tell, and live.
My country is very divided by what is called a “culture war,” but the one thing we all seem to agree on is our dissatisfaction and sense that there is something wrong with how we have been living. Often, people respond to this by blaming others, and, yes, sometimes certain individuals and groups are responsible for certain problems. However, I keep hearing very sophisticated people relating how they censor themselves at work in ways that keep them from truly showing up with what they have to offer. True, the more we conform to the unwritten rules of how to fit in, the easier it is to get heard. But while it is important to share respectfully with an awareness of how others view things, censoring what we believe to be true and needed can impede progress.
One way to notice this is to recognize the stories being told around us when we know another one that is a better fit with reality. A very senior female executive shared with me how much she hated it when the executive team of the corporation in which she worked would start talking as if their business were literally at war with competitors. To fit in, she found herself using war-like metaphors such as “let’s roll out the tanks” and “destroy them.”
Yet, she knew that what was holding back success was that people working there kept being pushed to do their work as if it were storming the beaches in World War II. The whole place was living a Warrior story, but the positive ability to focus, work hard, and win was being undercut by the archetype’s negative underbelly. Along with the Warrior’s gifts of courage, focus, and a desire to compete and win came a stoic culture where being exhausted could not be revealed for fear of losing power and status. The constant pressure to push ahead meant that often the wrong things were being done and mistakes were being made. She recognized that the executive team needed to hear what was true for her, not by attacking their militant stance, but simply by sharing what she was seeing. She decided to do that by distributing an article in a prominent business publication for discussion by the team. Nothing in her action focused on the team being misguided; rather, the article was all about achieving goals—but doing so without exhausting employees.
By now, most high-level leaders know that it is important to speak up about what they see that other members of their team do not, but the desire to belong is instinctual, and the cost of challenging the story the powerful are telling and/or that defines belonging can be devastating. Historically underrepresented groups often are the ones that see the issues about the presumptive story of “us,” whatever that is, because that “us” does not seem to include them. Yet, they are the ones most likely to be sacrificed if they seem not to be a team player or one of “us,” or the plotline of their story is “not how we do things here.” And often being one of us depends on believing “our story.”
Caregiver organizations are just as attached to their stories as Warrior ones are. A male colleague sat quietly as a predominantly Caregiver team assumed that a woman who charges a man with inappropriate behavior must always be believed, while the Sage archetype within him was screaming, “No, we must listen and then investigate—really investigate,” or else many people would revolt, thinking that innocent men (and women) would end up losing their jobs. However, he stopped and thought about how to communicate that in a Caregiver way, by stressing the importance of avoiding harm to those charged who are innocent as well as those who report being abused. He also made sure to express his concern about the larger issue of power differentials in a way that showed empathy for how difficult it is for women, or others, to speak up in response to inappropriate behavior, abuse, or a more serious violation, or even to report it after the fact.
Leadership starts with being the one who talks about the elephant in the room, who describes what they see and invites others to do likewise, and is open to change. Speaking up in intelligent and respectful ways is a leadership skill we all need today. The leaders who can do this most effectively have been prepared by experiencing multiple storylines through reading, through traveling, and through curious listening. The more we expand our inner storylines through any means available, the more effective we can be when the need to speak up presents itself. Instead of debating with others on important issues in a me- against-you way, we can seek understanding by speaking from one archetype to another, as in debates on immigration: “My Warrior relates to your Warrior desire to protect our borders, but my Caregiver feels empathy for refugees and wants to help them.” This also could be said in the opposite way, depending on the views of the person or group we are talking with.
If leaders are to unify conflicting groups, they need a story that is effective in helping both sides recognize where they agree and why they need one another. The peace movement has evolved strategies for getting people who are literally at war with one another to talk openly about their actual experiences. Peace sometimes breaks out when each side faces how the horrors and losses of war are shared by both.
In my country, where almost everyone is dissatisfied in some way, true communication can come from learning to state what that feels like for each of us, without pointing the finger at one another. And in everyday situations, each one of us can voice fewer opinions, listen more, and reveal more of our actual experiences. That puts what we believe in a context that does not inherently make someone who believes differently, as a result of his or her experience, wrong.
We can each further the human development so needed right now as we move through, and potentially out of, this pandemic, simply by speaking up to share our perspectives, all the while learning from others, as we contribute what only we can.