As a young warlord, Darrow has been striving to lead a revolution to reform an oppressive, hierarchical society. He stands before his mentor and legendary warrior Lorn au Arcos. In Lorn, Darrow sees the self-confidence and steely resolve of a man who knows who he is and is unwavering despite the storm around him: “He is as he always told me to be–a stone amid the waves; wet, yet unimpressed by all the swirls about him.”
This quote, taken from Pierce Brown’s Golden Son, has seemed oddly relevant over my last year in academia. To say that my final year as an academic dean was a bit tumultuous would be an understatement. In addition to fiscal concerns and ongoing tensions between some members of the faculty and administration, there was also a swirl of accusations circulating about various members of the faculty and administration. It was an environment in which distractions were plentiful.
Distractions often came in the form of individual anxieties…many of which were understandable. Change comes with loss and an ambiguity about the future. As understandable as some of the anxieties may have been, that didn’t make them any less distracting. Nor did it mean that, as a leader, I could (even should) make decisions that would calm the anxieties of even the most influential individuals in the organization. People rightly see leaders (at whatever level) as having responsibility for the organizations they lead.
Leaders shape an institution’s culture and position it for the future. Too often, however, people see leaders as having all the responsibility in an organization. They assume that every problem is somehow the leader’s to solve. “I’m feeling frustrated, angry, insecure, anxious, etc…leadership needs to do something!” They assume that their discomfort with one decision or another is somehow a sign that a leader is “off the rails” and isn’t competent to guide the organization.
The problem is that leading an institution and resolving someone’s particular anxiety can’t always be done at the same time. Leaders must find a way to lead despite the various anxieties that arise within an organization. In Failure of Nerve, Friedman suggests that such navigation is done “by positioning oneself in such a way that the natural forces of emotional life carry one in the right direction.” He focuses on the leader’s own self-awareness and self-identity as critical to such positioning: “The key to that positioning is the leader’s own self-differentiation, by which I mean his or her capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence.” He goes on to explain that “Differentiation is not about being coercive, manipulative, reactive, pursuing or invasive; it is about being rooted in a leader’s own sense of self rather than focused on his or her followers” (and, I would argue, stakeholders, even influential stakeholders, followers or not).
I’ll shorten Friedman’s description and refer to it as self-aware resolve. Having this sort of resolve doesn’t mean sticking with a decision that is obviously wrong. It doesn’t mean ignoring the opinions of others. It doesn’t even mean that you no longer care about the emotional state and pain of others. Instead, having resolve means being unwilling to ignore your leadership responsibilities in order to keep individuals in your organization from feeling the anxiety associated with change or with decisions that don’t align with their view of how things should go. It’s about recognizing that often leading and calming anxieties cannot be done at the same time.
Self-aware resolve means maintaining your sense of self and leading with integrity rather than making decisions to appease those who have decided there is something deeply wrong with your decisions. Resolve isn’t about popularity or being right…it’s about being steady despite the wishes and worries of others. I have trouble envisioning an environment this side of heaven that will not produce some level of anxiety. Organizations are tumultuous and many of the decisions leaders make happen within a complex environment where no single decision or solution will preserve the entire system “as is.”
Learning to be a “stone amid the waves; wet, yet unimpressed” doesn’t absolve you from care or empathy…it is appropriate to feel the impact of the decisions you make. It will, however, produce in you a sense of self-aware resolve so that you can be “rooted in” your own “sense of self” rather than being focused on the anxieties of even the most influential organizational stakeholders.