And if the dam breaks open many years too soon
And if there is no room upon the hill
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon. – Pink Floyd
When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone, I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown, the dream is gone
I have become comfortably numb. – Also Pink Floyd
This is my second attempt to write this post. My first post was chirpy and light, talking about the joy that can be found in redeeming the dark side of leadership. It was (excuse me) utter crap.
There is something distinctly uncomfortable about seeing yourself, even your younger self, described in print. When that description is of the darkest parts of you, it is downright paralyzing. To be honest, reading Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership made me sick to my stomach. I tried to avoid it all week because I knew it would bring me face-to-face with the ugliness of the leader I have been. I skimmed and read reviews hoping to avoid the one chapter I knew would expose me and bring regret bubbling to the surface of my core. Chapter Eight – The Compulsive Leader.
It was kind of the authors to frame the compulsive leader in light of Moses –it let me whisper, “At least I never murdered anyone…” Well, not physically anyway.
There are many good explanations as to why I am a recovering compulsive leader. Childhood trauma, my personality type, and a good dose of being the firstborn helped me establish myself as a control freak. But there are many who have faced the same things that never unleashed compulsive leadership on unsuspecting colleagues and staff members. What does that look like? McIntosh and Rima say it better than I can:
“The compulsive leader pursues perfection to an extreme, both in personal and organizational life…Compulsive leaders also tend to be very status conscious and as a result are deferential and ingratiating with their superiors, often going out of their way to impress them with their diligence and efficiency…often becoming workaholics.” (106)
Compulsive leaders need to control everything. What looks like hard work is a sick need to prove that we are the only ones who can do the job well. If need be, a compulsive leader will be subtly (or not so subtly) critical of anyone who seems to be getting ahead of her, taking the glory that she ‘deserves.’
I sound like a lot of fun, don’t I? I say I am a recovering compulsive leader because I have worked hard to move from being the Moses who murdered and tried to run the whole show, to being the Moses who sought humility and accepted the consequences of bad behavior while training a better leader for the future. I’m not there yet, though. I know this because not too long ago I found myself feeling threatened by a colleague and began to subtly denigrate this person to another leader. I felt real panic over the idea that this person (who is a friend) was going to get a job I had applied for and really wanted, and my first reaction was sabotage. I became numb to compassion and empathy and my compulsive dark side splattered all over the place. Fortunately, after about 24 hours, I remembered that my worth as a person and as a leader is not in whether or not I got that position. It would not fill the void left from my childhood pain, and it most certainly was not worth hurting someone over. As McIntosh and Rima put it, I remembered that my dark side has been redeemed. (156-157) I called the leader I had talked with and confessed my attempt at sabotage and apologized. I am deeply fortunate that this leader is also a recovering compulsive leader and, while not excusing my behavior, showed grace that was so undeserved.
In the last several chapters of Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, the authors provide helpful steps to overcoming our dark sides while not losing the part of them that can be positively channeled. I am particularly glad that they included the instruction about seeking professional help. (205) Without the help of a professional counselor and a professional spiritual director, there is no way I could have even begun to navigate the murky waters of compulsivity and control. I also could not have forgiven myself and moved forward to a healthier understanding of my identity in Christ. I still have such a long way to go, but there is no longer a dam of pain waiting to burst, and the numbness has worn off so that I feel again. It is a more painful way to live sometimes, but worth it.