Of Water and Leadership
Water is an amazing thing. It can dissolve more substances than any solvent – including very caustic acids. It cannot be compressed making it usable as a both a weapon and a tool, it is able to sooth burns, can absorb an outrageous amount of energy before changing states and is the most important ingredient for life to exist. The presence of water is the sign most indicative of the presence of life. Most of us take water for granted because it is so plentiful where we live, so we have lost our sense of awe for what an amazing thing it is. If we remove water from our lives we would lose our lives as well. Water is a miraculous thing.1
As a rabbi, a therapist, and a leadership consultant Edwin Friedman spent the majority of his life watching people lead within both the family and professional context. He determined that the primary characteristic of a great leader is the ability to keep ones nerve in the midst of people’s emotional anxiety. In his book A Failure of Nerve he argues that every organization has an emotional environment and great leaders are able to traverse the emotional climate of their organizations without being mired down in it. It is the leader’s stabilizing presence that helps the organization to move forward. He describes a great leader as “well-differentiated” by which he means the leader has 5 characteristics:
- Strong sense of self.
- Takes responsibility, does not blame others for his mistakes.
- Does not have a quick-fix mentality. Understands lasting change takes time and is difficult.
- Takes decisive stands at the risk of displeasing others.
For Friedman a leader’s job is to be the strongest part of the system. A leader’s well defined presence will transform the emotional anxiety of an organization.
One of the more amazing things about water is how much energy it can consume without changing states. It takes approximately the same amount of energy to walk a mile as it does to boil a gallon of water. Additionally water is able to hold that energy for a relatively long time. It is these characteristics that have allowed humans (who are 75% water) to exist in the most extreme of environments. In this way a great leader, in Friedman’s view, is like water. A leader is able to take in a great amount of emotional energy and not have it change her state. She is able to absorb the energy and still exist as a stable leader, but also keep and use that energy where necessary.
As emotional beings it is impossible to be completely stoic in the midst of an emotional environment, but rather than seeing a leader as non-emotional I would rather think of that leader as one who is able to take in and transform the emotional energy into positive action. I think this is what Friedman is getting at in his book. Things happen and we will have an emotional response, making the question is what will you do with that response. Being like water makes sense to me in this instance. The ability to absorb that energy and use it later is a necessary skill for a leader. It is that skill that will allow a leader to keep their nerve in the mist of stressful events and then be able to recover after the event. We should all strive to be more water like in our leadership positions.
1 Gunderman, Richard. “The Universe’s Most Miraculous Molecule.” The Conversation, June 25, 2019. https://theconversation.com/the-universes-most-miraculous-molecule-48075.
14 responses to “Of Water and Leadership”
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Thank you Sean, what a powerful analogy to illustrate who a leader should be in the organization or family or in society. You’ve helped me appreciate the critical role that the leader plays in an organization or any other context. Your analogy helps to illustrate Friedman’s point of the leader being able to navigate through the emotional stress in the contextual environment and still be an effective leader.
Thanks Wallace. I always find analogies helpful and this one seemed to fit a little too well.
This is an excellent analogy, Sean. Your description of great leaders as being able “to traverse the emotional climate of their organizations without being mired down in it” really spoke to me. I have used the analogy of a whirlpool as the strength of an organization’s culture and it is very difficult to step into it and move the opposite direction. I will now be thinking about your post and what it takes to withstand the current and lead.
Thanks Tammy. I envision traversing the emotional climate of a group a lot like skipping stones on a lake. When the lake is calm and the stone is flat anyone can do it. But when the lake gets a little rougher or the stone isn’t quite right it takes a particular kind of person to make it work.
Great post, Sean. I love your quote that a “leader as one who is able to take in and transform the emotional energy into positive action.” This is so true! Followers must trust leaders and depend upon their ability to defuse difficult situations and explore the positive outcomes.
Trust is such an important part of leadership, especially leadership that is transformative. Without it followers get jittery when a leader takes a stand. Thanks for your comment.
Hey Sean. Thanks for bringing the imagery of water as an analogy for what good leaders look like. That’s something I have to think about for awhile. I’m thinking a good leader, like water doesn’t have to make his presence known or felt in ways we take water for granted. But we know when we look into it further, we discover that it’s water that makes it work. Or something like that.
Every analogy falls apart at some point. I’m not sure where that would happen for this one, but I feel like in a lot of ways it’s pretty solid. Keep chewing on it and let me know if you come up with something. I like where it’s headed.
Be more like water sounds like a martial arts concept! I love the concept of absorbing emotional energy from others and utilizing it for positive action (perhaps later). If only, I could learn those Kung Fu moves! Like most constructs you come up with, I must chew on this awhile. I know I want to be more like calm water and not the boiling kind!
I actually remember meditating during karate class and having our sensei tell us to imagine ourselves as a lake. So you’re onto something there. Thanks for your comment.
Like everyone else, I get the water analogy. Leaders are emotional beings, but our capacity to remain centred in times of crisis and social regression is to know ourselves – know who we are and to be comfortable. We can cope with a huge amount. When we subsume ourselves into the whole, our sense of self is determined by the whole, so when the whole turns against us, our identity is dismantled. I think that’s what Friedman was getting at. Water has that fabulous ability to flow in and around and through without being fragmented. You should write a book 🙂
As everyone has already said, this is really good, Sean. I am always amazed at your ability to tie such a great analogy to our reading! Well done!
Thank you, Sean, for such a powerful analogy of water on leadership. You nailed it down completely and drew out what Kets de Vries is raising in his book on leadership. Your water analogy is excellent and I love the way you captured our mind as we read this article. I can imagine how its energy is used to run turbines to produce electricity.
Sorry, not Kets de Vries but Friedman. Please make that correction.