While power and control are key elements within leadership, understanding the ego is key to seeing the route to undefendedness. In his leadership trilogy, The Undefended Leader, Simon Walker connects the ego, power, control, and conversely empowerment. While there might exist a temptation for the leader to minimize their insecurities or believe the lie that they don’t largely impact the emotional environment of the organization, both Walker and Edwin Friedman not only disagree but put the self-differentiation of the leader as the crux of their theses. A self-differentiated leader doesn’t need the innovative success of the organization at an identity-forming level. She isn’t justified by the output of those below her. This secure sense of ego frees others to risk, experiment, and even fail.
Two Ditches of Innovation Leadership
Many facets of leadership attempt to walk between two ditches. Leaders often find themselves falling off on one side or the other. Furthermore, other leaders, out of fear of falling off one side, unknowingly traverse consistently in the other ditch. In the case of innovation, one of the ditches is anarchy. Each individual, like at the end of the book of Judges “does as they see fit.” Experiments and new ideas have varying connectedness to the organization’s mission causing the leader to wonder if an organization has mission drift. As a result, or out of fear of anarchy, leaders overcompensate and fall into the other ditch of micromanagement. Control suppresses these “wayward” experiments and attempts to align innovations to a highly controlled set of ideas and values.
A Vicious Cycle
A vicious cycle exists within an unhealthy or stagnant organization. Leaders, out of a sense of fear, anxiety, and obsession with their ego, observe new endeavors as threats or unfocused activities. As a result, or to prohibit anarchy, the leader clamps down, controls, micromanages, and squelches anything except the tried and true, the safe, and the known. As a result, followers find a sense of rebellious, sideways, and insubordinate ways to experiment that don’t have the vibrant DNA of the organization. And so it goes.
A Virtuous Cycle
Walker suggests that emptying ourselves, particularly of the need for control, will release in others great power. He finds the locus of identity in unconditional approval which is marked by being accepted, being understood, being known, and being held (101). This allows the leader to be free from failures, fears, and mistakes. Friedman would describe this same concept as “self-differentiation.” The sense of self is different than the organizational impact or output. In this virtuous cycle, the leader “finds a source of unconditional approval that is not jeopardized by [their] performance,” which fosters trust with others and gives genuine freedom to others (Walker, 103). Followers sense this trust and freedom and “test the waters” by small experimentation and find small wins. These small wins only encourage the leader all the more to trust and empower, causing larger and larger risks, more robust experimentations, and large-scale innovation.
I appreciate Walker and Friedman placing the impetus of change on the leader, not primarily on how to move others along in that journey. Fostering creative imagination, moving beyond imaginational gridlock, and lifting others’ eyes to an alternate future reality begins with the leader’s own sense of self.
Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve (New York, Church Publishing: 2017)
Simon P Walker, The Undefended Leader (Carlise, UK, Piquant: 2010)