In this article, Rhonda Brighton-Hall challenges the so-called ‘great leaders of today’.

Challenging a LinkedIn Story 

A week ago, I read one of those “epiphany” stories that CEOs sometimes write.

“I was working like a dog (or based on the behaviour of my dogs, some other animal that works much harder). I was burning everything at every end. I was obsessed with my career/performance/achievements/success/business. Then I collapsed and decided to change my ways”. It must have been a long week, because for the first time ever, I threw down a few lines on LinkedIn, challenging the story, just a little.  I didn’t feel like entertaining another ‘leader story’ that had only one character.

And those few lines went wild. Over 35,000 people read those lines. They ‘liked’ them. They ‘shared’ them. They wrote to me. They resonated.

And before you leap to the defense of exhausted selfless leaders everywhere, let me assure you I wasn’t mean. Nor were the many many comments people wrote back. In fact, while I started the few lines saying I was personally happy for the newly self-reflective leader, and their newfound self-care and healthier lifestyle, others were even kinder. They posed that some leaders ‘protect’ their followers from the pain. Take it on alone, etc, etc.

The People behind a Leader

But that wasn’t the point I was trying to make. It wasn’t about the leader. It was about the people behind them. The people riding (or tossed about in) their wake, (if you like boats, you’ll know what I mean).

You see, thoughtful egalitarian leaders, who lead from the middle, in amongst it all, are like a drop in a pond. They ripple out. And often see themselves as ‘just one drop amongst many others’.

They’re not always exciting, but alongside lots of other drops, they merge together, impact others, change the pond, make it bigger. They appreciate the collective, more than the individual.

The crazy speed leaders 

But those crazy speedy leaders, who lead out front – “if it is to be, it’s up to me!”, Tally-Ho type leaders – well, they leave quite a wake. And even then, the good Tally-Ho ones, get their impact. They talk vision and inspiration, and all the while respecting those followers that ride along in their crazy wash. It’s the ones, who can’t see the people in their wash that tell the stories we’re all exhausted by.

It’s not new news that we’re working increasingly oddly, and probably unhealthily. It’s also not new news that the more control you have over your own work, the less stressful it is. So, at the top of the tree, if you’ve got control of the pace (and the place), and you’re causing the wake, not trying to ride it, it’s less stressful for you than probably anyone else. So, please don’t complain, and heavens forbid, please don’t ask for applause. It’s like punching your team in the head every morning, and when you stop, you ask them for a Thank You. 

It is the constant-texting, late-night-demanding, obsessive workaholics, that break a person. They break cultures, that break whole teams, even whole businesses. They create a nervousness around unexpected ‘what’s next’ which come in 24/7, mostly late at night or on Sundays. People in their wake are sure they “can’t put down my phone ever in case they call’ and others ‘never lose touch with the office even when sitting on an island on holiday’. They twitch when the phone buzzes a new text. They hold their breath with every new short notice request, that comes in at 5.25am, as their leader walks to their personal training session. In short, these leaders create anxiety. Their own nervousness becomes everyone else’s. They’re so afraid of not taking EVERY opportunity, or playing every shot (and I’m conscious I’m mixing metaphors), that they’re under pressure ALL the time! There is little opportunity to reflect. To think. To listen. To co-create. Let alone to care about anyone else.

Tell the whole story.

So, when they wake up to their own wicked choices, I’m just very quietly asking whether they could possibly pop a few more characters in the story when they tell it. “The day I knew I had to stop was the day a person on my team had a breakdown”. “I noticed my whole team was exhausted”. “I noticed I’d lost three great people who just walked away.” All of these sentences contain lessons for everyone. It means the leader is watching their impact. They’re aware. They’re conscious and reflective. Constantly critiquing their impact on others (isn’t that the whole purpose of leadership), and trying to improve it.

But there are far too many stories of leadership with one character.

The protagonist is the leader on their own. 

And without attempting to be too dramatic or dark, I do want to appreciate how serious this can be. I’ve worked with a leader who had three divorces in one year on their team, and another who had two heart attacks, and one suicide. In both instances, they went on to tell their ‘leadership journeys’ on stage, without once adding those people into the story. Their ‘leadership wakes’ had literally drowned people, and yet we are asked to applaud the hero/heroine of their own story, without knowing the whole story. This is where leadership ends when it doesn’t have awareness much earlier in the story.

So, my simple conclusion is now a slightly longer plea.
That we all appreciate the wake we leave as leaders.

That we tell our stories and share our lessons, with ALL the characters, even the ones who make us look somewhat less heroic. After all, there’s much more value in learning how fallible real people lead and learning hard lessons than in the fairy tales of individual perfection. Perhaps, even better still, we reflect earlier and start working in a way that makes the wake ridable, and then tell stories of how everyone went home safe and well at the end of the day.