Leadership is an act of love with service at its centre

By Stew Darling

Woman hand yoga pose. Practicing meditation and praying indoors.

Leadership is an act of love with service at its centre. Unfortunately, and to the detriment of us all, leadership is often mistakenly thought of as being about the exercise of power and control. 

We’ve all seen how damaging that kind of leadership can be. Most disturbingly, it’s the kind of leadership we sometimes see when people are faced with a situation that overwhelms their usual sense of self and their core values.

By thinking about leadership in terms of self, situation, and system we can help ourselves stay on track as leaders and lead teams and organisations that thrive.

Cycles of negative behaviour often stem from the social environment, the ‘system’, in which individuals grew up. Recognising the influence of family dynamics, cultural norms, and socioeconomic conditions on our core self can help us to prevent negative behaviour and promote responsible and effective leadership.

This means that when we are under pressure as a leader we don’t default to the emotional deficits of our past or act from a place of psychological damage. Rather, we stand firmly on the bedrock of our values, and remember that leadership is about service to others not control of others.

The Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971 is a well-known example of a system creating a situation which overwhelmed the self. The situation participants found themselves in played a pivotal role in their behaviour during the experiment. Immersed in a simulated prison environment, participants’ attitudes and actions were influenced. Participants assumed roles as prisoners or guards, leading to the emergence of negative behaviours among some guards.

In the Abu Ghraib prison atrocity, the situational factors of the Iraq War and the hostile environment fostered abusive behaviours among some American soldiers. The shocking photographs from Abu Ghraib reveal disturbing parallels to the behaviours observed in Zimbardo’s experiment, providing real-life proof of how the situation can override individual moral compasses and lead to extreme mistreatment of others. 

Understanding situational factors, such as the stressors and power dynamics in CEO and governance settings, is crucial to avoiding situational overwhelm. 

So how do we instil those positive leadership traits in our muscle memory so that we can remain true to the right kind leadership under pressure? We do this by helping to create a system around us that supports healthy leadership qualities in everyone.

The first step is fostering a positive leadership culture within the workplace from the bottom up. 

Empowering employees at all levels to contribute ideas and participate in decision-making enhances engagement and motivation. It fosters open communication, trust, and respect, allowing diverse perspectives to be considered. This leads to better problem-solving, collaboration, and psychological safety. 

Bottom-up leadership also encourages a sense of ownership and accountability among employees. When given autonomy and responsibility, individuals take ownership of their work, fostering a positive feedback loop. This shared accountability strengthens teamwork, support, and the overall work culture.  It also assists the executive in identifying succession plans and future leaders.

If you’re a new leader, read about historical leaders to gain a comprehensive understanding of different perspectives and approaches to leadership. None of us are inventing leadership. When we read about other leaders what we are doing is putting ourselves in the presence, even on the page, of the leaders who do or did it well (or badly) so we can ‘catch’ good leadership approaches from them and avoid bad leadership approaches.  We also expand our points of reference away from being solely anchored in the current system in which we find ourselves.

By studying the experiences of leaders from various times and contexts, new leaders can learn from their successes, failures, and the consequences of their actions. This broadens their perspective and enables them to adapt and integrate lessons from diverse leaders into their own leadership style. It fosters critical thinking, empathy, and a nuanced understanding of the complexities of leadership.

This is particularly important when leaders don’t have the prior first-hand experience of the situations, they’re being expected to lead others through.  

Let’s face it, that’s more and more the case for all of us as we’re encountering things for the first time, such as the impact of human-induced climate change and the rapid evolution of AI. We’re also encountering these new situations at pace. We simply don’t have the luxury of decades to acquire leadership experience.

Even experienced leaders can always learn more. Every situation is different from the last. Prior experience may not provide the answer for the new experience; it can only point to a solution.

The good news is though that you’re not alone as a leader. You can create a strong sense of self, gain insight into the situations you face and how others have handled those situations well or not well, and work to create a system that supports healthy leadership.

We can develop the skills, insights, and ethical compass necessary to navigate the complexities of CEO and governance roles and lead our organisations to success while fostering a positive and inclusive work culture.

So, back to my first statement, leadership is an act of love with service at its centre. If you’d like to know more about what I mean or find it odd that I’m mentioning love and leadership in the same sentence, get in touch.

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