Chain Reaction Foundation Ltd

“I Don’t Want to Do as I’m Told So I Do Nothing” — When Dissonant Leadership Falls Short

by Margaret Bell | November 26, 2018

Cast your mind back to your early years. What were you like as a child? Perhaps you were something of a tearaway, in trouble more often than out of it, and driving parents and teachers crazy with your antics.

Or perhaps you were good as gold, excelling at school, on the sports field, and in your general behavioural record.

For most of us, the truth is somewhere in between. Few of us managed to get top grades every term, and few of us managed to score the winning goal or win the 100 metres dash. On the flipside of this, while all of us certainly had our moments, we were probably not as rebellious and as disruptive as we might think.

But one thing that unites us is receiving a ‘telling off’. Every one of us — from the straight A students to the young rebels — has been on the receiving end of a stern ticking off at some time or another in our childhood, perhaps from a teacher, a parent, or another member of our community.

So we can each remember how this feels. All of us can remember the shame, the anger, the sudden and overwhelming feeling of unfairness swelling in our insides. And we remember the sensation that comes after this — feeling attacked, and the need to defend ourselves, and hardening our resolve to reject the advice we receive.

I have used this example from early childhood, as it most keenly demonstrates the effects of dissonant leadership. We get told to do something, we don’t like it, and so we rebel, either in a small, internalised, personal sense, or in a more destructive, broader one. As we age, of course, things are a little different. We are not going to throw a tantrum at work simply because a manager pulled us up on something, nor are we going to sullenly ignore the statements of a community leader, but the principles remain the same.

If leadership is to be successful, it must bypass this quirk of human psychology, and instead move towards something more positive. But what does a positive model look like across three different spheres of leadership?


In the Business Sector

The world of business and corporate affairs is perhaps what people most closely associate with questions of leadership. While this think piece is designed to go further than this, and to explore the diverse and multifaceted aspects of leadership across a broad spectrum, it is still vital for us to recognise the importance of a great leader in the business sector.

For most of us, it is in the workplace that we feel the most exposed. Regular appraisals, meetings, and objective-completion assessments; all of these mechanisms of control within the corporate structure combine to root out problems and work towards solutions. This is all well and good in theory, but in practice, this process of ‘rooting out’ comes with a human cost. If we fail to close a deal, receive a complaint, or experience a lapse in concentration or competence, or even if we have a personal disagreement with a colleague, we may find these failings discussed and even pored over by upper management, who will then work with us to find a solution. These are not wholly unpleasant interactions, but they immediately put us on the back foot — a defensive stance is taken — and they are somewhat far removed the positive, nurturing, and caring style of leadership we have been discussing.

Let’s isolate one example — an opportunity to close a deal was missed because you didn’t have the right files to hand when you took the call. The prospect was unhappy that you seemingly had no record of her previous interactions with the company, and took her business elsewhere.

Simply informing that you that you dropped the ball is useless here — you know that you should have had the files to hand, and did not intentionally leave yourself and the business exposed in this way. Telling you to be more organised is similarly useless, and may leave you fostering resentment about being made a scapegoat for what is an institutional failing.

Instead, a manager or team leader could take this approach: What sort of resources do you feel you need to make sure you have the documents to hand 100% of the time? In what ways do you feel we could make the workplace a more positive environment for all?

Asking questions like these — and demonstrating that failures are nothing more than ubiquitous markers on the path of continual improvement — makes the whole experience far more positive, and brings about real results for the organisation.


In Our Schools and Communities

While educational concepts and best practices have certainly shifted in the past 20 years, there remains a residual sentiment of "do as I say, not as I do" in our schools and institutions. We have certainly evolved beyond the idea that young people are to be seen and not heard, and our school teachers and class leaders certainly treat the opinions and input of our younger generations with respect, but, on a systematic level, the situation is far from perfect.

We began to understand, long ago, that creating a generation of unthinking, unfeeling automatons who are well versed in the rule of law and authority but little else, is not good for Australia. As such, merely reiterating what is expected of a student — i.e. reinforcing the minimum standard of compliance — and demonstrating the consequences of stepping out of line, becomes useless in this context.

Of course, we need a generation of young people who respect the bounds of civil and legal law, as well as the broader codes of ethics and morality. But this adherence chiefly to rules and restrictions should come from a position of empathy and altruism, from an understanding that existing in a free and vibrant society brings with it certain rights and responsibilities.

As such this does not cease to be true upon graduation into the wider world. Instead, it is carried forth into our communities. By working with students and with community members within our local and national societies, building empathy and compassion, leads the way towards a more positive, more effective, social structure throughout society.


In Our Family Units

Our family units, like our schools, are evolving. They are becoming more democratic, more egalitarian, and more open spaces for discussion. Leadership — in most cases — is still delineated along the old-fashioned lines of age and experience, but this is not only part of the duty and privilege of being a parent — it is part of human nature.

That is not to say that we should simply ignore the modern concepts that pervade in leadership, including the positive, collaborative approach to being a genuine leader which has become so important in our businesses and within our communities. Instead, these concepts should — and need to — be embraced.

Let’s imagine a family unit with three children. The three children are equally loved, equally cared for, equally protected and provided for, but their personalities are unequal. The younger is more boisterous than his older sister, and his older brother, who is the eldest of the three. It is the older brother who bears the brunt of the youngest child’s hijinks, often retaliating with annoyance and even hitting or swearing at his younger sibling. The parents chastise both, delivering equal punishment to both for bad behaviour, and equal rewards for good. This is the way they feel justice should be done, and this is understandable. However, for the eldest sibling, whose own negative behaviours are all the result of reactions to those of the younger brother, a sense of justice is lacking — he feels hard done by, even less favoured in the eyes of his parents. And, as such, his self-esteem falls and he grows increasingly wayward.

But it need not be this way. The parents, instead of striving, admirably, to spread the weight of their authority evenly across their three children when they transgress, could instead break down the boundaries that separate them. This can be achieved by simply asking questions, gathering feedback, and talking to children like the real, fully formed, human beings that they are.

In practice, this would work by sitting down with the youngest sibling, and asking him how things could be done differently around the house, how he could be better supported in order to rein in the bad behaviour. Then, the parents would sit down with their eldest, and discuss his frustrations, gaining insight into his feelings and emotions, and demonstrating their love and the strength of their feeling towards him. While the parents should not blindly 

acquiesce to each and every desire of their children, gaining emotional data in this way makes the entire structure far more effective.

Young people do not want to simply be told to do this and that. No one wants to be told what to do and be ordered about. Real leadership — genuine, leadership — does not look like this. Positive leadership is about understanding, encouragement and compassion, providing communication on terms — not from a position of authority but from a position of understanding, the results that this brings are enormous.

Margaret Bell, AM - Founder and CEO of Chain Reaction Foundation.

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