February 16, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
The film Black Swan has created quite a buzz. In it, Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, secures the role of her dreams – the lead in Swan Lake – only to be destroyed by the pressures that accompany doing it well. There’s an important leadership lesson in that.
We can only lead well and strongly when we retain our balance and perspective. Doing this asks leaders to navigate an interesting paradox: total immersion with measured detachment.
Leadership is all about commitment, deep relationships, and authenticity. It’s hard to be successful if you stand on the sidelines. But leaders get in trouble when they forget they are playing a role and others are responding to them in it. Reactions and dynamics – positive or negative – that look very personal aren’t really very personal at all. In the leadership dance, we relate role to role.
Anyone who has ever been a lame duck having announced his or her decision to step down knows exactly what I am talking about.
Boston University social psychologist William Kahn in his study of caregivers identified a paradox in compassionate service that sheds insights on all this.
Caring professionals who serve others in need require simultaneous openness to and distance from those they seek to aid. They need clear boundaries to sustain objectivity, protect themselves from the stress of the work, and nurture essential autonomy in others. At the same time, good caregivers, like good leaders, need to understand others deeply to respond to the unique realities of their situation over time.
This only happens when caregivers “take in” those they serve – fully grasp others’ fears, capabilities, limitations, frustrations, anger, and needs. Learned skills in “clinical detachment” enable clinicians to bound this process – remain a full step away from being personally involved.
However, skilled professionals still risk “the strain of absorption”– accumulated stress from closeness to those in need, recognition of others’ pain and frustration, and the “constant waves of emotion” that wash up against them in the course of their everyday work. Over time, compassion fatigue takes a toll. It is easy for caregivers – and even easier for leaders – to ignore this and lose their sense of balance.
Leaders face internal and external pressures to produce and dynamics that keep them focused largely on follower needs. Leadership guru John Gardner acknowledges a universal ambivalence toward leaders: people want leaders who are powerful and capable of results. At the same time, they hate dependence and giving power to others. The ambivalence pushes followers to blindly up-the-dependence-ante and then punish leaders who don’t – or can’t – deliver quickly enough.
Shared conceptions of heroic leadership – the solitary superhero whose brilliance and strength save the day – support a leader’s stoic acceptance of the added pressures. So does the reality that all leaders serve at the will of their followers. Rising expectations bring the potential for rising disappointment.
The stage is set for leaders to forget the important distinction between taking their work seriously and taking their work too personally – and we saw where that led one fictional ballerina named Nina.