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Addressing the Irony: Three Styles of Leadership

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The only alternative is freeze. If we can just hide behind a tree or stand absolutely still, then maybe we won’t be detected by the enemy. If we make no choices under a condition of irony (where there are contradictions everywhere), then we don’t have to encounter another enemy. Unfortunately, freeze is not very good for our body or mind. We are frightened and this triggers the neurotransmitters and hormones needed to engage in fight or flight. We are suddenly wired for action, yet decide that the best action is inaction. As a result of this freezing response, our body is boiling over but unable to dissipate the energy. We end up with ulcers, hypertension and other stress-related illnesses.

Our courageous leader doesn’t have much of a role to play when freeze is the chosen response. Furthermore, she is likely to experience the stress associated with inaction in a very personal manner. Our courageous leader probably will be even more stressed by the inaction than will other members of the group, organization or society—given expectations that the courageous leader will take action. Thus, while freeze may be the most common reaction to powerful and highly active enemies, it is least aligned with the assumptions about courageous leadership—leaving many organizations with a pervasive sense of profound disappointment in the “cowardly” inaction of their leaders.

The Challenges and Irony of Courageous Leadership

Just as the challenge of a wisdom-based form of leadership can be summed up in two phrases words (succession planning and appreciation), so can leadership based on courage be summed up in two phrases: powerful enemy and decisiveness. We must retain (and never defeat) the enemy. We must “sort of” win, but not too decisively. If we lose our enemy than we are no longer needed as a courageous leader. This is the ultimate in Hard Irony. It can drive any of us mad (or at least can drive us to anger—leading us to the search for a new enemy)!

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