The Submissive Side of Leadership

Submissiveness and leadership may seem like an oxymoron. Effective leadership requires a strong vision, decisiveness, determination, and tenacity — and I certainly can’t argue with that. But at the same time, leaders need to allow themselves the opportunity to listen to others as well as environmental cues so that we can strategically — and creatively — respond to the world in which we live — and make that world a better place.

Collaborative creative leadership is the process of gathering, integrating, cultivating, and cyclically enhancing the ideas and dreams of others, resulting in possibilities that we alone could not imagine or realize. Ideas can be gathered both formally and informally, through dialogue and multilogue, intentionally and haphazardly, as well as verbally and nonverbally. Ideas are everywhere — in words spoken and unspoken, cloud formations, passive sighs, and the distinctive colors of each evening’s sunset. Intuitive leaders are always paying attention, and are continually analyzing and making sense of their observations.

The ideas that emerge can be woven together, creating a unique tapestry of possibility — one where the colors and textures become more deep, complex, and alive with every passing moment. Each careful, delicate stitch expands and enhances the leader’s vision for provocation and transformation. As that vision is enacted and becomes experience, new threads are spun and woven into the cloth. The tapestry is not just a spectacle for followers to gawk at, it is a living thing to which they can contribute. It reflects something inside of them and something that inspires them; yet, it is much more beautiful and expansive than what they originally intended. The cloth was created by the leader, yet the image it projects was derived from a much broader source.

Being submissive isn’t about being soft, it is about being confident enough in ourselves and our strengths to listen, respond, and create. Submission in leadership is not an all-or-nothing proposition; it is a moment-to-moment process from which we can exit at any moment. It is also not about obedience and conformity; leaning into our submissive side as leaders actually challenges and provokes the world as it exists. Leaders are expected to be in the front, to be the point of light that everyone else seeks out and follows. When that leader instead ignites the light within each person in the crowd, the ambient but energizing glow of new possibilities ensues. Being submissive doesn’t require us to give up anything in ourselves, it provides an opportunity to receive and employ the individual and collective wisdom of others.

Fear keeps leaders from allowing ourselves to be submissive – fear of losing control, appearing incompetent, having someone else get ahead, or being perceived as unleader-like. By letting go of fear in leadership, we can creatively collaborate to not only reimagine our world, but to make tangible and sustainable changes.

Headbanger’s Rule #7: Taking a Chance

One of my favorite songs is Judas Priest’s Heading out to the Highway. I also love the video. Yes, I’m a bit of a tomboy. Anyway, the entire song is really inspirational. Early in the song, the lyrics state, “you get nothing for nothing, expect it when you’re backseat driving and your hands ain’t on the wheel,” and later, “I’m gonna do it my way, take a chance before I fall.” You really should just listen to the whole song. The gist of it is that we should fully engage in life without being afraid of failure; if we fall, we can bring ourselves back up again. We should take risks, perhaps safer ones than those portrayed in the video, so that we can realize our full human potential.

L3: Be a Friend to Your Fears

I once got a really nice email message from a program officer at a major foundation. She asked if we could schedule a phone meeting to discuss the consulting services offered by The Fruition Coalition. I was happy about the opportunity and honored to have been considered in this way. Then the fear set in. In the week between scheduling the meeting and the scheduled meeting time, I felt overwhelmed with dread, fear, and anxiety whenever I thought about it.  I was very aware of these complex feelings and mystified by the paradox. I should be ecstatic, excited, and hopeful. Why was I feeling so bad when I should be feeling so good?

I examined the possible underlying sources of my fear. Perhaps I was afraid of failure; the phone call might not go well and the foundation might choose not to work with me. I could have also been afraid of success; having a productive phone conversation may have led to more work which would have been difficult to fit into my already hectic schedule. Maybe it was the tone set by the program officer; did I really still have apprehension of, and contempt for, people in positions of authority even though I had long before become one of them? One final thought crossed my mind: I may have misinterpreted my physiological and psychic signals based on a greater familiarity and comfort level with failure than success. Filled with eager anticipation and exhilaration, my switch flipped to afraid and retreating as a conditioned response.

I am still not positive about the true source of my fear. But by facing my fear and taking the time to seek greater understanding, I gained insight into my human complexities and felt more capable of effectively managing and transforming fear in the future.

It is quite natural to feel fear in a variety of situations. The more frequently we experience and process fear, the better able we will be to transcend this negative reaction and solidify our confidence and ability to remain in control. Fears have the tendency to drive negative behaviors, but by facing them we can position ourselves to make more meaningful and insightful decisions.

Fear is nothing to be afraid of. Embrace and love your fears. Recognize that it is natural.  Invite them in and get to know them. Show your fearful side lovingkindness and compassion.   Seek understanding of the root causes of your fear and clean up the residue from those turbulent times.

By living in the present moment, we can minimize the manifestation of fearful thoughts and feelings. Fear and anxiety tend to originate from memories of past experiences and anticipation of what the future will bring. Right now, at this very moment, you are a whole and complete human being with everything you need to survive and thrive.

For those of you who have a habit of worrying (like me), staying present can be a challenge. Meditation, prayer, or quiet reflection time can be helpful. You can also try to direct that recurrent stream of ridiculous ideas into a more productive train of thought. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen?” and, “What else can go wrong?”. Consider each response individually.  Ask, “If this happens, so what?” Think about the consequence of this fear becoming a reality.  Keep asking yourself, “so what?” until the impact seems insignificant, or at least manageable.

Let’s apply this exercise to my example of the phone meeting with a foundation program officer:

What is the worst that can happen? The program officer won’t like me. She’ll think I’m not as accomplished as other consultants she works with. She won’t recommend my work to grantees.

So what? This contact will not result in new work opportunities.

So what? I will have to keep searching for new organizations to work with.

So what? This is what I should be doing anyway. I’ll be OK.

My NIMBY Campaign

Some people are prejudiced and judgmental.

Not in my backyard.

Some people are indifferent toward people who are poor or homeless.

Not in my backyard.

Some people prefer to protect themselves rather than to serve humanity.

Not in my backyard.

Some people project their fears onto the world around them.

Not in my backyard.

Some people perpetuate violence rather than promote peace.

Not in my backyard.

Unmask Me

“You’re still hiding in a mask, you take your fun seriously. No, don’t blow this year’s chance. Tomorrow your mold goes back on.” – Halloween, Dead Kennedys

In the opening of The Madman, Khalil Gibran thanks the thieves who stole his seven masks and revealed to him the sweet kiss of the sun for the first time. I, too, long to be madwoman and yearn to see the light of day, yet I sometimes hide in the darkness cast by my seven masks. By unveiling my masks, I offer them to the thieves in the night so that they may be stolen and I may be set free. They are:

1. The mask of my former selves

2. The mask of desires and that to which I think I aspire

3. The mask of my expectations for myself and others

4. The mask of fear of the unknown

5. The mask of shame and guilt

6. The mask of perfection and control

7. The maskless mask, or the illusion of not wearing a mask