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Dangerous Leadership, Ignoring the Unconscious

“Just do it!” was the mantra in a young professional service company I worked with some years ago. It was the response to too much talk, too much thinking, too many meetings to discuss possible actions. It made sense at the time, carried risks that at times were quite high, but it made the adrenaline flow and did reduce prevarication. In fact it often produced some remarkably creative and successful results. Some would argue that there is a distinct lack of ‘just do it’ decision-making at the present moment. But maybe that’s the price we pay for democracy. Alas I digress.

Just-do-it leadership in organisations also exists in large doses where those with responsibility for helping steer organisations, teams, communities and even society at large do not consciously think at all about their own leadership. The unconscious leader is glued to the job in hand: actions, what needs to be done, who needs to do it, the current crisis, profit warnings, getting ahead of the competition, preparing to sell or negotiating the merger. Very rarely, if at all, do they look at their own leadership - how they lead and with what impact on people and organisation. They are unconscious as far as their own leadership is concerned.

Many leaders who are like this succeed by the automatic, unconscious application of their past experience. When they don’t succeed they may move on to the next project or the next group or the next organisation - maybe correcting their failings, or passing over their failings or blaming others or blaming circumstances.

We know that the things that remain in the unconscious are the most difficult for us to control. We at least have a chance to control those things that we are conscious or aware of. Because the unconscious is largely out of our control it can harbour many dangers and lead to patterns of weakness or failure. It might be constantly damaging other people and leaving behind a wake of unhappiness and resentment. It can lead some into a life of expert ‘cover-up’ so that no-one ever blames them for the bad decisions, inappropriate behaviour, and poor judgements. People can survive a whole career as dangerous leaders, moving on to fresh pastures when their last position doesn’t work out.

Being in control of our own leadership is of benefit to ourselves and others and the organisations or groups in which we lead. Being in control of our own leadership ensures that we continue to develop and grow as leaders, has the potential to increase our effectiveness and enables us to learn from our failures in a positive and powerful way.

There are two main ways in which we can move our unconscious into the conscious and to take control. Both require us to give a little time to reflecting or thinking back over our own leadership - the way we approach the role, how we solve problems, how we make decisions, how we use our power, our motivation and biases, our failures and the impact our behaviour has on the others with whom we come into contact.

The first is to learn to be critically self reflective as a self managed way of improving our own self awareness. Reflection is the process of thinking back over something that has happened as a way of understanding it and identifying what could be changed or done differently and what could stay the same or be increased. The word critically is important here but it involves looking at what has happened from different perspectives and realising the different meanings that could be attributed to it. If that sounds too complicated then try the second approach which is to get a coach to help you develop this ability

Moving the unconscious into the conscious is something that has in the past been seen as the role of the therapist working with people with some mental angst. It is increasingly being seen as key to understanding and developing everyone’s behaviour. We see it as a key foundational skill for people in leadership. If it’s new to you try it!

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