Shadows of the unicorn: How good leaders can negatively affect the world

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unicorn shadowHi everyone, I came back recharged after spending a week sequestered at the University of Washington for the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI). I learned many things about myself. For example, I tend to cuss way too much when giving toasts (“Hells yeah, this is the best @#$%& leadership program ever; let’s drink to that $#@%, mo-fos!”). This may explain why I don’t get invited to many weddings or kids’ birthday parties.

The five and a half days were intense, 10 to 12 hours each day learning about important concepts like “Are we spending enough time on the balcony, versus the dance floor?” “Are we using both formative as well as summative evaluations?” “Do we have enough jargon in the field, or should we create more?” And “Have we nonprofit leaders let ourselves go in the dress department?” The first three questions depend on your organization, but the answer to the last one is, “No; grey hooded sweaters and jeans are perfectly appropriate attires for nonprofit leaders, provided they have no more than one visible stain each.” I like to think of myself as a less economically comfortable but equally sexy nonprofit version of Mark Zuckerberg.

The week was a wonderful and much-needed time to connect with colleagues, and many of us seriously rethought our basic strategy for solving challenges. My new ED friend, Michelle, for example had the strategy called “Just Punch People in the Throat.”

Before, my default philosophy for handling everything was the “Gotham City Approach,” which was to destroy something so that a better version could form, for example, “What? Our database is down again? We must destroy it so that a new database could rise from the ashes!” or “The marketing committee is not meeting regularly? We must destroy it so that a new marketing team could rise from the ashes!” Or “What, he left his dishes in the sink again?! We must destroy him so that a new staff who could wash the dishes promptly could rise from the ashes!”

Now I’m thinking about Technical versus Adaptive challenges, Moving the Flywheel, the Fox vs. the Hedgehog, the 7-S’s, the 3 C’s, Flipping the Iceberg, Tickling the Badger, and Riding the T-Rex.

OK, I made up the last two.

What I’ve been thinking about most, though, is an essay from Parker Palmer’s book, Let your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. He talks about how most leaders tend to be extroverts, because society thinks those qualities—being able to be sociable, to network, to give speeches—are what make good leaders, and leadership programs orient toward these skills of manipulating the external world. Focusing on shaping the environment around them, leaders rarely spend time looking inward. And why would they? Looking inward is at best not fun, and at worst messy or even painful.

But leaders, by definition, project light and shadows on the world around them, and if they don’t know themselves, they can project way more shadow than they do light. According to Palmer, we tend to project these shadows below. He talks about leaders in the general sense, so I’ll try to relate that to our nonprofit work:

  • Our identity matters more than others’. In our need to be recognized, to be rewarded, to have a sense of self, we often deprive others. Good leaders understand that “Identity doesn’t depend on titles. It doesn’t depend on degrees. It doesn’t depend on functioning.” At annual dinners, for example, “important” people like politicians sit in the front, close to the stage. But why? Maybe we should save those seats for our students, community members, and key volunteers.
  •  The universe is hostile, and everything is a battle. The work is stressful, and we tend to use metaphors like “continue fighting” and “do or die,” “pull out our big guns,” etc. But this sort of attitude of competition and war becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I find that I tend to think that way, especially when there is so much crappiness and unfairness everywhere. But maybe no one is really out to get anyone. Our role as nonprofit professionals is not to fight some vast invisible army bent on evil and injustice, but to restore balance where there is imbalance.
  • Functional Atheism. This is Palmer’s term for our unconscious belief that if anything good will happen, we ourselves have to be agent. Basically, things will continue to suck unless I am personally going to do something about it. This may explain why we nonprofit types burn out so quickly. We each genuinely believe that we and we alone can save the world, and Smokey the Bear does not help at all with his message that “Only YOU can prevent forest fire!” You know what, there are many people in the world, and Palmer says “we do not have to carry the whole load, that we can be empowered by sharing the load with others, and that sometimes we are even free to lay our part of the load down.” Dude. That’s such a relief. If we can all believe that, maybe we won’t all burn out as fast.
  • Fear of chaos. Many of us are chaos-tamers. We like this role, bringing order where there is none. We freak out when systems are not in place or they’re not working perfectly. But all sorts of great stuff comes from chaos. It is necessary for creation.  And when leaders fear it and not treat it as something necessary and natural to the existence of order, others fear it too and then everyone freaks out about everything.
  • Denial of death. We think of death as a bad thing, and we try to hold on to life. This may be why we cling on to programs and projects that should have ended or changed a while ago, or why so many of us have issues with founding board members, who refuse to accept that the death of their involvement and influence may be necessary for new life and ideas to form.

All right, that’s a lot to think about. I haven’t thought this much in a long while since the first episode of Sherlock Holmes (the one with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman). I needed to write these lessons down for my own inner processes. Palmer’s point that we all, especially those of us called “leaders,” can vastly influence the world around us for good or for not-so-good is an important one to mull over. We must take time to know ourselves. We in nonprofit are all unicorns, as I wrote in this post for Valentine’s Day, “Nonprofit Professionals, You are Each a Unicorn.” But even as unicorns, as we do our work, we should take time to think about whether we are casting more shadow than light on the world and people around us.

And if we are, we should destroy ourselves, so that better unicorns could rise from the ashes…