This week I’ve talked to and read about many men expressing profound disappointment, sadness and even despair at the Sandusky-Paterno affair in the wake of the Tiger Woods mess. Not being a football or golf fan, at first I didn’t get it – just another set of pedestals and their icons fallen, right?
No, not right. After listening beneath the words of my friends and the media beginning to tell the stories of many men affected by this sad story (by which I don’t just mean Sandusky’s victims, but male victims of coach and priest abuse as well) I believe that the fallout from this tragedy is going to continue for some time.
And as sad as I am for the victims – the boys and men who experienced the abuse and those millions of others whose heroes have fallen recently – I’m glad our sports heroes are being exposed for the human beings they are. Why? Because we too easily accept that money and greed breed cynicism. The fall of Wall Street and political icons is something we’ve come to expect; but the fall of sports icons to something other than financial greed makes it impossible to ignore the simple fact that abuse of external power can happen everywhere and lead to greater harm than simple financial ruin.
My husband said a wise thing to me when we were discussing this recently, and it has vast implications for leaders and those of us in leadership development. He said, “When are we going to understand that there are no heroes? Only heroic deeds?”
The Myth of Paternalistic Leadership
As a culture, we cling to the paternalistic myth of leadership, that our leaders must be strong, brave, courageous and – perfect. They must always know the answers, be right, never show weakness and protect us from all manner of outside threat. In business, this means that the most successful leaders should thrive on conflict and competition, win or come back fighting to win in the end. We excuse a**hole behavior (e.g., Steve Jobs) to perpetuate this myth, and we penalize many up-and-coming leaders who value authenticity over braggadocio because they don’t live up to this image. And of course, many people succeed within this paternalistic culture following these rules so we can point to them and say “See? It works!”
But many people fail too, because the paternalistic myth isn’t real. Everyone is human and no one knows all the answers.
As our economy and institutions hang suspended in uncertainty and polarization, we continue to look for the hero white knight who will sweep in and save us.
Guess What, America? He Isn’t Coming.
While we wait for our hero, the world keeps falling apart. We look around and see our heroes tarnished and fallen. Our media culture crouches nearby waiting to take down the next one that pops up and we’re feel deserted by the hero when no one takes a stand. But really, who wants to be eaten alive in the media eye? So who’s left to save us?
This is what happens to children on the brink of growing up, when we see dad through the eyes of adult. Dad has always just been a human and had his foibles and weaknesses, but as kids we couldn’t see them because we needed to believe someone else’s power kept us safe until we were strong enough. He didn’t want to show his weaknesses to us because he thought we wouldn’t love and respect him. A perfect standoff until we take that last step, grow up, shoulder the responsibilities of leadership for ourselves and let dad off the perfection hook while holding him responsible for his actions.
A Call To Leaders Everywhere To Tap Their Internal Power
For those of us in business leadership and leadership development, the time is now to help our colleagues, mentees and organizations step into a new model of leadership. And no, as strongly as I champion women in leadership I don’t mean a maternalistic model. Yes, I believe that an integration of the feminine and masculine leadership characteristics is part of the solution, but it’s an integrated model that will get us out of this mess.
The challenge we face in our leadership culture is that we’ve put too much emphasis on the benefits of external power – money, authority and the ability to manipulate external resources. In doing so, we’ve underinvested in developing our understanding and ability to manage our internal resources – our thoughts, energy, actions – to lead change and transformation in a world that desperately needs it.
Think about how dad does it when he does it well. The more he accepts his weaknesses himself; the more he learns to manage them – not hide them – so his strengths help him do what needs to be done; the more he helps us understand as children how to manage our own unique strengths and weaknesses to be proud of who we are and effective at making good things happen in the world; then it’s easier for us to see his humanity as noble – even with his weaknesses – and learn to emulate him as we grow into adulthood. When he calls on his internal power to lead he makes it easier for us to transition through the (inevitable) disappointment of losing our heroic father and accept the strong, capable and fallible man who has supported us, kept bread on the table and brought us up to share the burden of leadership for the next generation.
Think this still sounds too perfect? Don’t. It happens every day. In millions of households and in millions of organizations lead by unsung men and women who don’t make the front page of Forbes or Sports Illustrated but who work to build their internal power to lead others to prosperity, failure and success.
You. Don’t Wait Any Longer.
If you’re one of these leaders who uses internal power effectively, I call on you now to step it up and show others what it means to use this internal power. Internal power isn’t brash, but it is strong and it can be vocal. Be explicit about what you’re doing and mentor those around you. Own your power by sharing it and recognizing it in others as well so they can own theirs too.
If you aspire to this kind of leadership, invest in developing your internal power to lead effectively. I’m investing in helping you, and you can start by learning to speak your truth to power effectively and well to get ahead in your career, accomplish meaningful things and live and lead in integrity.
Women, I Mean You Too
Ladies, this means you too. I’ve heard several women say in the wake of the Penn State debacle that if a woman had found Sandusky he never would have gotten away with it. I’m not so sure this is true. The male culture that covered up this travesty could easily have intimidated a woman into silence. However, I do feel confident in saying that if there had been more women involved in the Penn State culture, the coverup would never have happened. But this isn’t a men vs. women thing. Just as the paternalistic leadership style is failing us, we’re waking up to the fact that the maternalistic archetypes no longer serve us either. We can’t succeed and be what our businesses, families and culture needs us to be if we remain demure, shy and on the sidelines. We have what it takes to claim our 50% role in leadership and no hero is coming to sweep us onto his white horse and give us the Queen’s crown either.
All of us must step up and step In Power. Now.
A personal note. Kudos and gratitude once more to my husband’s leadership for making this transition into adulthood easy on my sons.