Forget thick skin – take opposition personally

Are good leaders still expected to fall in line, and never break rank? It might seem so, judged by interesting events at a university last month. A tenured professor, who also held an administrative leadership position, lashed out publicly at changes which he, and others, had been warned privately not to resist. First he was fired, then following a media maelstrom, he was quickly reinstated. Soon after, his leader was terminated. When the business press commented, it was about whether or not it’s okay to disagree publicly with your leader.

Dissent picI’m more interested in how the relationship between this employee and their organization ever got this bad. Clearly, whoever was leading the change effort underestimated the importance of bringing people on board. Such a setting – a university steeped in a rich history with diverse stakeholders with competing interests – requires a very sophisticated level of personal influence. When leading a widespread change, you must anticipate some resistance. Threatening digressers scatters other followers. Simple wisdom says without followers you are not leading – you are going it alone.

This is a cautionary tale. Leaders are called to take others into new, unknown and sometimes scary, territory. They must see a non-existent future, and then envision it in an inspiring way. Positional power is meant to assist leaders in getting things done, but it’s not the best power to rely on. To shut down the expression of dissent is both unwise and short-sighted.

You may have been told that a leader needs thick skin – and that he or she must not take opposition too personally. That adage works well if you need courage to persevere. But here’s a spin on it: When someone disagrees, take it personally. Don’t make the mistake of using your power to ignore signs of opposition. Information about possible roadblocks is best shared early in a change effort. Instead of getting angry or demanding compliance when you hear criticisms, try taking it personally.

What do I mean by taking it personally?  Pause and reflect on why you are angry, annoyed or irritated by this person’s dissenting view. What triggers your leadership stubbornness?

  • You feel you have earned trust and credibility and wish that others would just follow along without question
  • You also see flaws in your solution or plan, but you aren’t willing to expose them or have decided you need to move forward anyway.
  • You know something more that you cannot share, so you can’t provide your logic even though with the whole picture in context, you might not be opposed
  • You have a sense of urgency and don’t have time to re-visit the issue, and you are annoyed by the added complexity they have raised
  • You feel you have done a poor job of communicating the solution or the intention, and you are angry with yourself
  • You don’t trust the intentions of the opposition – you think they are creating a distraction and confusion to trip you up or that they are habitually negative

By taking it personally, you can own your irritation and anger and can manage your stubbornness. From a grounded place of self-awareness, you will be more able to hear the information that is being given. You will hear that change is difficult, on a physical, mental and emotional level. Listen to the criticism – really listen – and ask yourself what response is most required. It may not be that you have to abandon your change effort. It may simply be that your authentic listening is all that was required for others to trust you enough to follow behind.

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