Leading while sleepwalking

Talking with one of my colleagues, we arrived at this interesting insight. There’s a certain kind of trap that a leader might find themselves in. We named it the “sleepwalking leadership.” It seems to disproportionately afflict leaders who hold a lot of power while facing immensely complex, wicked problems. The vast scope of the challenge can be disorienting and anxiety-inducing, and a leader might find themselves in a position where they demand that their team do something impossible: to make complexity simple. By delegating sitting with complexity in this way, the leaders unwittingly start the process of peeling away from reality. The reports will conjure up well-polished plans and provide crisp updates, striving to deliver something that makes sense to the anxious leader. And given that they are effective and brilliant people, they will succeed. There will be long-running programs in place that deliver on clearly-defined metrics and dashboards that show progress. Except the picture they continue to paint will look less and less like what is actually happening. And since they’re the people facing the reality, the team will know it, but be afraid to wake up their sleepwalking leader.

Having been on both sides of this trap, I am learning that the leadership in a complex environment might come down to my capacity for non-anxious presence. No matter how hard, it is the leader’s burden to endure the nature of the challenge.  I might be saying all the right words, and doing all the right kinds of things, but the overly sharp response in a crucial meeting, or even tension in my voice can produce a shift in what mission the team embodies. Is it what’s on the first slide of our decks at the all-hands? Or is it more about protecting the anxious leader from all the complexity?

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