Rough and tumble or unacceptable?

I seem to be witnessing harm more often in the work environment than I ever have before. As a senior executive leader, I sit in a space where there are plenty of opportunities for the conflict and contestability of ideas, concepts, policies and strategies.

All of that is both okay and to be expected, even applauded.

However what I find concerning is when debates amongst leaders descend into verbal abuse, mockery, disrespect, dismissiveness, derision, and bullying. And not so much towards me (although I am not immune from it), but to my professional and hard-working staff and colleagues.

Having raised this with a number of senior colleagues, often the response is along the lines of ‘it’s just the rough and tumble nature of political, bureaucratic and corporate negotiation’.

Really? Is it really acceptable to have to resort to such tactics to gain a perceived win? And is it really a win? The answer of course that it’s not. I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s never acceptable to operate as a leader in this way.

Understanding the harm that comes from anger

So, where does this come from? Ultimately it arises from an inflated view of Self and its role and importance in the world, coupled with the pervasive toxicity of anger and an attachment to a worldly view that is reinforced by varying levels of personal ignorance.

All of these influences pervade constantly and simultaneously in our minds to varying degrees, sometimes very subtly, sometimes highly overtly. None of us escape their influence on some level and even at the most subtle level they are harmful and need to be abandoned.

However, out of all of them, anger is by far the most harmful. For it is an angry mind that establishes the root cause of all violence in the world, whether it be mentally, verbally or physically. Without anger it is simply not possible to purposely harm another human being. I would even argue that without anger unintentional harm is also highly unlikely because the mind has a much better chance of being considerate of others through its compassionate nature.

Becoming familiar with anger – an essential component of leadership in today’s world

As leaders it is critical that we become intimately familiar with anger and the destructive role it plays in our leadership. We also need to categorically choose a wiser path. We need to develop our patience, tolerance and consideration of others. We need to genuinely understand the view of others and seek to find mutually acceptable outcomes wherever possible. We need to surrender our tightly held worldly views of what ought to be and instead be open to the views of others without sacrificing what is truly important to us. If we need to be forceful, then we need to develop a wisdom about our assertiveness and learn the very clear distinctions between this approach and anger. Simply put, anger has no place in assertiveness nor in any other response.

Taking a page from Mandela’s leadership style

I was speaking to a colleague of mine the other day and we reflected upon some of the world’s most influential leaders, both past and present (including Jacinda Ardern) and how they dealt with such tensions. As the conversation progressed my colleague alluded to the fact that some years ago he had personally met Nelson Mandela. ‘Wow, what a privilege!’ I thought as I had studied Mandela’s life, politics and leadership for many years.

I, like many, admired him for many reasons but perhaps the most significant reason was his ability to navigate and lessen otherwise inevitable harm and suffering. Harm and suffering that his nation would have experienced had he not led them eventually to the safer waters of political freedom through tolerance, patience and forgiveness to name but a few of the ethics we all so admire. However, in order to do that, there was a decision he needed to make when he left prison.

Choosing a wiser way to lead

So what was Nelson Mandela’s decision? After 27 years of incarceration as a political prisoner, during which time he lost a son and a marriage to name but only a few of his personal adversities, he walked out beyond the prison gates to his freedom. In so doing he realised that if he didn’t leave his anger behind the prison walls it would haunt and imprison him for the rest of his life. So he made a very clear decision to surrender his anger and find a more virtuous path. A path that ultimately liberated South Africa from oppression to achieving the very thing he had committed his life to; the political freedom of his entire country.

So, if we want a more peaceful world, and for most of us this is a truth, then anyone in a position of leadership, whether it be formal, informal, inferred or explicit, at the global, national, local, familial or personal level, needs to surrender their anger and choose a wiser path. A path that permits leadership to do its work in inspiring people to move towards mutually beneficial outcomes that create a happier, more peaceful world. For a world without anger is a world that is truly free.