Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In Defense of Stormy Leadership

You are the sunshine, baby, whenever you smile
But I call you stormy, today
All of a sudden that ol' rain is fallin' down
And my world is cloudy and gray
You've gone away.....Stormy, Santana

I just finished reading a blog post on SmartBlog on Leadership called "What Kind of Weather Are You Making."

I have to say, this post tore me in two directions.  One half of my brain agrees with the author.  Yes, we do have a responsibility to create a positive work environment and to bring our best selves to each situation.  As association leaders we know our attitude and the attitudes around us can affect a group in both positive and negative ways.  After all, mirror neurons (highlighted in the TEDTalk below) are the roots of empathy and we all have a zillion of them up in our cerebral cortex.  Moods are contagious.  I get it.

However, the other half of my brain rejects the notion that in order to be an effective leader, you must have a "sunny" disposition. And if you don't have one naturally, then you have to either develop one or get good at "faking it." There is a tendency in this culture to put an emphasis on extroversion and a "positive outlook," as if those two personality traits in combination produce the best leaders.

I also can't help but perceive an unspoken gender bias in these "the best leaders are the sunny ones" lectures whether it is intentional or not. It's the same type of bias that underpins those "helpful hints" to women executives to "be less emotional" in the workplace, or that tries to reduce intelligent, assertive women to a "witchy-but-not-with-a-w" stereotype. (I'm not saying the author intended any gender bias AT ALL in their column, I'm just speaking in general about "leadership lessons" that have been bestowed upon myself and my female counterparts for years.)

Sometimes I think we could use some association leaders who are a bit more on the stormy side.  Who are willing and able to shake the foundations. I've been known to bring a storm now and again. I believe there are times when a good storm is necessary and can be used to your advantage. When you decide you won't take something anymore, or draw a line in the sand. When the chips are down, when the situation is serious, a "sunny" leader (in my opinion) can seem patronizing at best, and out of touch at worst.

Were there times when I could have been a better leader and could have been sunnier than I was? Oh sure.  There are lots of moments I could have handled better, and maybe "sunny" would have led to a better outcome. But there are also moments when being willing and able to wield a storm led to some of my finest moments, bravest actions and most enduring achievements.  Leadership skills are all refined with practice and experience. Moderating, directing and channeling the storm is clearly more effective than letting it rage unchecked. That knowledge came with age and time. But to reduce "best leadership skills" to "being sunny" just doesn't cut it for me.

Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to be angry, passionate and motivated. Sometimes we need to let ourselves laugh hilariously until we can't breathe. Sometimes we need to get wildly creative, jettison our assumptions, brainstorm new options and harness new winds. And sometimes we need to take a breath, count to ten and maybe keep our mouths shut.

The point is, I would much rather hear less about how we need leaders who are "sunnier" and more about how our leaders need to be more "human."  I would much rather work with a grumpy, crackerjack person who gets the job done than a sunny, marshmallow-headed dope.

Of those two, who is likely to make the best leader?  You tell me.

Links for those who can't see the videos - TEDTalk and Santana - Stormy (a little 1970's groove for us Gen Xers whose folks had this playing on that big cabinet stereo in the living room)


  1. Hopefully those aren't the only two choices :-)

    I think it is possible to be a leader who takes risks (which to me seems to be related to the "stormy" attribute you describe) and who demands that responsibility be taken for progress, while at the same time showing appropriate respect to those around them. Being "grumpy" strikes me as not being sufficiently cognizant of the impact that one's bearing has on those around them. So, "grumpy" is not a desirable attribute, and it's not even a necessary attribute in order for someone to be effective.

    However, if my *only* choices are nice & ineffective and grumpy & effective, I guess I will grudgingly go with the latter.

  2. There are always many shades of gray in between extremes...I try to highlight extremes so we can laugh and then shift back to center....

    And yes, if reduced to a simplistic choice effective wins for me every time....:D



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