Harvard Graduate School of Education Logo

The Leadership Trap

Leadership is never easy, but it can be more fruitful if leaders welcome the uncomfortable as part of their work

January 28, 2009
illustration of a man walking a tightrope

Are you a high-performing leader working full tilt to make your dreams come true? And have you ever been weighed down by any of the following experiences?

  • You’ve been thrown for a loop — by the actions of others or by your own mistakes — and the resulting snafu was surprisingly gut-wrenching.
  • You’ve tried to control your upset at being thrown — but, instead, you’ve become even more upset and diverted your attention from moving forward.
  • You’ve brooded over your tangles, berated yourself for falling short, and at times even wondered whether you might be undermining your own effectiveness.

If these uncomfortable experiences sound familiar, you may be ensnared — as I’ve been ensnared — in “the leadership trap.”

This thought piece examines the trap and how to unlock it. I aim to spark a dialogue about the “pain of leadership,” a taboo topic for many leaders who believe that admitting psychological discomfort, even to themselves, is a sign of weakness. After all, aren’t you supposed to be a strong, larger-than-life hero?

Unlocking the leadership trap is about freeing yourself from a flawed self-control agenda designed to dodge the thorns of leadership. It’s about making room for the rose inside you to flower amidst the thorns. 

At its heart, the leadership trap is this: To shine as a leader, you seek to control your distressing thoughts and emotions in order to steer clear of feeling (and looking) weak. Running away, suppressing your feelings, and hiding are common methods of control. Yet the more you struggle to control your insides, it turns out the more you undermine your outsides — your ability to build trust and take charge as a leader. The more you bury your stress, for instance, the more stressed and reactive you become.

To unlock the leadership trap, I contend that you must do the opposite of what we all have been taught. You first must be willing to accept your psychological pain, rather than trying to get rid of it as if it were the enemy. You may not want your heavy thoughts and feelings, just as you may not want to lug valises on a voyage, but you need to welcome them as a natural part of being human, make room for them, and willingly bring them along on your journey. Far-fetched as it may sound, to perform better as a leader, you need not first feel better.

I propose that you can escape the leadership trap by developing a new toolkit of mental skills and attitudes — drawn from Eastern wisdom and Western psychology — for working with the pain of leadership. You can learn to:

  • Pause, step back, and observe your aches, rather than plunge into your internal tangle and become completely entwined in it.
  • Accept your troubling feelings as perfectly normal and get on with your work, rather than deplete your energy (and time) in a vain struggle to feel better first.
  • Concentrate your attention on what you can control — the appropriate expression of your feelings and, most important, your actions in pursuit of your values.
  • Develop the poise to take effective action despite intense personal discomfort.

Empirical research suggests that this toolkit can enhance your performance — and well being — as a leader. But you be the judge. Just imagine, for example, being blindsided by the following dramatic confrontation, which of course could never happen to you! It provides a taste of the tools in action when under the gun.

Fifteen minutes before an end-of-year faculty meeting, your secretary delivers a letter — signed by almost half your faculty — criticizing your performance as the new principal. You are stunned, flummoxed, and furious, given the school’s progress and all your hard work. Feeling bopped in the belly, but determined to stay in your job, what would you do?

Would you stew over how this mess ever happened — rehashing the year, blaming the faculty, maybe second-guessing your own actions? Would you struggle to control your emotions by bottling up your fury? Would you impulsively explain yourself to faculty members, while giving short shrift to their perspectives? In other words, would you automatically “scratch your itch” — by getting caught up in your obsessing, tuning out your pain, and reacting reflexively? Might not these common reactions make things worse?

Instead of immediately scratching, suppose you remember first to pause and observe your itch—and then think through what to do. You might take a few deep breaths and silently ask yourself: “What’s going on inside me right now — my feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations?” Not trying to shed or judge these experiences, but noticing and allowing them, you might reply to yourself: “Something inside me is furious — and that’s okay; what is, is.” Suppose by accepting your experiences, you avoid getting hijacked by them, and can move forward despite your turmoil. Suppose you also can regain enough poise to develop a balanced plan for responding to the letter — e.g., listening carefully to the faculty, adding your perspective, addressing frayed feelings, and deciding on next steps together. Might not this “mindful” response make more sense?

Unlocking the leadership trap is about freeing yourself from a flawed self-control agenda designed to dodge the thorns of leadership. It’s about making room for the rose inside you to flower amidst the thorns. It’s about changing your relationship with pain by becoming more comfortable in your own skin. It’s about exercising control in the outside world, where values-driven action can advance your dreams. It’s really about discovering the secret to fully flowering as an authentic, take-charge leader: A Liberated You.

So, what do you think? Have you experienced the “pain of leadership” — and how have you dealt with it? Do the ideas of a “leadership trap”— and the suggested approach for unlocking it — ring true for you? Stories are welcome.

See More In
School Leadership