Courage to refuse the adversarial voice

As most managers will tell you, the hard part is the people. Policy and processes are matters of analysis and intelligence, and can be taught. But getting the people to be what the organization needs — managers who’ve spent time in a trench will tell you this is tougher. Which is why I say that the best leaders are the courageous communicators.

Sure, there are lots of managers who’ve made their way up the ladder in companies where you just need to be smart, articulate, hard-working, loyal, and passionate. All good traits, but you can be all these things and be a horrid manager – and a bad person.

It’s not enough to have a large vocabulary and a sense of syntax, not enough to be poised in front of an audience. Witty doesn’t help. It’s not even enough to see the essence of a matter through confusion and have the skill to say it clearly.

You can have all these tools and use them as weapons. You can be all these things and end up in the history books as just one of those dictators who finally hangs from a lamppost in the town square. Leaders need to be smart, articulate, and perceptive through confusion — but then need to use those tools with the right kind of courage.

We need, first, the courage to say something when saying nothing will get by. Then, when we do say something (and paint a red target on our forehead) we need the courage to resist lapsing, under fire, into our own adversarial voice. These two, together, make a jewel of a leader.

First: the courage to say something. I’m not talking about the kind of fearlessness some leaders show by not caring what anyone thinks or how they feel. Some large personalities will express their opinion without regard to anyone around them. They’ll cut through manners and all protocol and be brutal without regard to setting or object.

It’s easy to admire this when we read it about it from afar, but having to be around such a sociopath is a painful experience, and a closer look always reveals how the companies who tolerate this person spend a lot of money building better people around him to mitigate and clean up the messes.

Such toleration can be the best thing for your company when you have a genuis on your hands (think Apple and Steve Jobs) but don’t make the mistake of looking at the story from the outside and after the fact and conclude that the organization did well because of the crudeness of the savant. No, all such companies build a cocoon around the terrible infant- a layer of pearl around the grain of sand — in order to harvest his sporadic flashes of genuis.

However, think about it: obtuse is not brave. The soldier who runs across the field unaware of the guns is not brave, he’s just ignorant. He may be lucky, but not forever.

In fact, the person who does not feel the pain his words cause actually has NO courage. It is precisely the person with a high level of empathy who needs courage to say hard things, because courage is the ability to act in spite of fear and pain — not in ox-like oblivion. The others say hard things simply because they have missing neurons. And this is nothing less than a pathology, though it is often tolerated because of other talents the perpetrator might have. In the end, courage to seek your own gain against odds is not the courage we admire. In fact, we often detest it.

No, the courage we are talking about goes with caring. Caring enough to say something about what you see when others would let it go is a priceless quality that some people have when they emerge from childhood, but most of us do not. I’m not sure it can be taught. But it certainly can be killed, and most groups seek it out and kill it systematically.

Second: the rarest of courages is the courage to not give in to the natural urge to be a personal adversary. The adversarial voice comes in many forms and to talk about it is highly nuanced. Everyone thinks they know what “adversary” means. But what I mean is this: when the conversation reaches a point where somebody is going to need to be wrong, then we are adversaries. This voice creeps in when you feel your spine harden against the silly objections and negativity. Have the courage to refuse to believe that someone needs to be wrong in order for you to win your point.

By the way, if you are from the conservative right or if you value masculinity you might react to all this talk of avoiding the adversarial voice as if it means avoiding conflict, and you’ll want to label it all as “politically correct”, “touchy-feely”, or fluffy. No. You misunderstand entirely. Nothing could be more strenuous or virile than what I am describing. In fact, the traditional male stereotype contains just the sort of failure of nerve we need to be men enough to surpass. This art I am describing does not avoid conflict; it elicits it. I’m talking about all the hard work that comes before we shoot each other or call each other names. Testosterone is courageous enough, when the conflict has degnerated into war, but often utterly cowardly when the conflict is interpersonal.

These levels of courage do not correlate at all with other talents. The smartest people seldom have them. Words that have been approved in the workplace, like “intelligence”, “talent”, or “skill-set”, don’t connect with what I’m describing. The best I can do is “character”; have you noticed we are embarassed by that word now?

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