Vive la revolution?
The recent student protests in London, and other UK cities, are more reminiscent of French or Greek protests, than the usual UK response. Now, whilst I deplore attempts to harm others and wilful vandalism, these protests have reminded me of the vital importance of getting angry. (I could also use the word passionate here, but to be honest it’s so overused at the moment that I hear people in organisations using this word for things they are mildly interested in, because it’s the ‘right’ word to use.)
This may not be a popular thing to say. The personal development movement (and I include in here coaching, leadership development, organisational development and therapeutic traditions) have emphasised self-awareness, and in that, an understanding of why we have the emotional responses we do. So if I am driving along one day and an articulated lorry nearly crashes into me, a development professional may encourage me to explore how beneath my angry response, lies a connection to feelings of being powerless and fear which I experienced around authority figures as a child.
This is good – it is healthy to know how I have developed and why I react to some things, whilst others do not.
However, what this does is takes our emotions and directs them inwards, where we understand them and process them. The word emotion is based on the Latin emovere, where e- means ‘out’ and movere means ‘move’. So tied up in the very definition of the word is ‘to move out’. Emotions move us into action; that is their nature.
So we are going inwards with something designed to go outwards – and what is the result? Yes we develop greater self-awareness (always a good thing), but what may we lose is the direction, energy, ambition and passion to take action in the world.
A long-held tenant of the personal development movement has been that if everyone was more self-aware the world would be a better place. I agree; and I disagree. Self-awareness is not enough – we must also direct our emotions outwards if we are to actually deal with the problems we face.
The air, water and food systems that sustain us have pollutants and other chemicals in them, which appear from recent research, to be causing the increase in cancer rates. The political systems we live in seem to favour the needs of the powerful minorities over the majorities (Tim Harford in his book The Logic of Life, gives a wonderful description of why this is so). There is still racial, gender and many other inequalities in everyday life. And (perhaps at a more manageable level) the organisations we live and work in, are not at their best, and very often do not treat us, (their most important asset, allegedly) with dignity and respect.
My point is that there is a lot to be angry about. Self-awareness can help – understanding how we experience reality, what that does to us and where that comes from in our history, is important so that it doesn’t overwhelm us, or cause us to do damage to others. And, if we are to have leaders who change things, who take action in the world, or in our organisations, we need to get a bit angry. We need that passion, energy and commitment to change.
Self-awareness (inward looking) without being balanced by action (outward looking), brings the blandness of endless conversations about our emotions and history, and lacks ambition for change. Action without self-awareness can lead to violence, at the physical or emotional levels. Both together can give us inspiring leadership that truly makes a difference.
My opinion is that over recent years the personal development movement has encouraged us to move inwards without such balance. I think that this is dangerous in the realm of leadership development. We need leaders who have the energy that comes from being emotionally engaged in their organisations, who do get angry when things don’t work, but who can own that, and use the energy from this to take action. Self-awareness is definitely a key to leadership development, and it is not enough!
The student protests were in part without self-awareness, given some of the violence that showed up. But they do remind us of the need to get energised and angry and engaged for things to change. Often I see people in organisations who criticise the organisation and challenge it, being ostracised. Actually, I believe, that in that anger lies the energy to change and develop your organisation – these people may be the key to your organisation’s future success.