During a recent conversation, I suddenly declared, “defensiveness is the enemy of inspirational leadership.” Since I’m not usually so unequivocal, I immediately became curious about what lay behind that belief.
What makes an inspirational leader? For me, three of the most important qualities are openness, transparency, and the ability to connect. Defensiveness, which involves contraction and protection, works against all three of those qualities.
A defensive stance is, by definition, closed. Being closed reduces the possibility of connection, and it also deprives the defensive person of valuable feedback that could be essential to his/her growth as a leader. Additionally, defensiveness obscures the defensive person’s values, motives, and reasoning, thus diminishing transparency.
Okay, you say, “I get it! If I want to be more inspiring as a leader I need to curb my defensiveness. But I’m human. When someone criticizes me or gives me negative feedback I do take it personally. What am I supposed to do?”
Obviously, there isn’t one perfect answer. But, based on my experience, two things are most helpful. The first is to recognize that non-defensiveness is a quality that is honed over time. Cultivating that quality involves putting yourself out there in lots of everyday moments so you develop the capacity to stay open even when the stakes are high.
The second is that staying connected…to other people, to your purpose and core values…is, in itself, an antidote to defensiveness. The mere act of focusing your attention outside yourself works against contraction and protection. When times get tough, you may need to consciously remind yourself to stay connected but I guarantee it will make a significant difference in the quality of your leadership.
I’ll end with a great quote: “I am learning that a willingness to be vulnerable arises out of strength, not weakness. We protect ourselves out of fear, not confidence.” (Greg Merton, former Hewlett-Packard executive).
For more on this topic, check out my article.