Most of us have worked with individuals in leadership roles who say all the right things but leave us feeling unsettled. We can’t always pinpoint why and, if you are like me, you might assume it’s just you. We tend to shrug it off, ignore our gut reaction, and then not think too much about it. This is the current leadership norm in large organizations and its dissonance leaves individuals uninspired and unengaged.
In Dopamine Nation, Dr. Anne Lembke, explains why; when the emotion and tenor of someone’s speech pattern do not match the content of what they are sharing, it is a type of untruth that we do not trust. It is a form of lie that leaves us isolated rather than connected; a transaction rather than an authentic intent to form a relationship. The resulting anxiety puts us into a scarcity mindset rather than an abundance mindset because of its transactional nature.
The Lure of Dissonance
Leadership dissonance is created by a contrast between what someone says and how they behave; when they promote behaviors and truths that they do not themselves believe in; when they believe in rules for others but not for themselves; and when they deny the reality before them. It produces simplistic answers, a denial of the complexities of inherent in decisions, and a closed-minded unwillingness to really see and appreciate others.
Dissonance happens when we are alienated from ourselves, others, our work, and our environment. It is endemic in our society.
While dissonance belies reality – maybe because it belies reality – it is alluring; Simplistic answers are consumed like potato chips; we continue to crave them because they give us a burst of easy satisfaction but, in the end, they never fill our real needs. Deep down our gut feeling is often signaling us to be wary because we know it is not that easy but we try too often to avoid pain or inconvenience.
The Dissonance of Leaders
What is particularly troubling is that not only does dissonance seem to be the norm in our society, it seems to be the norm for our leaders. We are habituated and addicted to this form of ‘cheap’ leadership, epitomized in Jack Welsh, who ransacked GE to boost short-term profitability but left GE hollowed out and limping. He sold a narrative of wild success – but for whom? It was wildly successful for him – not even for long-term shareholders. It was dissonant and too good to be true.
Dissonant leadership can be identified by:
- A stream of overly-simplistic and pithy statements.
- A lack of curiosity or questions.
- An unwillingness to step back and elevate others.
- No acknowledgment of ambiguity or complexity.
- Making decisions only for first-order, short-term impacts.
- Avoiding investments required for all stakeholders to thrive over the long term.
- Inability or unwillingness to balance the needs of multiple stakeholders.
- A simplistic positivity and absence of critical thinking.
- Ignoring or dismissing questions and feedback.
- Pronouncements that seem too good/easy to be true.
- Anxiety created by a focus on perceived competitors
The more of these traits that combine and persist over time, the more dissonance it creates. Most of us know, intuitively, that things are not that simple, rosy, or individualistic. The pattern reveals a self-absorbed, entitled, yet anxious mindset combined with a lack of awareness of the world around them or the ability to understand the experience of others. It is simplistic and blunt.
Dissonant Leaders often develop large, committed followings. It is enticing to believe simple answers exist. More critically, it absolves us from having to reconcile our own dissonance and do the hard and emotional work of curiosity, compromise, investment, and compassion.
We accept dissonance because reality is hard; it requires acceptance of paradox and it requires hard work.
The world is painful AND joyous.
People are amazing AND flawed.
We need work AND rest.
Work that matters gives us meaning AND frustration.
Learning requires support AND challenge.
To be human is to be a contradiction and it leaves us standing on unstable ground. Those lacking compassion, forgiveness, faith, acceptance, and joy struggle to navigate these contradictions. The result of not acknowledging and accepting life’s contractions is not being able to trust ourselves, which makes it impossible to trust others. And yet, these are the individuals we often hold up as icons of leadership – and then suffer the consequences of the cultures they inspire.
The Coherence Dividend
Coherence in leaders is less common but there are still plenty of examples. We recognize and are drawn to coherent leaders almost immediately although most people could not really explain why. They are individuals with an emotionally calm demeanor that calms the anxiety of those around them. They are hard to trigger because they understand that, more often than not, the perspective of others is informed by different experiences, not in response to them personally. They are focused on others but firmly grounded in their own judgment.
Coherence looks like:
- A calm, open, and relaxed presence.
- Commitment to listening more than speaking.
- Comfort with laughing at and forgiving themselves.
- Endless curiosity, questions, and reflection.
- Elevation and promotion of others.
- Ability to understand and communicate complex decisions clearly.
- Interest in balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders.
- Ability to see systems, feedback loops, and impact chains.
- Commitment to empowering and mentoring others.
- Willingness to challenge themselves and others to do more.
- Using their networks to connect others to people and resources.
- Willingness to make hard, unpopular decisions for long-term stability.
The impact coherent leaders have on others is what most differentiates them from dissonant leaders; they have an authenticity that immediately resonates and quickly develops trust, almost imperceptibly. Because of the speed at which they connect and engender trust, they have broad and diverse personal networks and deep influence. Their networks combined with their curiosity allow them to learn more quickly. Coherence allows these leaders to quickly navigate large amounts of information and spot what is relevant.
Critically, because coherent leaders know and are comfortable with themselves and ambiguity they do not desperately need anything. This emotional stability reduces their vulnerability to manipulation and distraction and allows them to stay focused on what is meaningful.
Interestingly, well-regarded coherent leaders tend to have smaller networks than popular dissonant leaders but their networks are more deeply aligned and more easily engaged and activated. Coherent leaders are willing to make critical decisions regardless of their popularity because they are guided by purpose, not the need for immediate validation and they have a network of trusted connections who understand, defend, and will advocate for those decisions.
The Business Value of Coherence
Coherent leaders know what matters to them, who they are, and how to communicate it which allows others to quickly align. Coherent leaders welcome transparency because they understand the reality of execution is messy and adjustment will be needed based on new information. Success comes not from the perfection of a decision or strategy but from continuous learning and adaptation.
Organizations led by coherent leaders need considerably fewer controls; requirements, policies, meetings, plans, paperwork, and technology. Trust is extended and trust is returned. Fewer controls and rules increase transparency, equity, and alignment and reduce confusion. The costs that other organizations incur to ensure control melt away and that energy and money is invested in new products, new markets, and cultivating stronger relationships that lead to employee and customer loyalty.
Organizations led by coherent leaders generate these higher profits with less anxiety and more joy. Those rewards and re-investment, in turn, lead to more opportunities and more revenue.
Examples of Coherent Leaders
Because coherent people, who trust themselves, are not the norm in our society, coherent leadership is often questioned. Identifying, hiring, and elevating coherent leaders is one of the best things we can do to address the complexity that lies ahead for all of us, and yet, boards and executive search firms often abandon the search for coherence when faced with the choice between experience or coherence. Coherence is seemingly a nice to have. I believe coherence is much more important than exact experience because it offers clarity, trust, and purpose.
Some of the individuals I have seen that strike me as coherent leaders are:
I am lucky to have grown up around coherent leaders who reinforced its value and effectiveness and who were committed to honesty, self-reflection, accountability, ethics, hard work, curiosity, and developing others. They did not seek the spotlight but they also did not hide from it either. They did amazing things but were not above the most mundane tasks like picking up trash or doing laundry.
Why Do We Accept Less?
The choice between leaders who foster coherent, healthy cultures or those who create dissonant, controlling, and anxiety-flooded cultures is not a financial success; both can return profits and arguably, coherent organizations cost a lot less. That begs the question: why do boards most often choose dissonance, control, and anxiety?
Why is it so hard to evaluate this in candidates?
Organizations are far, far better off with leaders who know, are true to, and accept themselves.
Truth, authenticity, and compassion beget truth, authenticity, and compassion.
What an excellent article to show the misalignment between words and actions. I’ve learned to trust my gut with leaders who do this and when they show this dissonance, it speaks volumes. I wonder if others also pick up on these cues. For me, I have to decide whether I stay or go if this is the case. Do I have enough of this coherency to understand that there’s a reason why leadership is maintaining this “distance” (temporarily) or not. If the leadership continues with such a way, I’d err on leaving that organisation as leadership drives the culture and behaviours. Thanks for this article. Quite timely.
Thank you for your comment Helen. I think it takes experience to understand and value a gut reaction and even more experience to recognize why you are having that reaction in a way that you can communicate. Our society is so consumed with data and metrics that we forget emotions ARE data as well – and that they are early warning signals that something is off. It took me many years to trust my own emotional reaction. I think we would probably be better off as a society if we all did a better job at this.