Issue 4.6 | November-December 2013

In this Article: how to emerge wiser and stronger after an attack on your leadership.

by Jonathan Wilson 

Waiting to enter the turbulent mocha coloured waters of a Swaziland river swirling swiftly past, we listened to the instructions from our adrenaline-high guide. “Finally,” Darren said, “if you see me raise my paddle with both arms above me, it means ‘danger!’ Get out of the river as fast as you can in whichever direction you can.”

My wife, Tracey, and I had joined friends from an adventure-racing team to reconnoitre a section of river for a possible adventure race. Small, two-person rubber inflatables called Crocs were the craft of choice for the rough water. Darren paired the inexperienced with the experienced: Tracey in the front of his Croc, and me in the front of Rebecca’s, for she had rafted in past adventure races. Jean and Max, the remainder of the team, took the third Croc.

With some trepidation, we stepped into the Crocs and pushed off.

We safely navigated the first turbulent channel and moved swiftly downstream on a smooth but powerful current. Rebecca and I were yet to establish our paddling rhythm when, to our alarm, we saw Darren urgently raise his paddle into the air with both arms.  We paddled hard for the nearest bank, but the current pulled us rapidly around the bend in the river and straight for a huge tree that had fallen across the full width of the river. There was no way around it. To be swept under could be disastrous. Branches and rocks hidden under the log could trap a person and they would drown. The strongest arms would not be able to extract them from the power of the current.

Seconds later, we struck the massive log. Darren had thrust his and Tracey’s Croc over the log and sat in the back of the inflatable, atop the log, waiting to help us.  I tried to lift myself and our Croc rode up onto the log. I then pulled forward with my paddle. It was futile. I heard a gasp from Rebecca as the water rushed into the back of our Croc and she tumbled into the river. In the same instant the Croc flipped backwards and I plunged in. Instantly, the surging water swept me down and under the log.

Leadership Near Death

Most of us do not feel as artful as pundits suggest leaders should be – afloat and in control atop the powerful river of change and progress. Even for the most artful leader, however, there will come a hazard that no art or scheme can avoid.

The most destructive leadership hazard is the personal attack: powerful attempts to thoroughly block or even destroy a person’s leadership. In my career I have encountered a handful of such hazards: reputational slander, vicious political opposition, and termination, among others. Such attacks are psychologically, socially and politically debilitating – everything that is capital to a leader. How you handle such attacks will decide the future of your leadership.

Reduce the Size of the Target

As I pitched into the river, I instinctively curled into a tight ball. The turbulent brown water swallowed me greedily into its depths. Under the log I went. Then, suddenly, I was rising and, to my surprise and relief, surfaced on the downriver side.

Part of survival in a political firestorm is to keep a low profile and reduce the size of the target you present: now is not the time to invite more trouble upon yourself (nor is it time for prideful bravado). How you lower your profile depends on the nature of the hazard. It may be to maintain civility or to quietly keep your stand without being defensive. But always, it is to maintain integrity. Wherever there is a legitimate question mark over your actions, then clarification and an apology should also have a calming effect.

Obey the Rules

Surfacing beyond the log, I was immediately presented with an alarming dilemma: to the left the river fell in a series of rapids, and to the right it flowed less swiftly through a patchwork of boulders. Darren had warned us earlier to resist the temptation to swim if we fell in, and thus risk a head injury on the oncoming rocks. So I obeyed. I put my feet forward as he’d said, and paddled as hard as I could towards the dividing island. Rebecca popped up behind me and I saw the fear written across her face as we made for the same destination.

In a leadership crisis part of lowering your profile may be to obey the rules. If you can adhere to the dominant cultural rules of behaviour without compromising what is right, it may be the time to grit your teeth and do the unpleasant. Your “obedience” will reduce the sense of threat associated with the change you represent. You may even gain friends from former enemies now better able to see your cause without the “noise” of your disruptive leadership actions getting in the way.

Recover a Leadership Perspective

Once all of us reached the safety of the island, Darren, clearly shaken by the near-catastrophe, led us out of the river from where, bedraggled and subdued, we carried the Crocs back to our vehicles.

When surviving a leadership attack, the greatest challenge is to keep perspective on what is true. This includes one particularly important truth: that your leadership is not about you (if it is, you are indeed in serious trouble). Rather, your leadership is about the cause you serve. This perspective will improve your objectivity and strengthen your resolve.

Nevertheless, after surviving a traumatic personal attack it is important to press the pause button on major leadership action. Your choices are more likely to be informed by your neediness or hurt than by cause-focused objectivity. Allow time to take stock, to learn, to recalibrate: but also, to heal. Now is the time to re-visit and even repair your leadership foundations: your faith in the virtue of your cause, your friends who will walk with you through every trial for the sake of that cause, and the facts about your situation that your fears may have distorted.  Before waiting too long, it will indeed be time to re-enter the river: humbler, stronger, wiser – even, perhaps, artful.

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