Leadership: Purposes, Perils & Possibilities

Volume 7: September 2023


Here in New Hampshire, the morning air is crisp and cool as summer wanes and we anticipate the glorious riot of fall colors. I’ve always enjoyed these seasonal variations – and yet, this year, I’m struck by the contrast between these predictable changes and the unpredictable, sometimes exciting, sometimes frightening world around us.

With this in mind, I thought I’d capture some of the lessons I’ve learned that guide my leadership during these volatile times. This led me to take a deep dive into the purposes, perils and possibilities of the leadership journey. I hope you find this article stimulating and I encourage you to share your thoughts and reactions.

In this article, I also reference Skip Bowman’s newly released book, Safe to Great: The New Psychology of Leadership. I’ve known Skip for many years and have watched him hone his experience and research into this engaging and valuable leadership guide. I’m pleased and honored to have written the forward to Skip’s book – and that opportunity also provided the inspiration for this article.

Martha Miser, PhD 

Leadership: Purposes, Perils and Possibilities

Compliance or Confrontation?

In my early 20s, I landed my first professional role as an entry-level budget analyst in a mid-sized New England city. City Hall was a rough and tumble environment where strength, directness, political cunning, and a certain facility with profanity were valued. No delicate flower, I was, however, young, inexperienced, and naïve. And, as the first woman to be hired into the budget office, I felt conspicuous and very self-conscious. Thus far, my default formula for success had been to work hard and please others, particularly anyone in a perceived position of authority. Yet, in this machismo culture, I soon discovered the limitations of that approach.

A few months after I started – just when I thought things were going well – my manager, Randy, called me into his office. He told me that he’d hired another woman into an analyst role. That was the good news. The bad news, delivered without explanation, was that she’d been hired at a grade level above me, and I was to turn most of my assignments over to her, after giving her a thorough briefing on the content of each task. In retrospect, I assume the new analyst had done a better job than I had in negotiating her entry into the organization. And because I appeared unassertive and compliant, well, my needs were immaterial.

This happened late on a Friday afternoon, which was fortunate because it gave me the weekend to move through the hurt and anger and consider my options. Confronted with the choice to be silent or speak up, I realized I’d have to override both my ingrained need for approval and my palpable fear of conflict. Mind you, at that time, there were few guides or training programs on how to have difficult conversations, give feedback, or deal with a problematic manager. And if you’d told me I would spend decades coaching, teaching, studying, and writing about these and other leadership challenges, I would have laughed in disbelief.

Regardless, circumstances had given me time to think, and in the interval, I stewed over an array of scenarios, some more plausible than others: Should I be a “good soldier” and obey? Should I complain about the inequity? Should I argue about the decision? Should I go ballistic and refuse to comply? But more than anything, I wondered, what would be a satisfactory solution? What would make this right for me? By the end of the weekend, I had my answer.

On Monday morning, I headed to Randy’s office. Red-faced and nervous, but resolute, I sat down, uninvited. I must have radiated determination as Randy straightened up and gave me his full attention. The conversation was brief. I looked him directly in the eye and said, slowly and emphatically, “I want a promotion.” “Yes, yes,” Randy said, nodding vigorously. Clearly I had caught him off guard; but he knew full well “he’d done me wrong.” He didn’t even try to justify himself. I paused. “I want it now,” I said, stabbing the air with my finger as if to say, “this is nonnegotiable.” “Yes, yes,” Randy nodded again.

My approach was admittedly inelegant, but it worked. Three weeks later, I had my promotion in hand. And not coincidentally, Randy and I went on to develop a mutually respectful and productive relationship.

Leadership: Wicked or Worthy?

That single encounter taught me a lot about bullies, blind spots, and belief systems; learning that has served me well through my leadership journey. This was, of course, an early lesson in how to use my voice to establish healthy boundaries. To this day, I notice how difficult it is for people to raise their concerns or have direct conversations, believing that even one mildly difficult interaction might jeopardize their entire future. Trust me, these conversations are still challenging for me; and yet, they’ve become easier over the years as I’ve learned to advocate for myself and others. Fortunately, this experience with Randy helped me understand the cost of silence and realize I had far more agency than I’d imagined.

In the decades since, I’ve come to see that most of us enter the world of work ill-equipped to lead, gripped by internalized fears and assumptions. Meanwhile, the leadership industry has mushroomed, pumping out largely simplistic formulas glorifying the heroic leader, endowed with good character, bravery, and skill. Americans, in particular, have long been fascinated with rulers, CEOs, and military leaders who exemplify these qualities, and that fascination has made us susceptible to thinking that leadership is by default a good thing. However, as Harvard’s Barbara Kellerman reminds us in Bad Leadership (2004), leadership isn’t always good; in fact it’s often quite bad.

This is an important point, worth further clarification: bad leadership isn’t the same as ineffective leadership. In fact, bad leadership can be very effective leadership that achieves harmful outcomes. On the one hand, there are leaders like Randy who learned to become a successful professional, producing results that served his community well. On the other hand, as Kellerman argues, leaders who are habitually rigid, intemperate, incompetent, callous, corrupt, insular, or evil, can be very effective at achieving damaging results. Leadership, she warns us, can be deployed for both wicked and worthy ends – a reality that’s become more obvious in recent years.

These concerns are magnified in today’s post-pandemic world, as we confront a series of daunting external challenges, and adapt new work practices following the seismic disruption of an extended global quarantine. Given these realities, it’s about time we let go of our lingering leadership fantasies. Prince Charming is not coming to save us. What is called for are purposeful and imaginative responses, and a willingness to experiment, co-create, and learn together. What is called for is facilitative leadership to foster our best collective thinking about the problems at hand.

The Importance of Dignity

The central issue is that organizations are living systems, made up of complex beings with multiple identities and sometimes contradictory assumptions and beliefs. To understand this, leaders at all levels must be avid students of the human condition. And the first place to look is within ourselves.

New research across multiple fields, including neuroscience and biology, has taught us a lot more today about what drives human behavior. In her seminal book, Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict (2011), Donna Hicks integrates these findings to shed light on the day-to-day challenge of creating effective organizations and societies. Dignity, Hicks argues, is the need to feel valued and worthy. When our need for dignity is met, we experience genuine connection. On the other hand, dignity violations – such as lashing out or gossiping – trigger our limbic systems and we are flooded with feelings of being diminished and humiliated. Feeling wounded, we react: fighting back or instinctively withdrawing and protecting ourselves from harm.

Yet our brains are also equipped to manage our defensive reactions and make different choices. Most of us are familiar with the concept of “fight or flight”; however, we are less aware of our ability to connect and feel empathy for others, a powerful and instinctive capacity that previous narratives have historically neglected. Fortunately, a growing body of work is emerging to shed light on this in-born capability, ranging from Jeremy Rifkin’s comprehensive exploration in The Empathic Civilization (2009) to Shelley Taylor’s (2011) research on women’s inclination to “tend and befriend” when threatened. It is this ability to create meaningful connections that grants us dignity, that helps us feel safe and able to have direct and respectful conversations.

Safety and Swamp Creatures

In today’s vocabulary, we refer to this basic need to feel safe from dignity violations as “psychological safety,” thanks to recent research at Google that brought a somewhat hazy phenomenon into sharp focus (Delizonna, 2017). Increasingly we have come to understand that psychological safety is essential for everything from having meaningful friendships to solving the pressing global problems of our time. And yet, like many great ideas, understanding doesn’t necessarily make it achievable. The question remains: If psychological safety, like dignity, is fundamental to human thriving, how do we make it actionable?

This is the question that organizational psychologist, Skip Bowman, seeks to answer in his forthcoming book, Safe to Great: The New Psychology of Leadership (2023). Building on the premise that a leader’s most important role is to create psychologically safe spaces, this book clarifies the mindsets, skills, and behaviors – what leaders must do well – to achieve that goal.

And yet, these “bright side” behaviors, such as showing care for others or sharing a bold vision, are only half the story. In fact, as Bowman describes, we’ve all developed self-protective mechanisms – those autocratic, snarky, or pleasing parts of ourselves that emerge, when threatened, like swamp creatures, to take over the show. It is this understanding of our “dark side” that distinguishes Safe to Great – a recognition that leaders are humans too, and that default wiring can erode relationships and sabotage the best-laid plans.

How do we reckon with this shadow side of ourselves? Is there a way out? After countless rounds with my own dark side, I’ve come to recognize its tell-tale signs: creeping anxiety, a cold sensation, and a familiar internal voice warning me – loudly – not to have that conversation or take that risk. That voice is always there. It’s tempting to ignore, but I’ve found denial only emboldens her to take up residence, sit on my shoulder, forever narrating my life.

So, if there’s no way out, it might be better to ask if there’s a safe way into the dark side? In their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (2009), Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky offer some useful guidance. Be curious, they suggest, and learn to see yourself as a system: a person with multiple and conflicting loyalties that will emerge to inform and sometimes complicate your leadership journey. To prepare, get to know your “tuning.” Examine your hungers and needs; identify what makes you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable; ask what “water” (expectations and needs) you’re carrying for your colleagues, your family, even your ancestors; and be curious when you see yourself pulled off purpose, withdrawing, or overreacting. This work isn’t simple or painless, but getting to know our full selves is well worth the effort.

Recapturing our Forgotten Dreams

But hang on a minute: dark side, shadows, swamp creatures, uninvited guests? Not exactly an inspirational invitation to leadership. Why take on this challenge in the first place?

Most of us enter leadership because a person, an idea, a hope, or a challenge has pulled us into the journey – because a nascent sense of purpose tugs at the heart and can’t be ignored. Unfortunately, in our rush to meet the next goal or get the next promotion or just survive the next day, we often forget that purpose.

In Leadership for the Disillusioned (2007), Amanda Sinclair argues that we’ve all felt the damaging consequences of the “captains of industry” form of leadership, exemplified by the heroic, dominating, hard-driving CEO. In contrast, she suggests we think about leadership as “a form of being . . . anchored to personal self-awareness and mindfulness toward others” (p. xvii). Reflective and self-aware leaders, she contends, seek to liberate themselves and others, both from oppressive organizational norms and from self-doubt and fear.

Perhaps, Sinclair seems to say, it’s time to find that liberation and recapture our forgotten dreams. Placing this discussion in the context of the great challenges of our times, these authors assert that leaders have the power to create safe spaces or demolish them. They dare us to explore our shadows and aspire to our better selves. From here, informed by purpose and aware of our hungers and needs, we can focus on the outcomes, knowing that great results are achieved only through the collective efforts of people who feel free to dream courageously, speak candidly, and act with commitment in service of better organizations and a better world.


Bowman, S. (September 28, 2023) [Forthcoming]. Safe to great: The new psychology of leadership. Vancouver, BC: Figure 1 Publishing.

Delizonna, L. (August 24, 2017). High-performing teams need psychological safety: Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review.

Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

Hicks, D. (2011). Dignity: Its essential role in resolving conflict. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad leadership: What it is, how it happens, why it matters. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

Rifkin, J. (2009). The empathic civilization: The race to global consciousness in a world in crisis. New York: TarcherPerigee.

Sinclair, A. (2007). Leadership for the disillusioned: Moving beyond myths and heroes to leading that liberates. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Taylor, S. E., & Master, S. L. (2011). Social responses to stress: The tend-and-befriend model. In R. J. Contrada & A. Baum (Eds.), The handbook of stress science: Biology, psychology, and health (pp. 101–109). New York: Springer.

Whyte, D. (1994). The heart aroused: Poetry and the preservation of the soul in corporate America. New York: Currency Doubleday.

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