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Assertiveness is not Leadership

by Gordon MacKay MBA BSc(Hons) BA(Hons) MAPM MInstLM
(Cumbria UK)

Assertiveness ≠ Leadership.

If you are in a position of leadership or a project manager for example, the above will likely provoke an instant reflex reaction, for, time and again, over the years, we have been ‘educated’ to believe any position of authority grants a license to be assertive: indeed, that assertiveness lies at the very heart, and core, of leadership.

‘Non-assertive leadership’ likely conjures an image of a timid, retiring, mild-mannered, more or less ineffectual, and weak character we have likely long believed a non-assertive leader looks like.

Might this be an image we have never stopped to question?

What about a leader entering the room: exuding an aura of authority without domination: self-assured, self-confident, supportive, inclusive, inspiring, motivational, empowering? I suspect we all know such people – they may have been the best leader we ever knew. This person has no need of assertiveness. We trust and respect them – we do not want to ‘let them down’. For them, assertiveness is redundant.

My discussions on this subject often arouse knee-jerk responses, triggering others to respond with unquestioned preconceptions; for all the world like a fighter aircraft, ducking and weaving: attempting to distract and divert incoming missiles, firing off incandescent flares in all directions…

One diversionary tactic, more or less consciously intended to divert the discussion away from the point being made, is that there are times when a leader must be assertive. In any group, occasionally, there will be situations where one person knows something others do not; which presents a clear and present, imminent danger, to some, or all, of the group. The building is on fire, a threat to health and safety. In such cases we all recognise the ‘expert’ must be assertive: telling, not asking, directing not discussing: commanding and controlling...

How insidiously then; such behaviours become the norm rather than the exception: the exemplification and main characteristic of leadership, rather than a rare exception. How has this happened?

Insecure people often over-compensate for their innate weakness by seeking to control their environment, and all with whom they come in to contact. They seek to dominate conversations and show little empathy or concern for others. In fact, on some level life has made them aware of their lack of empathy which they see in others behaviours but cannot comprehend, and this makes them feel even more secure and keen to suppress its expression in others.

As a result they are drawn to positions conferring position power and their lack of empathy actually works to their advantage where organisations reward behaviours untouched by consideration or empathy for others.

So they find themselves in a position of power where they can control their environment and others to suppress anything they see as a threat or challenge to their control. Such ‘leaders’ being insecure, and not having all the answers, now find themselves (or not!), responding to every situation as one where the only way to establish or maintain authority is through assertiveness: dominating, and thereby closing down discussion, and any possibility of question, or challenge; especially through the dreaded dynamic of emergent group synergies.

If leadership operates from the ‘inside-out’ – we are inwardly motivated by the leader: we ‘want’ to do what is required; not ‘let them down’ why is assertiveness necessary?

The effective leader has authority without domination; a ‘command and control’ approach is unnecessary.

All too often, behaviours of coercion and domination; operating from the ‘outside-in’,
co-opt an artificial aura of respectability by labelling them as ‘assertiveness’.

Operating under this masquerade, all too few see the emperors clothes for what they are: an attempt to license and justify what is, in reality, the attempted legitimisation of a form of violence.

Assertiveness dominates: it imposes from the outside-in: it is a fertile ground for ‘tyranny’ to flourish. It is not leadership. ‘Passive assertiveness’ is an oxymoron: ‘Assert’ is a verb.

Cast in this enlightened perspective, it is apparent theories and practice advocating ‘assertiveness’ in leadership, if not lying(sic) at it’s very core, are often presented in such a way as to co-opt a pretended, though, in my view, wholly un-supported ‘authority’ and legitimacy. It is no more than a disingenuous attempt to camouflage and justify more, or less, explicit forms of psychological, and even physical violence.

Such behaviours stand in sharp contrast to a more ’transparent’, by which I imply ‘honest’ form of leadership; one where no coercive exercise of power is needed, mandated, nor sanctioned, by the leader’s ‘position’.

Whilst our conditioned expectation that leaders exhibit testosterone driven ‘assertive’ behaviours, the harm and cost to both business and individuals, resulting from the attraction to positions of ‘assertive leadership’, of over-compensating, insecure and narcissistic individuals, is immense.

Yes – the legitimisation of assertive dominance behaviours actually attracts individuals who by their behaviours suppress individual self-actualisation, and the emergence of group synergies. It is, in reality, counter-productive and the cost to business, and individuals, by now, is immeasurable. Equally the resentment, antagonism and resulting ‘decapitation’ of informed empowered individual motivation has and is causing both harm and loss to individuals, organisations and human progress, by now, beyond reckoning.

I believe this challenge should be given a broader platform: to encourage conversations exposing what is one of the greatest challenges of our time; as clearly evidenced in the politics of our day; their effect on us all, along with questionable media portrayals of leadership.
(cf GM LinkedIn Post, 18/2/18)

Assertiveness kicks in when leadership fails. True Leadership is as much conferred by the follower, than imposed by ‘position’. The leader evokes alignment and buy-in to common goals: inspires.

An effective leader pre-empts conflict: the trap of becoming 'Persecutor' over 'Victim', per the 'Karpman Drama Triangle'; where pre-emptive assertiveness all too often progresses on the backs of engineered ‘losers’.

Emotional intelligence and maturity anticipates and actively anticipates pre-empts and hence avoids conflicts: this whole culture of testosterone fuelled, amygdala-addling narcissist and psychopath attracting, assertiveness. Assertiveness is what Carl Sagan described as 'evolutionary baggage', and the evolution of modern business and technology is progressively ‘selecting against’ it.

The realisation of emergent synergies; of both individuals and teams, necessitates avoiding the antagonism asserted authority inevitably incurs (Elias Canetti's 'sting).

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