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Leading From Hurt Versus Leading From Heart

Adapted from Dare to Lead

I’ve learned to live by the saying “You can never get enough of what you don’t need.” It’s not easy, especially when it comes to BBC crime procedurals, chips and queso, and approval. One of the patterns that I’ve observed in working with leaders is that many people lead from a place of hurt and smallness, and they use their position of power to try to fill that self-worth gap. But we just can’t fill a self-worth gap by leading and using power over people, because that’s not exactly what we need.

Leading from hurt rather than leading from heart means we’re working our shit out on other people. And, because we’re not addressing the real driver of our pain, this behavior isn’t an occasional angry slip. Inflicting hurt rather than feeling hurt becomes a habit.

In general, it’s fair to say that we’re all working our stuff out on people all day long. But when you add the leadership power differential, it gets dangerous.

“Leading from hurt” behaviors can be fueled by feeling no value from our partner or our children, so we double down on being seen as “important” at work by taking credit for ideas that aren’t ours, staying in comparison mode, and always knowing instead of learning. The most common driver of the hurt that I’ve observed is from our first families.

The first-family stuff can look like seeking the approval and acceptance from colleagues that we never received from our parents. Also, if our parents’ professional failures and disappointments shaped our upbringing, we can spend our careers trying to undo that pain. That often takes the shape of an insatiable appetite for recognition and success, of unproductive competition, and, on occasion, of having zero tolerance for risk.

Identifying the source of the pain that’s driving how we lead and how we show up for other people is important, because returning to that place and doing that work is the only real fix. Projecting the pain onto others places it where it doesn’t belong and leads to serious trust violations. Our long, hard search for whatever it is that we need never ends and leaves a wake of disconnection.

Leading From Heart

One of the key learnings emerging from our leadership study took my breath away: Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior. Well, leader, heal thyself.

We also have to invest time attending to our own fears, feelings, and history or we’ll find ourselves managing our own unproductive behaviors. As daring leaders, we have to stay curious about our own blind spots and how to pull those issues into view, and we need to commit to helping the people we serve find their blind spots in a way that’s safe and supportive.

Like all of us, most of the daring, transformational leaders I’ve worked with have overcome hurtful experiences—from childhood illness and painful family histories to violence and trauma. Many are in the middle of deep struggles like marriages that are failing, children in rehab, or health crises. The difference between leading from hurt and leading from heart is not what you’ve experienced or are currently experiencing, it’s what you do with that pain and hurt.

As daring leaders, we have to stay curious about our own blind spots and how to pull those issues into view, and we need to commit to helping the people we serve find their blind spots in a way that’s safe and supportive.

One powerful example of leading from heart was Tarana Burke’s response to Harvey Weinstein’s arrest. Tarana is the senior director at Girls for Gender Equity and founder of the Me Too movement—a movement to end sexual violence. In an interview with Trevor Noah, Tarana said, “This is not really a moment to, like, celebrate how the mighty have fallen.” She explained that the focus should be on healing the survivors and recognizing their courage.

In a world full of rage and hate, Tarana, who is a survivor of sexual assault and has dedicated her career to helping other survivors, said, “It doesn’t bring me personal joy, this is not really what it is about.” She explained, “It’s not about taking down powerful men, and it is not a woman’s movement either—that’s another sort of misconception. It’s a movement for survivors.”

Ed Catmull, president, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, is another leader who inspires me by leading with heart. In fact, I think his book Creativity, Inc is a manifesto on courageous, wholehearted leadership. Ed explains that recognizing, naming, and managing our emotion is essential to leading.

I love this personal example that he shares—it’s really helped me maintain perspective when I’m in struggle. Ed writes, “I tend to flood and freeze up if I’m feeling overwhelmed. When this happens, it’s usually because I feel like the world is crashing down and all is lost. One trick I’ve learned is to force myself to make a list of what’s actually wrong. Usually, soon into making the list, I find I can group most of the issues into two or three larger all-encompassing problems. So it’s really not all that bad. Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.”

Without self-awareness and the ability to manage our emotions, we often unknowingly lead from hurt, not heart. Not only is this a huge energy suck for us and the people around us, it creates distrust, disengagement, and an eggshell culture.

The lack of safety produced by leading from hurt suffocates innovation and creativity. As Ed explains, it’s not the leader’s job to prevent risks, but to create a safe and trusting environment where our people can take risks. That takes self-awareness and big hearts.

We all come from hard stuff and have to wade through more of it during our entire lives. When we own these difficult stories and experiences, rumble with them, and address them, we can write a new ending—an ending that includes how we’re going to use what we’ve survived to be more compassionate and empathic leaders.

When we deny our stories of struggle—when we pretend everything is OK when we’re really in deep struggle—the hard stories own us. They own us, and they drive our behavior, emotions, thinking, and leading.

Daring leadership is leading from heart, not hurt.

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