What colour is your leadership corset?

Leadership is a corset. Are you aware of its constructs? A Leadership in tech perspective on leadership failures and a path forward

What colour is your leadership corset?
DALL E 2 image created by text "leadership corset, digital art"

Don't wear one? Are you sure? Whalebone corsets might have gone out of fashion 100 years ago, but we continue using them, at least metaphorically.

We all have our invisible corsets. They dictate what success looks like and what our goals and dreams are. They're carefully crafted, sometimes taking years of living and life experience. At first, these corsets are light and flexible. But often, as we experience life, our corsets become rigid and tighter.

At work, there exist many types of corsets. Visible ones include cultural values, the Agile Manifesto, and Lean concepts. SaaS is arguably a corset dictating how modern products should be built and operated. These corsets can be handy. They offer structure, providing us with a standard way of working. They give us an understanding of what values are acceptable in a workplace.

Other corsets exist too. Often they're unwritten rules and ways of working. It's the way 'things are done around here'. Invisible corsets are often how work gets achieved, especially in top-down, command-and-control, best-practice cultures.

Leadership is a corset mostly built on narrow and archaic ideas of what leaders do and how they should behave. Most leadership skills are learned through experience, creating an echo chamber of what leaders think leadership should be. And even if leaders know better, this more traditional version of leadership will emerge when stress and tough times hit.

Make no bones about it; tech leadership is hard graft. With leadership comes responsibility to the company and to the people you lead. You put yourself on the line daily, requiring a hefty dose of resilience.

Surviving in a leadership position is often the dominating construct of the leadership corset.

This corset appears innocuous a the start. Perhaps it comes from repeatedly battling the same argument until you give up. But as time passes and compliance is rewarded, the cost of speaking up becomes higher. The corset begins to become constrictive. Critical thinking gives way to defeat, and cognitive dissonance to rationalization.

Leadership corsets are not only made of external constructs. They're also built on internal constructs such as expertise, ambition, and a sense of duty. These internal constructs prevent us from acknowledging 'we don't know' and asking for help. They prevent us from saying 'no' to taking time off, looking after our well-being and doing anything we tell others is a priority.

And, with the drive to be the best leader, we forget it's okay to be human and make mistakes. Instead, we become intolerant of our own and others' mistakes. We create a view of a good leader that is impossible to obtain. Our corset tightens until one day; we discover we can no longer breathe.

What might good leadership look like? Look around; there's plenty of material out there. But it does seem that current leadership ideology places a high bar on one person having the skills and know-how required to be a good leader.

Rather than a good leader, I'd like us to focus on good leadership teams. And good leadership teams would have diverse leadership skills, demographics, and abilities. But this type of leadership team doesn't happen without intent and effort. It requires a space where diversity in leadership can thrive and grow. This space is not Kumbaya land nor an overseas junket trip. This space must be created intentionally by both exec and the leadership team.

It's a space that demands we acknowledge and understand different perspectives and leadership styles. A space where respectful dialogue is prioritised. Its walls are transparent, and its hearth is welcoming. Diversity in leadership allows us to redefine the corset, perhaps expand it a little, allowing and encouraging people to loosen their internal constructs, breathe easier and be their authentic selves.

Of course, we know all this. Or at least, we should know all this. It's not breaking news. There's enough literature and podcasts out there on leadership. But has our courage deserted us, or perhaps have we lost our way as our companies face increased complexity and uncertainty?

I hope not. In response to this post, I hope someone will tell me a good hope story where leadership is thriving and growing. I'm sure they exist. And if so, can I work with you?