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Channeling the Leader’s Frustration

Some leaders in need of serious self-examination experience frustration with the failings of others and do not make the link to failings in themselves. Rather than this presenting a problem, it may present an opportunity to involve the leader in a transformation process.

Especially if a leader explodes or dissolves under criticism, it may be more effective to first mirror back to the leader the difficulties she is reporting with others before confronting her with her contribution to the situation. Mirroring consists of paraphrasing the leader’s frustration and communicating it back to her in a way that shows she has been heard, empathizes with her feelings, and reflects her self-image so she feels understood and appreciated. For example:

“I see that you are trying to weld together a first-class team that provides the best service possible. It must be extremely frustrating that not all of your people seem to be getting the idea.”

Once the leader feels understood, the follower can suggest a thorough review of the organization’s systems to get at the root problems. Reviewing systems rarely seems threatening. A leader who is frustrated with a staff’s performance is often open to such a suggestion, genuinely thinking the problems are “there,” not “here.”

From a systems perspective, great leadership and great followership are part of the same system. Though leaders may not be able to meaningfully hear that a system review will include examining their own role in the system, they need to be briefed on this for both ethical and practical reasons. Leaders’ acceptance that they may be involved in performance issues opens the door to a review of their style and impact. If the leader is, indeed, a primary cause of system dysfunction, this will emerge in the review. Followers, of course, must be prepared to discover their own contribution to the dysfunctional system.

Whoever conducts the review will need to confront both the leader and followers about their roles in the dysfunction. The same caveat applies as was given to the follower-as-catalyst: to generate the motivation to change, the confrontation must clearly communicate the intensity of feelings within the group about the behavior and practices discovered in the review.