On Leadership and Holding the Lantern

In this incredible era of breakthroughs in neuroscience and its applied therapies, psychiatrists have been recognized as leaders and pioneers in battling the previously elusive maladies of the human condition. In the darkness, people instinctively follow the person carrying the lantern. As a consequence, I am not necessarily sure where we're going.

In this incredible era of breakthroughs in neuroscience and its applied therapies, psychiatrists have been recognized as leaders and pioneers in battling the previously elusive maladies of the human condition. Vastly heightened knowledge, however, creates greater questions and uncertainties. In the darkness, people instinctively follow the person carrying the lantern. As a consequence (though I happen to be holding a lantern), I am not necessarily sure where we're going.

As it is more difficult to repent than to confess, I wish to begin by acknowledging that I am not a strong leader. My difficulties have persisted despite having been blessed throughout my psychiatric career with many exceptional teachers, numerous opportunities to supervise others and the occasions to read the biographies of many of history's most dynamic leaders. Unfortunately, the more I have studied leadership, the less I have understood it. This awkward dance with authority would be much less difficult if I were somehow not seen as an appointed captain.

In my journey to embrace the essence of leadership, I have found more contradictions than answers. More specifically, I have identified the three great paradoxes of leadership with which I struggle.

Paradox 1

Although you will be tested on your knowledge, you will ultimately be judged by your character.

I vividly remember a brief but revealing discussion several years ago with a well-educated colleague. In the course of a conversation regarding several challenging clinical issues, I admitted not knowing the answers to some of her questions. She responded with great disgust, saying, "I was trained that you should never admit that you don't know, but should always give some sort of answer, even if you're not really sure."

In retrospect, I believe that her reaction reflected a generally held belief that equates leadership with knowledge. The logical conclusion from this premise, however, is that only the omniscient can be great leaders. Since this is obviously not the case, there must be qualities other than the possession of knowledge that characterize a competent leader. My own observation is that leaders are persuasive more as a consequence of how they live rather than what they say. Those whom I have admired as leaders were above reproach and modeled maturity, honesty and kindness. They often worked much harder than those around them yet never complained. Of these people, I cared very little about what they knew and how accomplished they were. I simply wanted to be with them.

Paradox 2

Although your true power is limited, your influence is considerable.

Despite my psychiatric training, I am unaware of a means to prevent loss, pain, suffering or death. A belief in the ability to ultimately control people and events, regardless of the techniques employed, seems at best to be wishful thinking and at worst to be a delusion.

In spite of these realities, many of my patients and fellow workers have afforded me the authority of a king. I am often disturbed to learn that what I thought were inconsequential statements and behaviors on my part had unexpected, significant and sometimes grievous effects upon others. Perhaps, by virtue of holding the lantern, I have been elevated to a level of influence that I have neither recognized nor comprehended. More recently, I have tried to better understand what it is to be king, and I have chosen my words and deeds more carefully.

Paradox 3

You will empower yourself by making others stronger.

In marching forward with the lantern, I have felt more comfortable having others behind me. This stems from my concern that those who walk beside me are more likely to discover that we might be walking in circles.

Fortunately, I have been blessed with bright and dynamic co-workers, each possessing areas of knowledge that exceed my own. When I have chosen to trust and nurture some of these individuals, I have usually been well-rewarded. Not only have they gained confidence, they have held me in higher esteem as well. I believe that they have seen my willingness to trust them as a sign of strength and wisdom rather than as a weakness. Ironically, by holding the lantern more loosely, I have felt less concerned about walking in circles.

Although the light from the lantern should ultimately decrease ignorance and hesitation, it has created for me considerable uncertainty. I have found that the lantern's light can illuminate only a finite distance. If I rely only upon the lantern, then I can lead only as far as it will allow me to see.

I suspect that my resolution to the paradox of leadership lies beyond the light of the lantern. Finding the answers will require that I put the lantern down and paradoxically walk into the darkness, where the secrets of leadership and human relationships really exist.