Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself: Thoughts on Disruptive versus Dissonant Leadership
Last June, a friend and I published a post in which we lamented about the state of the tactical-level intelligence operations in the United States Army. Both of us were passionate about intelligence, information collection, and reconnaissance and security operations and, caught up in our passion, took aim and unloaded our frustrations in a harsh attack on what we perceived to be the sources of failure experienced by Brigade Combat Teams conducting training at the National Training Center. Prior to publishing, I edited the post, taming some of the vitriol and dampening some of the hyperbole present in the original drafts. Still, I felt uncomfortable with the post but could not articulate why. I published anyway.
The post drew much attention with readership at echelons well beyond our expectation. We received notes of congratulatory praise for our candidness and heard rumors of several senior leaders' indignation from others. Within a day or two, a senior leader within our chain of command ordered us to report to his office. Where we expected an ass-chewing, we received what I believe will prove one of the most impactful professional development sessions I have had or will ever have during my Army career. Our discussion about the post helped me clarify why I had felt uncomfortable about the post. The reasons had little to do with the substance of the post. The senior leader made no mention of our observations, arguments, and recommendations - in his mind, whether he agreed or disagreed was irrelevant. He expressed support for our demonstrated commitment to professional writing but explained that the problems with the post lie in its delivery. If I'm honest with myself, I already knew this.
I had originally established thetacticalleader.com as a way to jump-start a conversation about tactics and facilitate my own and others' professional growth and development. I envisioned a medium for encouraging and supportive discussion among professionals, but one also subject to candid and objective criticism. This post flew in the face of those values. Instead, we succumbed to an urge to be provocative. We craved that ‘ooh' factor. We were writing for an audience ‘on the balcony,' not our fellow professionals ‘on the field'. Our apparent cynicism and frustration drowned out any value or potential for influencing positive change within the profession that the post might have had.
I am still ashamed and embarrassed about the post – it was such a huge departure from the professional writing and values to which I aspire. Yet, the episode was a tremendous lesson in leadership. In his book, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes two types of leadership: resonant and dissonant. Resonant leaders drive collective emotions in a positive direction, resulting in an increase in the team's enthusiasm and commitment and, as a result, the quality of their work and sense of satisfaction. Dissonant leaders infect organizations with their anger, frustration, and cynicism, hijacking the moods of the team and creating a toxic climate. To be clear, resonant and dissonant leaders can share an appreciation the same institutional or organizational challenges. What differs is how they go about solving them. Resonant leaders inspire within us a sense of urgency and passion for positive change. Dissonant leaders drive us to solve the same problems but while burdened and hamstrung by anger, distrust, and a sense of futility. After reading the book, I realized that I had, at times, been engaging in dissonant leadership in both my writings and my daily actions. I was well on my way to becoming an AIM, or ‘Angry Iron Major.' I needed to check myself before I wrecked myself. I set out self-development plan for increasing my emotional intelligence and capacity for resonant leadership and took a break from posting my writings to my blog. This a journey still in progress.
I'm not alone - Angry Major Syndrome is a monster we all must grapple with and social media has an insidious way of amplifying the cancerous effects of dissonant leadership. Recently, dissonant leadership self-styled as ‘disruptive leadership' seems to have come into vogue. Many professionals, well-intentioned and passionate about their profession need to be wary of their potential to become dissonant leaders. Last August, I posted a call for greater critical thinking and less cynicism in our professional dialogue. The post received mixed responses. My intended message - that I demanded more resonant and less dissonant leadership from fellow professionals – seems to have been lost in translation.
A recent post on Task & Purpose by MAJ Jamie Schwandt regarding his experiences at the US Army Command and General Staff College offers another opportunity to jump-start a discussion on resonant and dissonant leadership. In the post, MAJ Schwandt takes it upon himself to grade the curriculum, staff, students, culture, and climate of the institution. In doing so, he offers criticisms that, regardless as to whether they are well-intentioned or even well-informed, quickly become lost in a sea of apparent frustration, cynicism, and sense of futility. Any value of the post is lost because it is ill-directed at the ‘audience in the balcony' - a prospective social media following - rather than the ‘audience on the field' - those decision-makers that might make a substantive change based on his observations and recommendations. I imagine that he, like I, succumbed to an urge to be provocative and, as a result, severely hindered any prospect of him serving as a force for influencing positive change.
The problem is that such posts aren't ‘disruptive,' they are dissonant. They emotionally hijack susceptible audiences, infecting them with cynicism, frustration, and sense of futility than hinders our collective progress forward. Inexperienced or impressionable readers may begin to adopt these divisive biases as their own. As a result, larger numbers within the profession become mired in negative emotion and cancer spreads throughout the ranks. In our efforts to be mavericks, we should ensure that we are not a voice for the malcontents. Instead, we should seek to find ways to inspire positive change.
Resonant reflections on experiences in at CGSC (such as here, here, and here) offer constructive criticisms while still inspiring positive change. The authors do not turn a blind eye to the challenges or problems that exist, nor do their criticisms encourage the drawing of battle lines, entrenchment, and meaningless partisan conflict. Decision-makers capable of instituting change remain receptive to needed change. Prospective students of CGSC gain insight on where to best focus their own efforts and where they may need to supplement institutional shortcomings. Positive growth, as opposed to cancerous rot, is the result of resonant leadership.
The way in which we communicate about challenges within our profession matters. Further, it directly affects the extent to which we are able to overcome those challenges. If we allow ourselves to become mired in cynicism, frustration, and a sense of futility, our dissonant leadership infects those around us and drags the entire organization down. However, if are able to find it within ourselves to channel our frustrations and passion into enthusiasm and commitment to creating positive change, we can begin to inspire the movement of the entire organization in the right direction.