The Gifts, and Limits, of Reactive Leadership

Pendulum Safety PurposeI thought that thanks to the financial crisis, the world would grow up. It would transition from an individualistic, independent maturity stage to a more interdependent one. The crisis was a good sign that we were all interconnected, that the consequences of our acts didn’t only impact our lives but those of others. In fact, it was even worst, as it impact mostly others and not the one at the source. Oh boy, was I naive, or enthusiastic.

Actually, it seems that the world has even revert to a lower stage of development, the dependent one, where people have no vision, they only react to fear. As Robert Anderson and William Adams write in their book Mastering Leadership, leadership is about a pendulum between safety and purpose, between keeping what is and building what can be. On the safety side, you have what they call the Reactive Styles of leadership. On the purpose side you have the Creative Styles. As we all should know, life is definitely not black and white, and a powerful leader can swing both ways at the same time. He can navigate opposites without loosing its values, sense of identity, vision, purpose and passion.

What Is Reactive Leadership?

But Reactive Leaders are driven by threat. They fear anything that would stray from what they believe as essential will annihilate their identity. They live only on the Safety side of the pendulum. Actually, they don’t even know it. Their belief system drives them on autopilot with the main objective to maintain reality as is. Reactive Styles run from a threat that generates fear and the reaction to avoid that threat and bringing back the initial state of mind. They never explore the purpose side of the pendulum; it creates too much internal conflict their system is designed to react to.

Why would they do that? It stems from a lower stage of development called the Socialized Self. What others think, what the culture and the community request is more important that your own belief system (Self-Authoring and Self-Transforming stages). This stage is fundamental for any human because it helps grow from a child to a young adult ready to fit in the society. It acts as support to deal with the complexity of life by simplifying the framework: work, love, have friends and build a family. It is more appealing than accepting other radical points-of-view, fight for your rights, dare to say no, struggle two jobs to pay your bills, etc.

The 3 Reactive Gifts

So Reactive Styles are really useful and they even hold gifts that are valuable for society. They are three types based on The Leadership Circle tool designed by the authors of Mastering Leadership:

  1. Complying: people who comply deeply desire to relate. Relationships are so essential that they will avoid to voice out their point of view by fear of offending someone. The result ends up being the opposite, as it generates distrust and distance. When you only focus on the gift, which is maintaining a strong relationship, then complying styles are very powerful but it takes courage to relate to others while defending your own thoughts.
  2. Protecting: people who protect want to know, they want to be seen as people who know. They want to take the time to be true to reality and grasp it perfectly. The downside is that they can present an off-putting style of the one who knows best, feeling no emotion, being distant and finally be seen as goofy and not smart. When they actually embrace their aptitude to know while respecting emotions and closing the distance, then they can be strong partners to rely on.
  3. Controlling: people desiring to achieve results because they are what they achieve are really useful. They are the one making things change and happen. But often they come across as too controlling and people tend to close up and underperform by way of resisting the micro-management. The controlling type who wanted results turn out with a lower performance and no results at all.

How to Go From Reactive to Creative Leadership?

To fully enjoy the fruit of each gift, each type needs to tap into its purpose and stay true to it. By swinging the pendulum further towards the Purpose side of leadership then their true gift can bloom despite the complexity of reality or the constant context change.

I wish that the financial crisis, and now the looming car crisis would invite everyone to bring more purpose in their life so that we all can strive using our innate gift! Am I dreaming again?

Sara Bigwood

Leadership & Change Coach
Author of The Expat Method, Mastering Personal and Organizational Change