The Anthropology of Work

From the blog

The Leadership Self

giddens pic

In his book, Modernity and Self Identity, Anthony Giddens explores the various ways that individuals maintain a cohesive sense of self in a post-modern world.  The collapse/disappearance of traditional cultural systems all around us creates uncertainty and anxiety, within which we have fewer and fewer reliable islands where we can call home.  He talks about this first in terms of ‘ontological security’ and ‘existential anxiety,’ then he talks about it in terms of risk and security.  This is where it gets interesting and relevant to any discussion of leadership in today’s organizations.

We know, from almost a generation of research and observation, what innovative and high-performance firms look like.  Filled with capable, autonomous knowledge workers who generally need very little management, organizations today need a new form of influential yet ‘hands-off’ leadership.  This is quite challenging? How do you guide the overall strategic direction of the firm in a hands-off manner?

Anchor the Self

Finding the right balance between company vision and worker autonomy starts with leaders who deeply understand their place in the world.  This includes her/his personal life and professional life.  We each have multiple aspects of our selves, and the particular ‘self’ that we activate at work is just one aspect of our overall experience.  We might have different styles of interacting with friends, family, or fellow hobbyists than we do with our colleagues at work.  The ‘family self’ is sometimes different than the ‘friend self,’ or the ‘leadership self.’  This is where Giddens’ work is most helpful.

So many of the short-term, and sometimes even narcissistic (see Strategy & Business Interview with Manfred Kets de Vries) decisions that senior leaders make are made from a point of deep insecurity.  He/She might be a really good person, but a lack of self-knowledge creates anxiety that is compensated for through projection and risk aversion.  Risk management, as it is discussed in financial services and in underwriting generally, is sometimes skewed by individuals who first and foremost are unsure about who they are and what their place in the world is, and only secondly about the efficacy of one decision over another.

Take Stock

Being reflexive about how our various selves- at home, at work, with friends- is a helpful starting point for providing our ‘leadership self’ with a sense of perspective.  Not only do we make calmer and better decisions when we feel emotionally anchored, it is also a first step in recognizing the multiple selves at work in all of our colleagues. Sometimes this might mean that our ‘development’ needs to take place outside of the office, in a more personal realm.  This can be overwhelming to think about.  Consider, though, a colleague who might be a mid-level employee, but he or she is a successful Iron Man competitor and has had enormous accomplishments in their personal life?  A senior leader who is mindful of how our multiple selves are activated in different contexts can more clearly see the strength (and leadership) exhibited in their Iron Man colleague.

We all thrive in different activities in different contexts.  Leaders who are self-aware and are able to recognize the fullness of their colleagues are usually more secure, personally, and more able to make tough decisions under pressure.  While we can never wish-away the uncertainty that surrounds us in a wired, global economy, we can better understand our various selves and how our ‘leadership self’ is situated within the rest of our lives.  Innovative leadership programs, such as Proteus at London Business School, can provide a first step in this important journey.


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