Photo of 10 Downing Street in the UK
Photo of 10 Downing Street in the UK
Richard Bolden reflects on the recent turmoil in UK politics from the perspective of a leadership researcher and educator, considering the case from the individual, organizational, and societal perspectives.

Professor Richard Bolden


Over the past seven weeks the world watched on as Liz Truss crashed and burned as Prime Minister of the UK. After just 45 days in office — two weeks less than the election process through which she was appointed and, if you take out the period of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, shorter than the average shelf life of a lettuce (Economist, 2022, Daily Star, 2022) — Liz Truss unceremoniously stepped down as leader of the Conservative Party.

There is no shortage of journalists and political commentators writing their own accounts of what’s happened but, in this blog post, I would like to reflect on this as a leadership researcher and educator. To do this, I will consider the case from individual, organizational and societal perspectives.

An Individual Perspective: The Fall of Liz Truss

Without doubt, the most common way in which Liz Truss’s time in office will be analyzed is in relation to her own shortcomings and failures as a leader. The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing and there are many people coming forward to express the concerns they had about her character and suitability for the role of Prime Minister.

Over the past few days, I’ve heard her described as “tin eared,” “naïve,” “arrogant,” “stupid,” “talentless,” and many more things beside. Whilst these may or may not be a fair assessment of her qualities, they beg the question of why on earth her candidacy was supported by so many ministers and members of the Conservative Party if this is how they felt about her. Surely there was some evidence of this, or an attempt to assess her suitability, before she was given the biggest job in UK politics?

I’ve always been dubious about the motivations of anyone who would wish to become PM or President given the immense responsibility and public scrutiny such roles carry. Indeed, in a reverse Catch-22 type scenario, anyone ambitious enough to put themselves forward should perhaps be deemed unsuitable and hence ineligible for the role. There’s plenty of research evidence on the psychopathology of leadership and the risks of narcissism, greed, and corruption amongst senior leaders in all walks of life. Such toxicity is clearly not healthy, but it’s a mistake to lay the blame wholly on the individual leader her/himself — indeed we may need to take a closer look at ourselves.

The psychodrama of Westminster over the past weeks, months, years says perhaps as much about our own relationship to leaders and leadership as the individual protagonists themselves. In a recent book chapter I co-authored with Lucie Hartley, drawing on insights from her time as CEO of a drug and alcohol charity, we reflected on the addictive nature of leadership (Hartley & Bolden, 2022). While individual leaders may become trapped in destructive cycles of addictive behavior, the causes and consequences are not entirely of their own making. The tendency to romanticize leadership and the heroic qualities of successful leaders disguises the fact that we frequently place people in situations that would turn even the most admirable individual into something else.

While I have no doubt that Liz Truss willingly and enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to be Prime Minister, she did so at a time of extreme turbulence. Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam (2005) coined the term the “glass cliff” to describe the circumstances in which female leaders and leaders from minority backgrounds are disproportionately more likely to be appointed to senior leadership roles in times of significant risk. While there are a number of possible explanations for this trend, it means that these individuals are placed in particularly precarious situations where the likelihood of failure is at its greatest. As the political commentator Andrew Marr stated in relation to the unraveling of Liz Truss’s government: “It was triggered by the immediate causes: bad political judgement, naiveté about markets, personal arrogance and cliquishness. Truss is simply not good enough — not shrewd enough in judgement, not persuasive enough as a communicator — to be prime minister. But this is the failure of an idea that would have collapsed even had Britain been led by better politicians” (Marr, 2022).

While I have no desire to present Truss as a victim, she became the embodiment of a set of ideals promoted by certain factions of her Party that were fundamentally out of step with the realities of the markets and wider society. She stated that in her commitment to growth she was prepared to do things that might be considered unpopular. Modeling herself on Margaret Thatcher, she claimed to be “a fighter not a quitter” and “not for turning”… until the markets and public opinion forced her to U-turn on pretty much everything she’d put in place during her time in office. We expect a lot of our leaders — including the ultimate act of self-sacrifice when things turn bad (Grint, 2010).

An Organizational Perspective: A Divided Party

The Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain is one of the main political parties in the UK. It represents the right-of-centre political interests and agendas and, within England at least, faces its main opposition from the left-of-centre Labour Party. There are currently 357 Conservative ministers, representing around 55% of all members of the House of Commons. The government comprises a Cabinet of senior leaders appointed by the PM and a large group of “back bench” members of parliament (MPs) elected to represent the interests of their local constituencies. An oppositional form of government is maintained, whereby, the party in power sits opposite the opposition parties in the main chamber of the House of Commons and legislation and policies are debated and voted on by members.

The origins of the UK structure of government dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries, with current arrangements largely unchanged for over 100 years. Unlike typical organizations, the PM’s authority comes from the mandate gained through General Elections, which occur every 4-5 years, where the public get to vote for their preferred party/candidate. These are supplemented by local elections to approve changes in representation between the national election cycle and by occasional national referendums on key issues, such as the UK’s membership of the European Union in 2016.

Within such an environment, the ability of the PM to instill a sense of “confidence” and maintain “discipline” is key. While MPs usually vote along party lines, within a democratic system of government they have the freedom to vote in the way they believe best serves the interests of the electorate. There are occasional exceptions to this, such as the vote on fracking on the evening of Wednesday 19th October 2022 that descended into chaos when Conservative MPs were informed that it was a “confidence vote” and they were expected to vote “no” to a motion to ban fracking no matter what their personal opinion on the matter or the views of their constituents. Despite the attempts of party “whips” and senior Cabinet members to encourage (force) members to vote as directed, 32 (nearly 10%) did not register a vote.

The events of the past few weeks have highlighted deep divisions within the Party that have existed for many years. Rather than all Conservatives sharing a unified set of beliefs, values, and priorities it is a loose affiliation of divided factions. These are the issues that David Cameron was trying to resolve when he called the national referendums, firstly on Scottish independence in 2015 and then membership in the EU in 2016. He hoped that once they had been decided through a public vote, MPs would fall into line and follow the guidance of the PM and Cabinet. In reality, however, such votes — particularly Brexit — seemed to further cement divisions within the Party and have led to widespread resistance and challenge across the different sub-groups — fueling, in large part, the churn of senior leaders, including three Prime Ministers and four Chancellors of the Exchequer (responsible for managing the national budget) in the last few months.

Commentators suggest that the Conservatives need to find a “unity candidate” to replace Liz Truss, someone who can lead and engage people from across the whole party, but such people are in short supply. The contenders — Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordant, and (the former PM) Boris Johnson — are all divisive given that they represent the interests of particular stakeholders rather than the whole party… not to mention the wider country. While Sunak, the runner up in the previous election campaign, has now gained sufficient support to be named the new leader, he has a significant challenge ahead in engaging those who hold him personally responsible for the departure of Boris Johnson and the drama that has since unfolded.

At the end of the day, leadership is about building, rather than burning, bridges.

The social identity approach to leadership, outlined by Alex Haslam and colleagues (2020), highlights the need for leaders to be seen to represent the interests and identity of a collective and to be doing it for “us.” Application of these ideas to the COVID-19 pandemic by Jetten et al. (2020) goes further, suggesting that (1) leaders need to represent us, and in a crisis “us” becomes more inclusive; (2) leaders need to be seen to do it for us, and there is no place for leader exceptionalism; and (3) leaders need to craft and embed a sense of us, and this creates a platform for citizenship.

This mirrors evidence from the Center for Creative Leadership on the nature and importance of “boundary spanning” leadership — defined as “the ability to create direction, alignment, and commitment across boundaries in service of a higher vision or goal” (Ernst & Yip, 2009). Direction, alignment, and commitment are far from evident within UK politics at the moment, and with its absence, the sense of shared purpose and capacity for collaboration needed for effective leadership and governance have evaporated. As the long-standing Tory MP Charles Walker stated following the chaotic vote on 19 October — “I’ve had enough of talentless people putting their tick in the box, not because it’s in the national interest but because it’s in their own personal interest” (Walker, 2022).

A Societal Perspective: Uniting Around a Shared Purpose

To understand Liz Truss’s spectacular failure, however, it is not sufficient to just consider individual and organizational factors. The speed and scale of her demise was largely shaped by factors beyond the direct control of either her or her colleagues.

She came into her position at a time of significant economic and geopolitical turmoil. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and a number of related factors (including the legacy of COVID-19) had driven up fuel costs and impacted food production, which had a direct impact on the cost of living for people across the UK. There were urgent calls for support in helping businesses and working families as well as those already receiving benefits, to cope with the rising cost of bills for fuel, food, and a wide range of essentials. Rapid action was required to put systems and processes in place before the winter in order to minimize the adverse effects.

The policy advocated by Liz Truss and her allies was one of establishing the UK as a high growth, low tax economy. Described by some as “Singapore on Thames” and others as “Trussonomics” — the approach is founded on the idea of cutting red tape and taxes to drive economic growth. This “trickle down” approach proposed that cutting taxes for the wealthiest would benefit those on lower incomes by mobilizing spending and job opportunities. This vision was core to Truss’s campaign to be elected as Party leader and was presented as confident and optimistic in the face of her opponent, Rishi Sunak’s, campaign that spoke of hard times ahead and the need to reign in public spending. When 141,000 Conservative members voted on whom to elect as party leader in September 2022, 57.4% chose Truss over Sunak (Statista, 2022), quite probably because of the more inspiring vision she set out of a post-Brexit Britain.

While those Conservative party members who voted for her, however, may have been persuaded by her argument, the “markets” were far less sympathetic — particularly when her (then) Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, announced a “mini budget” on 23rd September 2022 that included £45 billion of unfunded tax cuts. This “spooked” the markets and led to a rapid drop in the value of the pound, forcing the Bank of England to intervene, increasing interest rates and buying government bonds. The crisis in the financial markets was fueled, to a large extent, by the lack of communication and engagement between Truss and Kwarteng with the business and financial sector (including the Bank of England and, indeed, their own MPs) in advance of the announcements. The unusual decision not to check projections with the Office for Budget Responsibility (established to give independent advice on the UK’s public finance) further undermined confidence — leaving many to assume that the government’s plans were not based on robust analysis and would leave a large gap in the UK economy.

Together, these factors demonstrate the importance of building consensus and support with key stakeholders beyond the immediate team/organization before launching a significant shift in strategy. Without this, the perceived competence, credibility, and legitimacy of leaders can quickly evaporate, making it very hard (or impossible) to regain sufficient support to move forward. The series of U-turns on the policies within the mini-budget, while essential to rebuilding some kind of stability within the markets, whittled away what remaining authority Truss held such that there was no option than to eventually resign.

Where Next?

Today we find ourselves turning to a new leader of the Conservative Party — someone who will also take on the role of Prime Minister. Recent events illustrate the ambivalent relationship to leadership we have in the UK (Bolden & Witzel, 2018). We appear to love and hate our leaders in equal measure — to put them on a pedestal and then topple them when they fail to behave in ways, or to deliver, what we expect (despite the warning signs that might already exist or the incredible demands they face).

While the primary focus of the current crisis in UK politics is “leadership,” we may, perhaps, be advised to spend more time thinking about the importance of “followership.” While each of the contenders for the role of Prime Minister had their own group of loyal advocates, to be successful Rishi Sunak will have to gain the support of a diverse range of stakeholders — including his own party, business and financial services, the public sector and the wider UK population — and demonstrate how he will represent and deliver against their needs and aspirations rather than those of a narrow clique. At the end of the day, leadership is about building, rather than burning, bridges. It is about articulating and working towards a shared purpose that unites, rather than divides, those around them. Ultimately, this might require those in senior leadership positions to put aside their own personal ambitions in the pursuit of a genuinely collective endeavor. As with the apocryphal quote of a Roman Senator claiming “there go my people… I must go after them, so I can find out where they want me to lead them!” (Witzel, 2016) — the key to political leadership is to follow the “will of the people.” Whether or not anyone in the current UK government has the willingness or capacity to do this is yet to be seen.

References and Further Reading

Bolden, R. and Witzel, M. (2018) ‘Dis-United Kingdom? Leadership at a crossroads’ in S. Western and E.J. Garcia (eds) Global Leadership Perspectives: Insights and Analysis, London: Sage Publications, pp 161-169.

Bolden, R., Hawkins, B., Gosling, J. and Taylor, S. (2011) Exploring Leadership: Individual, organizational and societal perspectives.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. – Second edition to be published in March 2023.

Daily Star (2022) LIVE: Can Liz Truss outlast a lettuce?

Eardley, N. (2022) How big-bang economic plan and political turmoil sank Liz Truss, BBC News, 20/10/2022

Economist, The (2022) Liz Truss has made Britain a riskier bet for bond investors, 11/10/2022

Ernst, C. and Yip, J. (2009) Bridging Boundaries: Meeting the Challenge of Workplace Diversity, Leadership in Action, 28(1), 3-6.

Grint, K., (2010) The Sacred in Leadership: Separation, Sacrifice, and Silence, Organization Studies, 31, 89-107.

Hartley, L. and Bolden R. (2022) ‘Addicted to Leadership: From crisis to recovery’ in Morgen Witzel (ed.) Post-Pandemic Leadership: Exploring solutions to a crisis, London: Routledge.

Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D. & Platow, M. J. (2020). The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, influence and power, 2nd Edition. London & New York: Psychology Press.

Jetten, J., Reicher, S.D., Haslam, S.A. and Cruwys, T. (2020) Together Apart: The Psychology of COVID-19. London: Sage.

Kuenssberg, L. (2022) Tory leadership: Why would anyone want to be prime minister now anyway? BBC News, 22/10/2022

Marr, A. (2022) The death of global Britain, New Statesman, 19/10/2022 

Ryan, M. and Haslam, S. A. (2005) The glass cliff: evidence that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions, British Journal of Management, 16, 81-90.

Statista (2022) Percentage of votes won in the Conservative party leadership elections in the United Kingdom in 2022, by round.

Walker, C. (2022) I’ve had enough of talentless people, BBC News, 19/10/2022,

Witzel, M. (2016) The first paradox of leadership is – leadership! In R. Bolden, M. Witzel and N. Linacre (eds) Leadership Paradoxes: Rethinking leadership for an uncertain world. London: Routledge.

headshot of Richard Bolden

Dr. Richard Bolden has been Professor of Leadership and Management and Director of Bristol Leadership and Change Centre at Bristol Business School, University of the West of England (UWE) since 2013. Prior to this he worked at the Centre for Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter Business School for over a decade and has also worked as an independent consultant, research psychologist and in software development in the UK and overseas.

His research explores the interface between individual and collective approaches to leadership and leadership development in a range of sectors, including higher education, healthcare and public services. He has published widely on topics including distributed, shared and systems leadership; leadership paradoxes and complexity; cross-cultural leadership; and leadership and change. He is Associate Editor of the journal Leadership.

Richard has secured funded research and evaluation projects for organisations including the NHS Leadership Academy, Public Health England, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Singapore Civil Service College and Bristol Golden Key and regularly engages with external organisations. 

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Illustration of man walking on Penrose Triangle
Illustration of man walking on Penrose Triangle

by Professor Keith Grint


The war in Ukraine provides us with a case study in leadership that many of us would rather not have. For many in Russia, Putin’s tough and resolute leadership appears irrevocably good, both in terms of the historical narrative of addressing the national shame and nostalgic glory that embodies resonances from the old Soviet Union, and in terms of its success in “defending” Russia against the NATO-inspired Nazis that Putin alleges operate in Ukrainian uniforms. For many in Ukraine and in the West, the “same” war is regarded as a moral outrage, an unprovoked Russian attack upon a sovereign state, the type of action that most thought had disappeared from European history after 1945. Fortunately for Ukraine, Zelensky has demonstrated that, given the right situation, even an ex-comedian with little political experience can rise to the situation and provide Ukrainians with the kind of charismatic performance his fictional character in the Servant of the Nation TV series would have been proud of. But is there more to this clash of leaders and countries than yet another rehash of the romance of heroic leaders and the attritional war that has left thousands dead and wounded, millions displaced, and large swathes of eastern Ukraine devastated?

Perhaps I can start by suggesting that the clash is not just about these material elements but also about our understandings of leadership. After all, if Putin is to prevail, then the Russian people will probably judge him on the product of his leadership, rather than the process through which he achieved the result. In effect, a traditional Machiavellian approach where the ends justify the means and those ends are a consequence of Putin’s position at the top of an authoritarian state. Zelensky’s leadership, on the other hand, appears to have much more to do with his persona and the process by which he has mobilized his followers to resist the Russians. Of course, the end product, the result, is important for Zelensky too, but even when the Ukrainian army was retreating in the early part of the war, Zelensky’s popularity remained solid. In contrast, Putin’s popularity slid as the Ukrainian counter-offensive gained ground in September and early October. Both leaders are engaged in a war of words, as well as guns, especially in terms of the purpose for which their followers fight. So, unless we can unpack these various elements of leadership, it is not possible to explain why different people have radically diverse understandings of the same war.

I suggest that leadership is what Gallie (1955-56) called “an essentially contested concept.” That is, we probably disagree about the meaning of leadership, and there is probably never going to be a consensus about this. For example, it seems extremely unlikely that both sides will eventually come to a consensus about who was responsible for starting the war or which side had the moral high ground. To seek such a consensus is to assume the “facts” are objective and people are persuaded by them, but we know this is rarely the case. That does not mean we should give up trying to understand events in Ukraine or Russia, but it does mean that before we can discuss the events and hopefully find a way of ending the conflict, we need to be clear first about what we mean by “leadership.”


Gallie, W.B. (1955–56). Essentially Contested Concepts. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56, 167–98.

Headshot of Keith Grint

Keith Grint is Professor Emeritus at Warwick University. He has held Chairs at Cranfield University and Lancaster University and was Director of Research at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the International Leadership Association (ILA) and Professorial Fellow of the Australian Institute of Police Management (AIPM). He is also a founding co-editor with David Collinson of the journal Leadership, and co-founder of the International Studying Leadership Conference. He received ILA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.  His books include The Arts of Leadership (2000); Organizational Leadership (2005); Leadership: Limits and Possibilities (2005); Leadership, Management & Command: Rethinking D-Day (2008); Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (2010); and Mutiny and Leadership (2021).

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Paper Boat floating on sunny sea
Paper Boat floating on sunny sea

by Chellie Spiller


The busy nature of modern life, combined with an almost constant bombardment of information, has left many people in the 21st century with a consciousness that is extremely noisy and prone to distraction. People rush around as if they are in a storm, panicking and reacting to events and to each other.

Leaders can learn to recognize their own potential to react to situations and seek to be free of clouded judgement. In doing so, they ensure that they remain open and aware of what is happening, leading from a place of stillness. 

In our book Wayfinding Leadership, my co-authors and I explore this and other concepts drawing upon the great wayfinding tradition of the Oceanic navigators who, without any instruments such as compasses or maps, were finding their way across 25 million square kilometres of ocean long before European ships had entered the Pacific.

For centuries, people have navigated using the rising and setting of stars and the patterns of waves on the oceans and sands. These wayfinders have observed the natural world, worked out their location and destination, set a course to get there, and then responded to signs along the way. Today’s wayfinders are the living face of a philosophy of being that has been orally transmitted from one generation to the next through millennia.

Wayfinders go beyond the known. Theirs is a human story of going on journeys of discovery to new horizons. The principles of wayfinding have developed through action and practice in deep intimacy with an ever-changing world. It is as much about the journey as it is about reaching the destination.

To acquire the wise perspective of a wayfinding leader, including mental resilience, courage, and resolve, is to operate from a relaxed state in all circumstances — whether in the midst of a raging storm or caught up in the unpredictable and dangerous winds of the doldrums. Master wayfinders have the ability to move from stillness; they possess a steadfast calm clarity.

The moving (or leading) from stillness resonates deeply with participants who attend our workshops and keynotes here in New Zealand and internationally. People worldwide are deeply exhausted by pushing through the storms of life.

When the Going Gets Tough

Paradoxically, when the going gets tough, the tough get relaxed. When we relax, we are more likely to find a creative solution. When we approach life from a base of stillness and presence that is very grounded and clear, we can better see what is going on and respond appropriately.

It is essential that leaders and everyone in a team act from a grounded stillness, not from reactivity, agitation, distraction, or being fixated. The invitation of our book is to cultivate this purposeful and active stillness.

It is a condition of relaxed “sitting in the belly.” Rather than seeking to be detached from a distracting world, it is about being engaged, integrating information, and allowing an intermingling with deep knowledge to form creative pathways.

Many of us will need courage for our journey together in these times — it is not smooth sailing.


The ancient wayfinders who set off to lead the way to new worlds didn’t let fear stop them from journeying to new places. They went beyond the known, on voyages of discovery to new horizons. The wayfinding leader cannot be overcome by the enormity of the challenges they face but must rise with courage to model the way and ensure the successful fulfilment of the purpose of the journey.

A key wayfinding mantra by the great Satawalese celestial navigator Papa Mau Piailug is: “Do not pray for fair weather; pray for courage.” He believed that with courage, we can travel anywhere and not get lost.

Courage requires summoning inner strength to make the journey and to stay on board during challenging and difficult times. Many of us will need courage for our journey together in these times — it is not smooth sailing.

Each one of us, at one time or another, has had to venture outside our own comfort zone. However, as we all know from experiences of when our mettle has been tested, we recognize that life’s challenges are the true opportunities to find new ways, innovate, and look for creative solutions.

These challenges can be like crucibles that forge our best self. As we slow down, pause and look around, and get in touch with our “internal relaxation,” we cultivate a wise grit in carrying ourselves through the world.

Tune Into the Right Frequencies

How do we know which signals to listen to? Which ones to tune out? This is very important — what are we tuning into and giving oxygen to? What do we need to tune out because it takes our life energy away? Sometimes these signals are very weak — and our task is to notice and amplify them.

Wayfinding leadership is like finding the right radio channel and minimizing the noise and static, so we can focus on what we need to know in any given situation. Tuning into the right frequencies means focusing on what is truly important, meaningful, and helpful. A powerful way of helping us tune into the right frequencies is to master the skill of moving from stillness.

Become an Observer of the World

Today we are each called to keenly observe and anticipate changing conditions, respond decisively, and command critical moments with fierce courage and wisdom. These are skills required of every leader today. Every leadership moment, especially the challenging ones, sharpens our mastery and hones our “response”-ability.

In our workshops, we invite participants to close their eyes for around 30 seconds. When they open their eyes, they take a moment to jot down three things they now notice using all of their senses. This very short exercise brings awareness to our state of being, how we are in our bodies, thoughts, emotions, and so forth. This exercise highlights for people that by taking brief moments to pause, we connect to that place of stillness using all of our senses. It’s a beneficial practice for those testy meetings that can get tense and overheated!

In Wayfinding Leadership, we quote Robert Ballantyne who, writing in 1874 in a work called The Ocean and Its Wonders, speaks of the deep calm at the bottom of the ocean. This passage is an invitation to find that place of deep calm within even as the surface of our daily lives may be roiling with perturbations:

… the lowest depths of the ocean are always in a state of profound calm. Oceanic storms do not extend to the bottom. When the tempest is lashing the surface of the sea into a state of the most violent and tremendous agitation, the caverns of the deep are wrapped in perfect repose.

To find out more about Wayfinding Leadership watch the TEDx Talk or visit our website.

Spiller, C., Barclay-Kerr, H., & Panoho, J. (2015). Wayfinding Leadership: Groundbreaking Wisdom for Developing Leaders. Huia Publications.

Chelie Spiller

Chellie Spiller is a professor of leadership at the University of Waikato Management School, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her research explores wayfinding, authentic leadership and how businesses can create sustainable wealth and wellbeing. Chellie is a co-author of a book on traditional Polynesian navigation Wayfinding Leadership: Groundbreaking Wisdom for Developing Leaders (2015) with Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr and John Panoho. Wayfinding Leadership is a best-selling book for Huia Publishing. It was shortlisted for the Māori Book of the Year awards, 2016. Wayfinding Leadership is included in the list of 150 books by leading Māori authors assembled by the Royal Society of New Zealand to celebrate 150 years of Māori non-fiction publications. Wayfinding Leadership has catalysed a new approach to leadership development that is growing fast and programmes are currently being taught nationally and internationally. In 2013 her co-edited book with Donna Ladkin, Reflections on Authentic Leadership: Concepts, Coalescences and Clashes (Edward Elgar Press) was short-listed for an international leadership book award. Chellie’s latest book is Practical Wisdom, Leadership and Culture: Indigenous, Asian and Middle-Eastern Perspectives co-edited with Ali Intezari and Shih-Ying Yang. The stories from contributors around the world are illuminating and inspiring.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

Diverse hands and arms (made out of tissue paper) coming together to form a heart.
Diverse hands and arms (made out of tissue paper) coming together to form a heart.

by Dr. Leah Tomkins


In this blog, I join those who advocate for the importance of leading with care. I also try to surface why the language and emotions of care often make people feel uncomfortable, and how this can make care seem irrelevant or unnecessary for leadership and leadership development. I draw on my recent consulting experience to suggest we need to be agile and imaginative to introduce the ethics of care into our organizational conversations. Above all, we should try to prioritize reality over rhetoric.  

In March this year, my colleague Professor Richard Bolden (2022) posted a blog on this site emphasizing the need to “build back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic. He argued that our COVID-19 recovery strategies must include developing leaders who embody and inspire care and compassion. Only this kind of leadership would allow individuals, workplaces, and communities to heal from the unprecedented levels of physical and emotional exhaustion they have experienced over the past couple of years.

Those writing about caring leadership often draw on the modern care ethics movement for their inspiration. Care ethicists usually ground care in the domestic sphere and the parental relationship. Within this setting, care is conceived as attentiveness and concern in relationships and attachments where one person has the experience and the resources to attend to another person’s needs. Under the banner heading Starting at Home, Noddings (2002) argues that the healthiest homes provide a powerful blueprint for all our relationships and institutions in adult life, for:

“All good homes put an emphasis on shifting the locus of control from the stronger and more mature to the weaker or less mature, but the best homes retain and promote the idea of shared responsibility…When one person hurts another, the conversations and decisions that follow are aimed at restitution, at understanding what happened, how each party might have behaved differently, and how similar future events might be prevented.” (p. 228)

For care ethicists, care may begin at home, but this should not mean that care has to be kept at home. Leading care scholars see care as a broader social and institutional framework, i.e., as a general moral theory of obligation which is “equally accessible to both men and women and univer­sally obligatory for all capable human beings” (Engster, 2007, p. 13). Tronto (2015) argues that care is the very foundation of a well-functioning society; because we all need, and hopefully receive, care at certain points in our lives (e.g., infancy, senility, illness, and misfortune), it is through care that we should approach the issue of democracy. She suggests that the power and promise of care ethics lies not in the perfection of an individual caring act (which is by definition “undemocratic”), but in our commitment to a world in which care-giving and care-receiving even out over the course of our lives.

Caring leadership has been linked to increased organizational commitment, heightened workplace self-esteem, and improved organizational performance.

Within the organizational world, caring leadership can be an extraordinarily powerful phenomenon. At its best, it triggers asso­ciations with closeness, belonging, and mattering to one another, and it seems to prioritize human beings over inhuman performance indicators. In empirical research on this topic, caring leadership has been linked to increased organizational commitment (Lilius et al., 2012), heightened workplace self-esteem (McAllister & Bigley, 2002), improved organizational performance (Cameron et al., 2003), and a strengthening of the moral foundations of transformational leadership (Simola et al., 2010). Arguably, care is even more powerful in its absence than its presence; if we sense that our leader simply does not care about us, we are often left feeling gravely disappointed, even betrayed (Gabriel, 2015; Tomkins, 2020).

So, why isn’t caring leadership on the curriculum of every leadership development program in every company and every business school? If care is so important for performance, belonging, recovery, and the institutions of a just society, why is it still a harder sell than the heroic transformational leadership (the bête noire for so many critical leadership scholars)? Why don’t we see more leaders whose success is attributed to the suggestion that they really care? Why, when we hear of leaders who do care, does this feel like care is a sort of apology or compensation, as in “Well, he may not be any good, but at least he cares”? Why, in short, is caring leadership often such a difficult conversation to initiate?

Whether consciously or unconsciously, care can trigger some difficult emotions. Some of these relate to our anxieties about dependency and loss of autonomy. Thus, care can be a problem for followers if it means that their space to maneuver, experiment, and learn from their own mistakes is curtailed by too much “caring” attention from their leader. Gabriel (2015) highlights similarities between the overly caring parent and the overly caring leader:

“As every caring parent knows, excessive caring can seriously inhibit the autonomy of followers, instilling dependence and inertia…At what point does caring turn into overprotection and cosseting?” (p. 329)

Caring leadership can involve an unhealthy dependency for leaders, too. In her ground-breaking work, In a Different Voice, Gilligan (1982) makes a distinction between feminine care and feminist care. The former equates moral goodness with self-sacrifice, i.e., with engaging with others solely on their terms and in the service solely of their needs. The latter sees all human lives as interconnected and interdependent within a social, political, and moral web of relationship. The risk for leaders who care is that one might lapse into self-sacrifice rather than nurturing — and being nurtured by — the radical intersubjectivity of all human lives.

Gilligan’s contrast between feminine care and feminist care suggests that the greatest barrier to caring leadership relates to gender. Our deep cultural associations between care and the maternal figure give care a highly female inflection. Care invokes both the female and the relational; whereas many of our implicit — and often unexamined — assumptions about what makes good leadership are basically male and individualist (even something like authentic leadership, which feels helpfully post-heroic at a surface level, but nevertheless triggers associations of splendid isolation and the significance of the individual self).

I myself have found the caring leadership conversation difficult to initiate in my work with practitioners. And I am not alone. Kim Scott’s bestselling book on Radical Candor has care and compassion at the heart of her model of successful organizational relations. She argues that leaders need “compassionate candor” in order to conduct the sometimes difficult conversations that lead to learning and development. She differentiates between this “compassionate candor” and a kind of “ruinous empathy” that can lead to the problems highlighted above. Scott’s “ruinous empathy” can result in organizations not addressing the things that need to be addressed for fear of hurting people’s feelings, and in leaders and others getting dragged into exhausting and unproductive relationship dynamics. When asked why she called her book Radical Candor, not Compassionate Candor (which it is arguably really about), Scott (2019) replied:

“Part of the reason I didn’t call this book Compassionate Candor is that I’m a woman and I didn’t want to seem too ‘soft’” (p. xv)

If we want to nurture a world of caring leaders, we need to acknowledge some of the associations of care that can make these conversations difficult. In my forthcoming keynote for the 12th Developing Leadership Capacity Conference, I will be sharing a case study from my recent consulting experience from which I have learned a great deal about how to work with the difficult issues that care throws up for our organizational relations. I will be suggesting that if the rhetoric of care isn’t helping us, we might focus on the reality of care instead. I do hope you will join me!

Interested in hearing more about these ideas? On 12-13 July 2022, the Bristol Leadership and Change Centre will be hosting the 12th Developing Leadership Capacity Conference, with a theme of “Leading to Care – Foregrounding Health and Well-being in Leadership Development and Education.” Keynote speakers include myself, Leah Tomkins, along with Michael West and Tracie Jolliff. The event will be run online with no registration fee in order to enable wide attendance. Further details here.


Bolden, R. (2022). Build Back Better… With Care and Compassion. Leadership for the Greater Good: Global Thought Leaders Explore Today’s Challenges. International Leadership Association.

Cameron, K.S., Dutton, J.E. & Quinn, R.E. (2003). Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. Berrett-Koehler.

Engster, D. (2007). The Heart of Justice: Care Ethics and Political Theory. Oxford University Press.

Gabriel, Y. (2015). The Caring Leader: What Followers Expect of Their Leaders and Why? Leadership11(3), 316-334.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a Different Voice. Harvard University Press.

Lilius, J.M., Kanov, J., Dutton, J.E., Worline, M.C. & Maitlis, S. (2012). Compassion Revealed. In K.S. Cameron & G.M. Spreitzer (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship pp. 273-288. Oxford University Press.

McAllister, D.J. & Bigley, G.A. (2002). Work Context and the Definition of Self: How Organizational Care Influences Organization-Based Self-Esteem. Academy of Management Journal, 45(5), 894-904.

Noddings, N. (2002). Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy. University of California Press.

Scott, K. (2019). Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean (2nd edition). St Martins Press.

Simola, S.K., Barling, J. & Turner, N. (2010). Transformational Leadership and Leader Moral Orientation: Contrasting an Ethic of Justice and an Ethic of Care. The Leadership Quarterly21(1), 179-188.

Tomkins, L. (2020). Where Is Boris Johnson? When and Why It Matters That Leaders Show Up in a Crisis. Leadership 16(3), 331-342.

Tronto, J.C. (2015). Who Cares? How to Reshape a Democratic Politics. Cornell University Press.

Leah Tomkins

Dr. Leah Tomkins is an independent writer, researcher and consultant. Current academic affiliations include Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford (The Bodleian) and Visiting Professor at the University of the West of England (UWE). A key focus of her work is bridging the gap between academia and practice, drawing on her in-depth experience of leadership – warts and all – including in senior roles at Accenture, KPMG, the UK Cabinet Office and London’s Metropolitan Police Service. She is Associate Editor and inaugural Social Media Editor for the SAGE journal Leadership.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

Picture of Two Young Children, dressed as Soldiers with hands together as if in prayer.
Picture of Two Young Children, dressed as Soldiers with hands together as if in prayer.
Nations too often create alliances to secure the survival of only some selected countries and not the totality of humanity. In doing so, they sabotage the security that they seek for themselves and others, creating greater global insecurity.

by Errol A. Gibbs


Today, the world is at an inflection point. Historians, academics, scholars, war correspondents, journalists, bloggers, and individuals with a cellphone and access to social media inform and enlighten our understanding of the origins of disagreements between and among nations. Moreover, they allude to some of the underlying, deeply rooted causes and consequences and how each era’s social and cultural evolution often seems to culminate in armed conflict. 

In 1945, after the conclusion of World War II, arguably the apex of human conflict, 51 countries came together to found the United Nations (UN). They wanted to maintain international peace and security; develop friendly relations among nations, promote social progress, better living standards, and human rights ( War is often seen as a turning point for humanity, and striving to end conflict and search for peace can become an overarching global imperative. Since then, however, we’ve sadly failed in our efforts. Wars continue to scar the human landscape, manifestations of the broken trust between leaders of nations, retaliation, ideology, pride, power, politics, religion, race, culture, hatred, economics, nationalism, encroachment, territorial reclamation, and fears over national insecurity.

The day after the end of the Russian War in Ukraine, what new insights will global leaders seek about its causes and consequences? Will the lessons learned be the catalyst to strengthen international peace initiatives or amplify the world’s preparedness for subsequent armed conflict? Should another organization be founded, perhaps the United Nations (UN) 2.0, as some have suggested, but with a stealth focus on avoiding, eliminating, or mitigating the familiar causes of war? The day after the war concludes, will we finally recognize the need for a global shift from a cultural, national, and sectarian mindset to a planetary mindset? Will this be the new frontier of political leadership imperatives? These are the big questions that world leaders should contemplate with clear eyes if we are ever to veer humankind off the path of war and onto the international highway of peace.

We have divided humanity by “race,” religion, “color,” culture, caste, class, rich and poor, and “superior” and “inferior” beings, and we view those on the wrong side of the divide as undeserving of equal opportunities to fulfill their purpose on Earth. As a result, humankind is on the path to a stark future underpinned by immense challenges. These include climate change and the issues it will accelerate, such as mass population displacement, food shortages, food insecurity, and supply chain disruptions as nations adopt protectionism policies ─ not to mention the increased possibility of lethal, highly technological warfare.

Leaders must view these challenges not just through cultural, political, and economic prisms but also through the lens of sovereign human beings. We often forget that we are, first, members of the human family with a common heritage.

Nations too often create alliances to secure the survival of only some selected countries and not the totality of humanity. In doing so, they sabotage the security that they seek for themselves and others, creating greater global insecurity.

While cultivating a planetary mindset, peace might lie, ironically, in the survival of humankind as cohesive and self-governing nations. Similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Article 5, an armed attack against one nation must be considered an attack against all nations. Every other country must stand against acts of war and aggression; nothing less will be sufficient to preserve international peace and security. A nation cannot be allowed to secure its peace or its national interest apart from the mutual interests of the community of nations. Today, world leaders echo familiar sentiments that humankind is at a critical world-transforming juncture and rally us to action in a generational struggle to defend and preserve Western democracy. The day after the Russian War in Ukraine ends will provide the UN, NATO, and other prominent global peace organizations a vital opportunity to pivot to a “New World Order” predicated on the sovereignty and security of all peoples and nations.

This will require global leaders to begin new dialogues with new definitions. For instance, the words peace and peaceful coexistence resonate in the halls of power, but what is peace? Is peace a spiritual, moral, or social imperative? Is it a purely human pursuit within the context of political and military experts and statesmen? I believe that at the apex of global narratives, the noblest human pursuit of peace must reside in the word love. There cannot be peace without the obligation of love for each other and all of humanity. Without such a perspective, the success of all other peace initiatives becomes debatable.

Whether we live in the Global West or Global East, the Global South or Global North, the vital role of peace must first reside in the hearts and minds of every human being ─ paramount in the minds of the leaders of nations. We often forget that we are the world composite of all human needs, thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Hence peace must, of necessity, extend throughout every human institution, including NGOs, educational, and religious institutions. We must not accept the barbarity of war as a way of life seen as somehow integral to the growth of the industrial economies of the powerful nations on Earth.

What path shall leaders take the day after the end of the Russian War in Ukraine? The answer to that question will inform the future of our planet. World leaders could begin by prohibiting the powerful militarized nations from violating the sovereignty of weaker nations ─TIME FOR LEADERSHIP.

Errol A. Gibbs

Errol A. Gibbs is a former Project Management and Business Process Re-Engineering Analyst, Certified (Scientific) Engineering Technologist, Planning and Scheduling Engineer Officer. Errol is a self-inspired researcher, writer, speaker, philosopher, mentor, and moderator. He is a former writer for the Toronto Caribbean (TC) Newspaper article: “Philosophically Speaking.” His books include Five Foundations of Human Development (FFHD) (2011) and Discovering Your Optimum Happiness Index (OHI) (2016). A sample of his position papers includes A Canadian Black Empowerment Manifesto (CBEM) (Version 2.0. Volume 001. Revision 003. June 2022) and a Manufacturing Engineering Project Office (MEPO): A Critical Link to Supply Chain Integration (2000). 

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

Photo of People Protesting the Ukraine-Russia War. One Protester is holding a sign of zelensky saying: I need ammunition not a ride.
Photo of People Protesting the Ukraine-Russia War. One Protester is holding a sign of zelensky saying: I need ammunition not a ride.
Keith Grint looks at Russia's War in Ukraine through a leadership lens - touching on the Make Russia Great Again story, Ukrainian resistance, Destructive Consent, and the power of shame.

by Professor Keith Grint


Thirty years ago, in 1992, Francis Fukuyama predicted that the end of the Soviet Union would usher in a global age of Western liberal democracy: In effect we were about to witness “the end of history.” As I write this, on March 5, 2022, day 9 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the “special operation of liberation” as Putin calls it in his Orwellian double-speak, we are actually witnessing a repetition of history, rather than its demise. What happens in the future is anyone’s guess. The BBC correspondent, James Landale, suggests that there are five possible scenarios: Short War, Long War, European War, a Diplomatic Solution, or Putin is removed in a mutiny or a coup. The latter might look appealing, but it’s unlikely in the short run, at least until Russian casualties mount rapidly, the economic sanctions force the population onto the streets in mass numbers — and the elite decide to act. Nor would a NATO-enforced No Fly Zone (NFZ) work because the problem is less the use of airpower by the Russians and more their use of rockets and artillery, neither of which would be prevented by a NFZ. In effect, all that a NFZ would achieve is the beginnings of WWIII not the saving of the Ukrainian people. This, as Watters (2017) describes in a much smaller scale but equally cruel moral problem in the Bosnian War, is a “wrong-wrong dilemma” where the decision is not what is the right thing to do, but what is the least wrong thing to do?

In war, since that is what this clearly is, we have known since the time of Aeschylus and Sun Tzu that truth is the first casualty. Putin’s narrative concerns the alleged mendacity of NATO, the “Nazification” of the Ukraine, and the call for help from besieged ethnic Russians in Ukraine. But it is also locked into an overall strategic goal: MRGA — the Make Russia Great Again story. Over the last decade, this kind of nationalist appeal has been used by right-wing populist leaders the world over. This feeds the victim-claims of many of the supporters of such men — and they are always men — and makes the chances of dissuading them from their stories of robbed elections or stolen status very hard to eliminate. The attempt to control this particular narrative also explains the attempts to crush not just dissent but the communication of alternative narratives. This is, perhaps, best captured in the Ukrainian responses to the Russian troops — stopping them with either weapons or protests and treating them (rightly) as occupiers “оккупанты.” As Zoya Sheftalovich (2022) suggests, if the Russian troops were told by their own government that they would be liberating the Ukrainians from their own government and would welcome them with open arms, they were wrong. As she concludes, “It’s hard to shoot Babushka in cold blood” (Sheftalovich, 2022b). With over 1 million refugees, an increasingly despoiled Ukraine, and the end of anything like a free press in Russia, the construction of false narratives is proliferating. With access to news limited to Russian state TV, it would appear that many Russians either accept the Kremlin’s version of events or are not in a position to do anything about it.

But Putin probably did not reckon with the extent of Ukrainian resistance, never mind the significance of Western economic sanctions, especially given that Russia has amassed something like $469-$630 billion in reserves in the last two decades, primarily through the sale of gas and oil. However, not much of that money is held in cash in Russia. Most is held in foreign exchange reserves that Putin is no longer able to access. This explains the drop in the value of the Ruble by around one third since the war began. That, in turn, has led to Russia doubling its domestic interest rates to 20 percent which, by definition, will hit the standard of living of most Russians and has generated long queues of people outside ATMs. However, Putin’s most important support does not come from the citizens of Russia but from the military-political elite and the roughly 500 oligarchs that have benefitted from his administration. Many of these live in so-called “Londongrad” and keep their money in one of many offshore accounts to avoid British taxes and British oversight. Indeed, something like £68 billion of Russian money sits in such shell companies and 10 percent of all houses in central London are owned through this mechanism (including 6,000 houses in Chelsea and Kensington alone). Given that Russians have provided the Conservative Party with £2 million since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, it is unsurprising that the British Government has been rather lethargic in investigating the legitimacy of this kleptocracy, despite the fact that this ought to be the real target of sanctions given the oligarchs’ support for Putin (Blakeley, 2022). Of course, whether seizing the super yachts of oligarchs or ratcheting up the financial cost of war will actually force Putin to desist is another matter.

So why did Putin take such a reckless gamble? Well, he might have watched the West allow the Taliban to walk into Kabul with little resistance and taken that as evidence the West would not stop him in Ukraine. After all, they did not stop him taking Crimea. And yet the god of irony has a remarkable ability to screw things up: If Putin’s intent in this was to inhibit the growth of the EU and NATO, then it’s likely that the opposite is going to happen; if he thought Ukraine was never really a nation, then it is now — as a direct consequence of the invasion. But will he succeed in crushing the Ukrainian resistance? There are several aspects of this to consider.

Sun Tzu suggests that unless you want to destroy your enemy, you must allow them a Golden Bridge over which to escape.

The first is the difference between Constructive Dissent and Destructive Consent. Abbas Gallyamov, Putin’s former speech writer, said on BBC Radio 5 Live recently, that Putin expected the Ukrainians to surrender almost overnight. The reason his expectations were so far removed from reality was because he never heard “objections or criticism” from those around him. In effect, he became a “victim of his own system.” This problem is common to many authoritarians, especially those in power for a long period of time during which all dissenters, however constructive, are weeded out and replaced by Yes-People or sycophants, that is destructive consenters. It is also the consequence of what Collinson (2012) calls Prozac Leadership: an unremittingly over-positive spin on events from the top, because dissent is crushed and bad news eliminated.

The second aspect is the relationship between management and leadership. If Putin’s war does not go as smoothly as he planned, it may well be because he is replicating the military mistakes made by two of his predecessors in this exact geographical region: Napoleon and Hitler. Both these two overestimated the importance of actual fighting and underestimated the importance of logistics. Napoleon was forced into a catastrophic retreat from Russia in 1812 because he had not taken into account the effects of a prolonged campaign during the Russian winter, and his troops died in droves from cold, hunger, and guerrilla attacks by the Russians. In the winter of 1941/2, Hitler’s Wehrmacht did much the same thing as Operation Barbarossa ground to a halt in the Russian mud because Hitler had assumed the Red Army would collapse, so there was no requirement to take winter supplies. In effect, both Hitler and Napoleon considered combat as more important than logistics — the very opposite of the Western Allies in 1944-45 (Grint, 2014). In other words, if you don’t get the management right, the leadership cannot compensate for the weaknesses that exposes.

The third aspect is to think about the relationship between confidence and knowledge. In Donald MacKenzie’s 1990 book, Inventing Accuracy, he constructed a “U Curve of Ignorance” which established that the more you knew about missiles, the less confident you were about their performance — because experts knew what could go wrong. Whereas those ignorant of the inner workings of missiles were supremely confident about their capabilities — on the basis of almost total ignorance. This relationship was subsequently known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect and explains why people who know virtually nothing about vaccines, for example, are so confident in their understanding of their effects. Indeed, in Motta et al.’s (2018) paper, those who scored the lowest in the knowledge test about vaccines were the most confident in their certainty that they knew far more than the scientific experts. Not only does this explain a lot about responses to Covid vaccines but it also explains Putin’s miscalculation about the Ukrainian resistance: On the basis of self-evident ignorance, Putin claims to know all about Ukrainians.

The fourth aspect of understanding the likelihood of the outcome of the war is to invert the problem and think about it from Putin’s perspective. As Sun Tzu suggests, one of the first rules of war is to understand your enemy, and for leaders such as Putin and indeed ex-President Trump, one critical issue to bear in mind is the power of shame and the loss of face.

In Trump’s case we might go back to the 2011 Annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, D.C. where President Obama decided to respond to Trump’s slandering of his birthplace and legitimacy by mocking him relentlessly — in public. “I know that he’s taken some flack lately,” said Obama, “—no one is prouder to put this birth-certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to the issues that matter, like: did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And—where are Biggie and Tupac?” Trump’s response, as described by Adam Gopnik (2015), was remarkable. There was “No head bobbing or hand-clapping or chin-shaking or sheepish grinning—he sat perfectly still, chin tight, in locked, unmovable rage.” Indeed, one might argue that much of Trump’s presidency was based on reversing everything Obama had achieved in his presidency because of this evident public shaming. 

A similar problem now faces Putin: It may well be that the deeper motivation for the invasion is an attempt by Putin to roll back history and return to the “glory days” of the Soviet Union through another Great Patriotic War; much in the same way that Hitler fed off the shame of German defeat in the First World War. But if, like Hitler, Putin accepts he has failed, the difficulty he has is how can he order the withdrawal of Russian troops without a catastrophic loss of face? Hitler’s take on this problem was his nihilistic scorched earth policy in 1945 that was to consign Germany to ruins, its self-inflicted Götterdämmerung1. There is an alternative: Sun Tzu suggests that unless you want to destroy your enemy, you must allow them a Golden Bridge over which to escape. In effect, Putin needs to find a way to leave so that he can go back to his politburo in Moscow and proclaim that he has won — or at least not lost. This is doubly difficult for his opponents having suffered the consequences of Putin’s mendacity, but the choice might not be between losing to Putin or beating him, the choice might be between saving Ukraine from further depredations or allowing it to be destroyed. That seems a tall order and the consequences are relatively predictable: As in almost all human history, a scapegoat will be required to explain the failure and feed the appetite rooted in shame. In short, Putin must either succeed or pay the ultimate price for his failure.

Putin’s opponent, on the other hand, the Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, is famous for his resilience and ability to rally Ukrainians to the colors as exemplified with his alleged response to an offer from the USA to flee the country: “I need ammunition, not a ride,” (The Associated Press, 2022). Contrast this with Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President, who fled Kabul in the face of the Taliban advance in September 2021. Zelensky’s background as a comedian is sometimes held against him, as if a sense of humour is somehow anathema to serious decision-making. I have worked with ten academic deans in my career and only two were arrogant narcissistic authoritarians — and neither had a sense of humor. Life, as Albert Camus constantly reminded us, is absurd — but that’s exactly why we should retain a sense of irony and humility. Life can be so absurd and so disheartening that retaining a sense of humor is not counter-productive but actually essential. As I heard one British commentator recently suggest on television, “If the Russians don’t back off, we will send them our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary.”

But what is the point of resistance in the face of overwhelming material superiority when the likelihood of success is both limited and distant? Oftentimes the importance is symbolic — but that does not mean it’s irrelevant. Far from it, the defenders of Snake Island who appear to have died having emphatically rejected the call to surrender from a Russian warship (“Go f*** yourself” was the apparent response (Vistonay, 2022)) will undoubtedly go down in history as heroes of the resistance. Similarly, in France, in 1941, Jean Texcier (a civil servant) wrote the 33 Conseils à L’Occupé (33 Hints to the Occupied), which was copied endlessly. It suggested that the French should not treat the Germans invaders as tourists but as conquerors; but they should remain politely aloof from them, and they should store up their anger rather than express it directly, since that would lead to reprisals and executions. As one French woman, Agnès Humbert, wrote in her diary on finding a copy: “Will the people who produced the 33 Conseils à l’occupé ever know what they have done for us?… A glimmer of light in the darkness…Now we know for certain that we are not alone. There are other people who think like us, who are suffering, and organizing the struggle” (Humbert, 2008/Paris, 18 August 1940). Indeed, there are. War brings out the worst and the best in people. For every despicable killing in Ukraine, there is an act of human kindness — in Germany or Poland where civilians are offering their homes to Ukrainian strangers or in places further afield where those far from the conflict are collecting warm clothes, food, and toys to be sent to the refugees. In 1941, Germany and Poland were the last places a refugee wanted to end up; now they are the places of choice. Do not give up on humanity.


Acknowledgements: Thanks to David Collinson for his help with this blog.

End Note

Wagner (Hitler’s favourite composer) used the term, Götterdämmerung, as the title of the last of his ring cycle operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, to denote the final clash of the gods in Norse mythology that would destroy the world prior to it being reborn.



The Associated Press. (2022, February 25). Live Updates: Zelensky Declines US Offer to Evacuate Kyiv.

Blakeley, G. (2022, March 1). Punish the Oligarchs Not the Poor. Tribune Magazine

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Fukuyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press.

Gopnik, A. (2015, September 12). Trump and Obama: A Night to Remember. The New Yorker.

Grint, K. (2014). The Hedgehog and the Fox: Rethinking D-Day. Leadership, 10(2), 240–260.

Humbert, A. (2008) Résistance: Memoirs of Occupied France (B. Mellor, Trans.). Bloomsbury (Original work published as Notre Guerre, 1946)

Landale, J. (2022, March 3). Ukraine: How Might the War End? Five Scenarios. BBC.

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Sheftalovich, Z. [@zoyashef]. (2022, March 1). This is super confusing for the soldiers. They believed they were the good guys, coming to liberate oppressed Ukrainians[Tweet]. Twitter.

Sheftalovich, Z. [@zoyashef]. (2022b, March 1). It’s hard to shoot babushka in cold blood. 19/19[Tweet]. Twitter.

Visontay, E. (2022, February 25). Ukraine Soldiers Told Russian Officer ‘Go Fuck Yourself’ Before They Died on Island. The Guardian.

Watters, B. S .C. (2017). Leadership in the ‘Wicked’ Problem of Bosnia’s Civil War: A Case Study Examining Ethical Decision Making Under Duress. Leadership, 15(1), 3-26.

Headshot of Keith Grint

Keith Grint is Professor Emeritus at Warwick University. He has held Chairs at Cranfield University and Lancaster University and was Director of Research at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the International Leadership Association (ILA) and Professorial Fellow of the Australian Institute of Police Management (AIPM). He is also a founding co-editor with David Collinson of the journal Leadership, and co-founder of the International Studying Leadership Conference. He received ILA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.  His books include The Arts of Leadership (2000); Organizational Leadership (2005); Leadership: Limits and Possibilities (2005); Leadership, Management & Command: Rethinking D-Day (2008); Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (2010); and Mutiny and Leadership (2021).

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

Sign saying Stop Putin's Aggression at Protest in London February 2022
Sign saying Stop Putin's Aggression at Protest in London February 2022

by Professor Matt Qvortrup


Putin is a hot head, but ordinary Russians are rational — that should worry the strongman.

“He should be more cautious, and he is not,” said one friend about Vladimir Putin in his youth. Young “Vlad” — as he was known among his friends — had got into a fight. Someone provoked him and he lashed out. After all, he was a judo black belt. Alas, he overestimated his strength and as a result he suffered a broken arm. But perhaps worse for the junior KGB officer, his temper meant he would not be sent to then West Germany as a spy. Instead, he had to accept a humiliating job as a desk officer in Dresden, East Germany.

There’s a lesson in this tale from Moscow in the late 1970s. His hot-headed temper and tendency to overestimate his own strength in the martial arts explains Putin’s foreign policy — most recently his ill-advised decision to recognize Donbas and Luhansk in Ukraine as independent and then go to war.

Like in the story about his street fight in the Soviet capital, his recent aggression could hurt him in more ways than one.

In an authoritarian state, you need the support of the elite. Massive economic sanctions caused by Putin’s decisions could make them turn against him. Autocrats are not as safe as we think. No one dares speak truth to power. Putin rarely uses the internet. This dearth of information has consequences. He’s not alert to facts — and this makes his moves difficult to predict.

There’s a certain pattern in his behavior. When he invaded Crimea in 2014, he held it as inconceivable that Russia would suffer any consequences. He was very wrong: Angela Merkel, the then German chancellor, got Russia thrown out of the G8. This was a diplomatic blow for a man who likes to see himself as a major player. The sanctions — also engineered by Merkel — led to the collapse of the Russian Ruble on the financial markets. Even Russia’s finance minister admitted the country suffered $140billion in lost revenue, and even Russian media reported that the total cost of Putin’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine was at least five times that.

Whether motivated by vanity, a chip on his shoulder, or — as he says — ‘security concerns,’ Putin has followed a similar script in the past. On three separate occasions, Russia occupied territory and then claimed it as an independent state. It happened in South Ossetia in 2008 when he invaded Georgia; in Transnistria, part of Moldova; and in Abkhazia in the Caucasus.

Putin ought to know these “recognitions” will not result in viable states. As I show in my forthcoming book, I Want to Break Free, new states are only recognized if they have control over the whole territory, and if they are not propped up by foreign powers. Both as a matter of international law and political practice, Putin’s policy looks very unlikely to succeed.

Still Putin, does not seem to have learned.

As ordinary Russians feel the effects of economic sanctions and as more soldiers die in the conflict, Putin will be vulnerable, and his popularity will fall further.

Indeed, the 2014 incursion into the two Ukrainian regions follows a strategy employed by other countries. When India invaded Pakistan in 1971, supposedly it was to liberate Bangladesh and to prevent the population from suffering. And it is not hyperbole to notice that the German invasion of Denmark and Norway was to “protect” the Scandinavians.

Putin likes to portray himself as a strong man. But in reality, he’s weak and insecure. And it shows in bizarre ways. In 2008, the Spice Girls-inspired pop duo Poyushchie vmeste topped the Russian charts with the upbeat techno-pop track “Takogo Kak Putin” — “A Man Like Putin.” The two sang that their boyfriends were dumb, and they needed a new man who, somewhat improbably, “must be like Putin.”

It’s easy to pour scorn on a man who is insecure and lashes out without thinking of the consequences. But the danger is especially great if this man is “withdrawn and uncommunicative,” as the KGB wrote in their unflattering psychological assessment of him upon graduation. 

But are the Russian people willing to put up with this? It is often assumed Russian people have a strange hankering after strongmen — that they somehow differ from the rest of us. James Clapper, a former U.S. director of national intelligence, said: “It is in their genes to be opposed, diametrically opposed to the United States and to Western democracies.”

For this reason, the argument runs, they support invasions abroad by the Russian army. To be sure, there was a boost in support for Putin after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 — to 89 percent. And Putin’s popularity went up slightly in the weeks before this war. It stood at 71 percent on February 2. But this is secondary; it’s the economic matters that count.

Besides, this conflict is different. No Russian soldiers died after the annexation of Crimea, and there was no drop in the standard of living. As ordinary Russians feel the effects of economic sanctions and as more soldiers die in the conflict, Putin will be vulnerable, and his popularity will fall further.

Russia is not a democracy. Being unpopular does not mean Putin will be ousted. For starters, can we be sure the Russian people get the correct information — news that’s not filtered through the Kremlin spin machine? How can they access information when Putin controls the newspapers and TV stations?

Yes, the older generations rely on television, but two-thirds of all Russians report getting their news from the internet and social media. While there are restrictions on the access to sites such as Facebook and Twitter, Russia is not China, much less North Korea.

But all this is only a part of the equation. The proof in the proverbial pudding is not how you perceive the world but how it affects your life. When living standards begin to fall despite assurances to the contrary, when Russian soldiers die, notwithstanding exaggerated reports of military triumphs, Putin’s popularity will fall.

And Russians do not support murder of their Ukrainian brethren. This will ultimately hurt Putin.

As Sting sang in his 1985 hit Russians,

But what might save us, me and you,

Is if the Russians love their children, too.

Matt Qvortrup

Matt Qvortrup is professor of political science at the University of Coventry. His book, I Want to Break Free, will be published by Manchester University Press. An expert on comparative democracy, Professor Qvortrup won the Oxford University Press Law Prize in 2012 and was awarded the PSA Prize in 2013 for best political science article of that year.   He is editor-in-chief of the Q1 Journal The European Political Science Review. The author of more than 10 book, his acclaimed biography Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader (Overlook/Duckworth 2016) has been translated into Chinese, Russian, and Korean. His most recent book was Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Slow Demise of Democracy. He has advised the U.S. State Department, the British Foreign Office, and the United Nations on regulatory and leadership issues.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

Photo of Woman Holding a Rock
Photo of Woman Holding a Rock

by Professor Chellie Spiller, Fellow, International Leadership Association


In The Hidden life of Trees, Wohlleben (2016) takes readers on a fascinating journey into how trees communicate, socialize, innovate, discriminate, and cooperate. A foray into the secret life of leadership rocks would tell an equally captivating story of alchemical transformation and provide a fascinating record of events that were key to their transformation. Reflecting their immense power, rocks are referred to frequently in leadership literature — from “bedrocks” to “big rocks” and “touchstones” to “cornerstones.” In Aotearoa, rocks occupy an important space in Māori culture. This Indigenous wisdom can raise intriguing questions for leaders and offer deeper insight into the power of rocks.  

“Don’t look at the rock, look at the crystal it is becoming.” – Indigenous Māori Philosopher M. Marsden (2003, p. 45)

One of the chapters in The Secret Life of Leadership Rocks would be dedicated to metamorphic processes, exploring the creative tension between who we are and who we are becoming. In rock-speak, this is dynamic mineralization with contextual forces, a curious mix of ingredients that forges transformation. As a leader, what is the crystal you are becoming? What are the personal, organizational, and community contexts that are shaping you and driving your transformation?

Touchstones / Sacred Stones

In Wayfinding Leadership, my co-author and captain of the ocean-going double-hulled sailing waka Haunui, Hoturoa Barclay Kerr, explains that stones nestled at the base of the mast “are the spiritual power packs on a waka charged by the vibrations from the mast, and are thus considered as repositories of vitality for connecting to wairua, spirituality.” They are touchstones to the lands that the wayfinders have come from and the places they have been. He calls these stones the “immortals.” They are a ritual recognition of relationships. As he reflects: “These toka [stones] embody the love we have for our ancestors, our land and what we do. They are a common factor that binds us all together” (Spiller et al., 2015, pp.117-118). As a leader, what connects you to your past that you want to carry forward as you set out into your future? What powers your forward momentum?  

In New Zealand, a sacred stone is a “mauri stone.” For Māori, the term “mauri” means life force, vital essence, an energy that “is immanent in all things, knitting and bonding them together” (Marsden, 2003, p.47). There are many examples of mauri stones used in public spaces in New Zealand — all expressing and engendering community bonds and connection.

For example, a mauri stone accompanies the New Zealand national rugby team, the All Blacks, wherever they play — home or abroad. The mauri stone embodies the team’s mana (dignity, power) and offers them protection in their travels and on the field. When they are not playing, it is cared for by “The All Blacks Experience,” located at Sky City in Auckland, until the team is ready for their next big game. Phil McGowan, General Manager of the exhibit, says, “Guests are encouraged to touch the stone, as it collects positive thoughts and wishes which can enhance the way the team co-operate on the field” (Triponel, 2021). What do you do to help bring your team together?  As a leader, how do you create greater co-operation that uplifts the organization even in challenging circumstances?

A mauri stone is often laid at the foundation of a new building in New Zealand to respect, protect, support, and nurture the land, buildings, people, and processes that will take place (for more about mauri, life-force, in organizations click over to my previous blog). Mauri stones are at work in hospitals, universities, meeting grounds, and other places of significance. They protect, energize, restore, heal, cleanse, empower, and transmit. They connect people with context and each other. Three such examples include a memorial to the Christchurch earthquakes, the Auckland Museum, and the Supreme Court.

Devastated by earthquakes in September 2010 and February 2011, a mauri stone sits at the entrance to the memorial erected in Christchurch.  The mauri stone, called “Mauri Tau Mauri Ora,” serves to connect “visitors to the whenua [land] and to those who have been before them.” Tribal representative from Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio, Susan Wallace, says, “the stone carries mana and mauri of its own, the water brings its cleansing wairua [spirit], and this is shared by everyone who touches it. There should be a sense of connection — whanaungatanga — a kinship or relationship gained through shared experiences, and the feelings the memorial invokes in all who visit it” (Rewi, 2017).

The Auckland Museum’s mauri stone is buried beneath the building where “silently and invisibly, it regulates the energy flowing in, out and around the building and whenua [land], providing guardianship to all who are in the Museum – people and taonga [treasures]” (Auckland Museum, n.d.). Laid in the grounds of the Supreme Court, a mauri stone represents “the life force or the essence not only of the building but also of the important work that will be conducted there in the future,” according to former Minister of Parliament, Hon Georgina te Heuheu (2009). What is the essence of your organization? What purpose is buried at its heart? How do you honor and operationalize that purpose?

What would be the story of your secret life of leadership rocks, and what could it be in the future, if you truly tapped into their power for transformation?

Mauri Stone inscribed with “Aroha Mai Aroha Atu,” meaning “Love Received, Love Returned” All rights reserved, C. Spiller, 2022.

Mauri Stone inscribed with “Aroha Mai Aroha Atu,” meaning “Love Received, Love Returned” All rights reserved, C. Spiller, 2022.

Rock References in Leadership Literature

While I’ve teased out some of the questions that The Secret Life of Leadership Rocks can pose to leaders, what further wisdom can this spiritually imbued perspective of rocks shed on the practice of leadership? To get to the answer, let us reflect on common rock references in leadership literature.

In transformational leadership circles, “vision and visionary leadership is a touchstone” that is “a source of energy” that can powerfully infuse an organization (Küpers & Weibler, 2006, p. 375). What is the strength of your vision — is it worthy of being called a “touchstone” — a standard by which vision is recognized?

Proponents of servant leadership agree on the importance of having cornerstones. Values such as compassionate love, service, trust, and credibility are some of the cornerstones that anchor a servant leader (van Dierendonck & Patterson, 2015; Farling et al., 1999). Are your values strong enough to be cornerstones on which your vision and activity are based?

Popularized by leadership author Stephen Covey, the idea of “Big Rocks” challenges leaders to focus on what really matters — the key priorities such as crucial relationships, responsibilities, and projects — and not fill their days with the gravel of lesser minutiae (Nevins , 2020). What are your Big Rocks? Do you have enough but not too many, and are they truly important and reflective of your vision (touchstone) and values (cornerstones)?

Listening is “the bedrock of leadership excellence,” says management guru Tom Peters (Dooley, 2018). Listening is a fundamental principle (bedrock) on which outstanding leadership is based. So, how solid is your listening rock? How well have you listened to those you lead, your organization, and your stakeholders? And how well have you heard your inner teacher, your soul? Do you appreciate and make a strong stand for the crystal that others and you are becoming?

Four-times Pulitzer Prize finalist in creative non-fiction, John McPhee, writes that “rocks are records of events that took place at the time they formed. They are books. They have a different vocabulary, a different alphabet, but you learn how to read them” (McPhee, 1993, p.19). What would be the story of your secret life of leadership rocks, and what could it be in the future, if you truly tapped into their power for transformation?

The ideas presented in this article are placed as an offering on the whāriki (mat) of the field of leadership in organizations to support inquiry into more humanistic, spiritual, and relational ways that attend to sources of wellbeing. In my next ILA blog, I will be exploring The Secret Life of Leadership Rocks Part 2.

My heartfelt thanks to Debra DeRuyver and Rodger Spiller for their support in polishing this article. Thank you both.


Auckland Museum. Tikanga in Te Ao Mārama, the South Atrium.

Dooley, R. (2018, June 6). What’s the One Word Business Guru Tom Peters Writes on His Hand Before Meetings? Forbes.

Farling, M. L., Stone, A. G., & Winston, B. E. (1999). Servant Leadership: Setting the stage for Empirical Research. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 6(1–2), 49–72. As cited in Birkenmeier, B., Carson, P.P. and Carson, K.D. (2003). The Father of Europe: An Analysis of the Supranational Servant Leadership of Jean Monnet. International Journal of Organization Theory & Behavior, 6(3), 374-400.

Küpers, W. and Weibler, J. (2006). How Emotional Is Transformational Leadership Really? Some Suggestions for a Necessary Extension. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 27(5), 368-383.

Marsden, M. (2003). The Woven Universe: Selected Writings of Rev. Māori Marsden. Otaki, N.Z.: Estate of Rev. Māori Marsden.

McPhee, J. (1983). In Suspect Terrain (Vol. 2). The Noonday Press Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Nevins, M. (2020, January 21). What Are Your Big Rocks? Forbes.

Rewi, A. (2017, July 3). The Right Stone. Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. 

Spiller, C., Barclay-Kerr, H., & Panoho, J. (2015). Wayfinding Leadership: Ground-Breaking Wisdom for Developing Leaders. Huia Publishers.

Te Heuheu, G. (2009, March 4). Mauri Stone Laid at New Supreme Court.

Triponel, T R. (2021, April 6). All Blacks Hold Ceremony to Gift Mauri Stone to All Blacks Experience. NZ Herald.

van Dierendonck, D., Patterson, K. (2015). Compassionate Love as a Cornerstone of Servant Leadership: An Integration of Previous Theorizing and Research. Journal of Business Ethics 128, 119–131.

Wohlleben, P. (2016). The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate —Discoveries From a Secret World (Vol. 1). Greystone Books.

Chelie Spiller

Chellie Spiller is a professor of leadership at the University of Waikato Management School, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her research explores wayfinding, authentic leadership and how businesses can create sustainable wealth and wellbeing. Chellie is a co-author of a book on traditional Polynesian navigation Wayfinding Leadership: Groundbreaking Wisdom for Developing Leaders (2015) with Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr and John Panoho. Wayfinding Leadership is a best-selling book for Huia Publishing. It was shortlisted for the Māori Book of the Year awards, 2016. Wayfinding Leadership is included in the list of 150 books by leading Māori authors assembled by the Royal Society of New Zealand to celebrate 150 years of Māori non-fiction publications. Wayfinding Leadership has catalysed a new approach to leadership development that is growing fast and programmes are currently being taught nationally and internationally. In 2013 her co-edited book with Donna Ladkin, Reflections on Authentic Leadership: Concepts, Coalescences and Clashes (Edward Elgar Press) was short-listed for an international leadership book award. Chellie’s latest book is Practical Wisdom, Leadership and Culture: Indigenous, Asian and Middle-Eastern Perspectives co-edited with Ali Intezari and Shih-Ying Yang. The stories from contributors around the world are illuminating and inspiring.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

Paint brushes on a blank teal canvas
Paint brushes on a blank teal canvas

by Keith Grint


As I write this it’s a year since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis and it should be self-evident that color — in almost all its formats and embodiments — is deeply implicated in leadership and always has been, whether in terms of how it’s signified and practiced, how it’s used to create and enforce status and hierarchy, or how it’s used in certain leadership development models to code capacities. That doesn’t imply that its meanings are stable across time and space.

Historically, in Western society for example, it was common to associate binary genders with colors: blue for boys and pink for girls, and the capture of the image of multicoloured rainbows is thus eminently suitable for LGBTQ+ supporters. Except that the word ‘historically’ only covers the last 100 years and before that the binary gendered color association was reversed (St Clair, 2016: 115-17). In fact, the U.S. tradition of Republican red and Democrat blue is both the inverse of European political party colors and a recent construct since it was only the advent of televised elections that prompted TV broadcasters to associate incumbents and challengers with red and blue color schemes. After this it became calcified and now appears to be from time immemorial.

Of course, recent social protest movements, like Black Lives Matter, are vivid embodiments of the connection between color and status and how that has left its imprint on contemporary society. Slavery seems to have been part of human societies from at least the Iron Age and most societies appear to have engaged in slavery. Certainly, Roman and Greek societies were predicated on the existence of slaves. Under Roman law (and contrary to Aristotle’s assumptions) all ‘men’ were born free, and then some of them were ‘legitimately’ enslaved through defeat in wars. Importantly this meant that skin color played little part in determining who was enslaved and who could be a Roman citizen. The importance of the former only really becomes critical in the transatlantic slave trade that would differentiate between free Whites and enslaved Blacks and locked the whole system into a market where the enslaved Africans were traded and treated primarily as the property of White Europeans and Americans.

The Ancient Greeks were also the subject of several theoretical explanations for why they seemed to see colors differently. Writers such as William Gladstone (four times British Prime Minister between 1868 and 1894) pointed out that references to the sea were often about it being ‘wine-dark’, and that one (erroneous) explanation was that the Ancient Greeks might have been colorblind. Since Gladstone’s father, John Gladstone, acquired plantations in the West Indies and Demerara, owned over 2,500 enslaved people, and was the largest single recipient of the British Slave Compensation Act of 1837, acquiring £106,769 (worth over £12 million in 2021 based on inflation), we can perhaps conclude that the Gladstones were not really in a position to note other people’s problems with color.

It is perhaps ironic that one of the most racist of all political ideologies configured its uniforms not on the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan but on the color black. Fascism as a political movement has often adopted the black uniform associated originally with Italian black shirts (Camicie Nere) — Mussolini’s paramilitaries within the Italian National Fascist Party. Hitler’s SS (Schutzstaffel: Defense Squad) differentiated themselves from the earlier Storm Troops or Brownshirts (Sturmabteilung), but Hitler was always careful to wear a dour uniform which allegedly marked him out as ‘a man of the people’, in contrast to the colorfully ostentatious uniforms worn by his senior officers, especially Herman Göring.

In contrast to the Nazis, most military leaders have preferred red colors to demarcate them from the rest of the population. In fact, most cloth that has been dyed since the sixth millennia BCE has been dyed red. So common was red that the Latin words for red and color were at one point synonymous. Red was associated with power by the Incas, the Ancient Egyptians, the Romans, European Kings, and Catholic Cardinals and martyrs. Military generals, from the Romans to the English New Model Army, wore red and it became associated with radical political thought through the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions, probably because it was originally a warning to the public to beware (Figes and Kolonitskii, 1999; Pastoureau, 2017: 163-176; St Clair, 2018: 138-41).

If there was a single color in European history indelibly associated with supreme political leadership it was Tyrian purple, a dye made from the secretions of a particular Mediterranean shellfish soaked in urine.

But if there was a single color in European history indelibly associated with supreme political leadership it was Tyrian purple, a dye made from the secretions of a particular Mediterranean shellfish soaked in urine and associated with the Phoenicians from Tyre from the fifteenth century BCE. It is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid and became associated with Roman emperors after Julius Caesar, by which time the dye was worth more than gold by weight. Originally all the ruling classes of Rome wore some variant of purple in their clothing, but by the 4th century CE only emperors could wear purple and people contravening the rule were summarily executed. In fact, Roman generals who had been awarded a ‘triumph’ against a significant enemy force, were allowed to wear a purple toga for the day whilst they paraded through Rome, often with their faces painted red, as if a god, with a slave behind them on the chariot reminding the general that he was not a god, just in case they got the wrong idea.

That notion of colors as a device to differentiate and discipline the population was also common in Japan where, from 603 CE, kinjiki or forbidden colors, restricted the use of orange to aristocrats. Commoners were required to wear grey or perhaps blue if they had access to indigo dyeing. And indigo was associated with many burial customs around the world and represented great prestige amongst males of the Tuareg tribe in North Africa and then became the primary color of Napoleon’s infantry before finally being represented most strongly by denim jeans or ‘democracy in fashion’ as Georgio Armani suggested (quoted in St. Clair, 2016: 192).

Intriguingly, blue was the color of barbarians, as far as the Romans were concerned, especially the woad-covered Britons that faced Julius Caser in 54 and 55 BCE, and it wasn’t really until the 12th century that blue became fashionable and associated with leaders such as the mythical King Arthur and images of the Virgin Mary (Pastoureau, 2017: 86-9). And if you’ve ever wondered why British police uniforms are blue, it was because at their foundation, as the Metropolitan Police in 1829, the uniform was specifically designed in blue. Sir Robert Peel wanted the police uniform to contrast with the red of the military to represent a civil, not a military force. Perhaps the most intriguing national flag to combine red and blue is that of Haiti. In 1803 the Haitian revolutionary, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, allegedly tore the white panel out of the French tricolour and had the red (representing Haitian people of color who were of mixed European and African descent) and blue (representing Black Haitian people) sewn together to represent the removal of the French White colonists and slave owners.

Many of the Haitian people who were of mixed European and African descent defined themselves or were defined by others as being ‘yellow’ in contrast to White and Black Haitians (Girard, 2010: 62-64), and yellow was regarded by the Chinese Emperors as the most prestigious color and associated with bravery, so much so that ‘common people and officials’ were forbidden from wearing yellow (St Clair, 2016: 65). In many European societies, cowardice and ‘being yellow’ were virtual synonyms. Yet the West, and most certainly the British, talk of ‘Golden days’, ‘Golden handshakes/Goodbyes’ or even ‘Golden Girls and Boys’, and that dichotomy between yellow as valued and valueless, continues into a Western association with blond hair representing both great beauty and great stupidity.

Yellow in the British Royal Navy was a symbol of death, such that all executions were ritualized and arranged under a yellow flag — but it is not clear why the color yellow is associated with executions in particular and cowardice in general, at least in the Western world. It may be that the common feature of executions was the involuntary urination induced by fear, and the yellow color of urine became associated with fear. Pastoureau (2019) suggests that during the European feudal period, yellow was associated with honor and beauty but gradually became associated with ill-health through urine analysis. Yellow subsequently became linked to envy, lying, and most importantly in these circumstances, treachery. In that context in the late nineteenth century ‘yellow books’ were categorized, originally in France and then throughout the West, as those which contained something unsavory, literally a contamination between the covers. Hence many White European and North American societies warned of a ‘yellow peril’ at various times because of both the alleged color of East Asian skin and as a consequence of their apparent ‘contamination’ of the White homeland — which to racists clearly warranted expulsion.

Perhaps the neatest rejoinder to this concoction of color and racism was produced by Stokely Carmichael, one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and subsequently a leader in the Black Power movement and Black Panther Party, who said of the American draft for the Vietnam War (when African-Americans comprised 21 percent of U.S. forces and 29 percent of the U.S. Army) that it was “white people sending Black people to make war on yellow people to defend land they stole from red people” (quoted in Roy, 2019: 278-8).

Color, then, seems an irredeemably political phenomenon, but it is also highly personal. As Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher, noted “The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts” (Meditations Book 5). Actually, one of the earliest known references to color and temperaments came from Hippocrates who associated two of the four ‘known’ substances (air, water, fire, and earth) with yellow bile (fire) and black bile (earth), and Galen adopted this to associate yellow with the choleric, and black with the melancholic, character. As Case and Phillipson (2004) suggest, the original quaternity was subsequently crucial not just to the development of astrology and alchemy but also to the way Jung categorized consciousness and character.

If much of Jung’s (1953-83) original work was conceptual in intent and had little empirical support, that model has become common amongst some leadership development approaches and has been adopted and adapted into all kinds of psychometric tests and leadership development programmes, from Myers-Briggs MBTI® to Primary Colours®. The latter, in a book modestly entitled, Leadership: All You Need to Know, by Pendleton and Furnham (2016), links red to the interpersonal domain, blue to the operational domain, and green to the strategic domain, leaving white as the ‘Leading’ area at the centre of the overlapping Venn diagram. And rather like its intellectual antecedent, the model claims ‘25 years of research’ but is unable or unwilling to explain the details of this research. De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats also uses a color scheme for its metaphorical approach, associating white with ‘facts’, yellow with optimism, black with risk, red with emotion, green with creativity, and blue with control. In this approach the traditional criticisms of contributions are, in theory, negated by acknowledging that from the perspective of the color that line of thought represents, it is appropriate and should be acknowledged for representing a different – but legitimate – approach. As so often in this arena, the model comes without the usual academic uncertainty and claims that it “may well be the most important change in human thinking for the past twenty-three hundred years” (1985/2000: IX).

Well, that put Arendt, Aristotle, de Beauvoir, Einstein, Kant, Plato, Socrates, and Wollstonecraft in their place, especially given the traditional absence of logical proof or empirical evidence for the claim. Indeed, if there is a finding here it’s that a correlation does exist between the evidence and the claim, but it’s a negative correlation — an inversion of Karl Popper’s (1959) theory of falsification for science — perhaps a reppoP assertion: the greater the claim to the truth the less evidence of the truth there is. But we shouldn’t allow facts to color our beliefs, should we?

References & Bibliography

Case, P. and Phillipson, G. (2004) ‘Astrology, Alchemy and Retro-Organization Theory: An Astro-Genealogical Critique of the Myers-Briggs Type indicator’ Organization 11 (4): 473-495.

Figes, O. and Kolonitskii, B. (1999) Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (London: Yale University Press).

Girard, P. (2010) Haiti (London: Palgrave/Macmillan).

Jung, C.G. (1953-83) The Collective Works of C. G. Jung (eds. Read, H., Fordham, M. and Adler, G.) (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul).

Pastoureau, M (2008) Black: The History of a Color (Oxford: Princeton University Press).

Pastoureau, M. (2017) Red: The History of a Color (Oxford: Princeton University Press).

Pastoureau, M. (2019) Yellow: The History of a Color (Oxford: Princeton University Press).

Pendleton, D and Furnham, A. (2016) Leadership: All You Need to Know (London: Palgrave/Macmillan).

Popper, K. (1959) The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Hutchinson).

Roy, A. (2019) My Seditious Heart (London: Hamish Hamilton).

St Clair, K. (2016) The Secret Lives of Colour (London: John Murray).

Headshot of Keith Grint

Keith Grint is Professor Emeritus at Warwick University. He has held Chairs at Cranfield University and Lancaster University and was Director of Research at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the International Leadership Association (ILA) and Professorial Fellow of the Australian Institute of Police Management (AIPM). He is also a founding co-editor with David Collinson of the journal Leadership, and co-founder of the International Studying Leadership Conference. He received ILA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.  His books include The Arts of Leadership (2000); Organizational Leadership (2005); Leadership: Limits and Possibilities (2005); Leadership, Management & Command: Rethinking D-Day (2008); Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (2010); and Mutiny and Leadership (2021).

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

by Katherine Tyler Scott


As the rate of COVID vaccination increases globally, and as restrictions put in place to lower the risk of infection are gradually lifted, organizations will be faced with how they will adapt. Those responsible for leading what are imminent changes in their institutions are facing a huge challenge – the precarious nature of the change process.

Change is constant and complex but the pace and degree of it makes managing it precarious. Seventy percent of change efforts fail.

This disturbing statistic persists, despite decades of research and thousands of articles and books written about change.  John Kotter’s (1995) article, “Leading Change : Why Transformation Efforts Fail” identified some of the challenges of leading change successfully, and why it continues to be a quandary to leaders no matter their profession and sector.

A primary reason, according to William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (1991) is that leaders don’t distinguish between the emotions and psychological needs in each phase of change, and give little or no thought to endings or how to manage their impact on people.

There is a natural inclination of leaders to be focused on the future, which is viewed as an asset in strategic planning. Being unaware of the difficulty puts them at risk of forgetting that in any change effort people have to be helped “to let go” of the familiar, and the comfort of the past and present, before they can move into the uncertainty of the unknown. Convincing people to “leave home” is a precarious part of the change process unless leaders understand how change happens and are prepared to manage the emotional and behavioral responses it evokes.

Scholars and practitioners still rely on the groundbreaking research of social psychologist and pioneer of change management, group dynamics, and organizational development Kurt Lewin to describe what happens when planned change is introduced into an organization. Knowledge of Lewin’s work has been expanded upon and deepened over the decades, and the basic construct of the three phases of change remains — an ending, the gap, and a new beginning.

The ending is a time when most people are in denial and resistance. They may not trust that the change will happen, they may disagree with the direction, or they may just want to avoid discomfort. The most frequent responses from leaders to denial and resistance are to cheerlead the change, overwhelm people with data, or resort to coercion. Such strategies contribute to resistance and regression.  A lack of understanding of what people are feeling means the change is likely to be unstainable.

 The Gap is the second phase of the change process, when half of the people have accepted that the change is going to happen, some are already onboard with the vision, and some are still resisting. There is heightened anxiety and a mix of other emotions such as fear and excitement, anger and grief, confusion and certainty. The gap is a phase in which people are searching for certainty and direction, seeking solid ground and a sense of stability. This is the phase in which the task of letting go is very important and if not managed well escalates confusion and regression. There is a smaller number of people in denial and resistance and the same number as those in the new beginning.

It is in this in-between time that pressure rises on the leader to “solve the problem” and get people to the new beginning. Immediate solutions are sought without clarity about the problem, and alleviation of distress feels more urgent than true engagement in problem-solving. This phase can be overwhelming. The work of the leader must be to create some order in what feels like chaos; to ground people in the vision, direction, and core values; and to create and hold the space in which members can manage the system’s emotionality and engage in the real work.  

The third phase is when most of the people have accepted the change and have committed to its implementation. Still, though smaller in number, there are those that remain in denial and resistance and the emotional caldron of the Gap.  

Convincing people to “leave home” is a precarious part of the change process unless leaders understand how change happens and are prepared to manage the emotional and behavioral responses it evokes.

When change is introduced in a system, leaders have already moved — emotionally and behaviorally — through the first two phases and will occupy the opposite phase of where most followers are in the process. The need at this point is for a leader to have the insight, awareness, patience, and empathy necessary to successfully help others navigate through the change process.

In my experience of working with communities and organizations in the business, philanthropic, and education sectors, I have learned that leaders who understand and operate from within this construct of change fare much better than those who do not. It is a simple, yet profound way to help leaders understand and access the ways to navigate the complex precarious nature of change.

The challenge of communicating the future direction of an organization shifts in the new beginning to integrating the change into the organization’s operations and culture. There will still be a few in denial and resistance, and some are still in the gap. The two biggest mistakes a leader of change can make at this point are to assume that the work of managing change is complete — the work has just begun because aligning the structure, practices, and people with the vision is the real work and is essential to successful, sustainable change. The other misstep is to either be dismissive of the people in denial, resistance, and confusion or to focus too much on them. It’s important to not reinforce these behaviors and make them a norm by giving them too much attention; but it is unwise to completely ignore them. If the leader has done everything necessary to enable and support the person in the change and they remain stuck, then a decision will need to be made about whether they can remain without undermining or sabotaging progress.

Most of the problems leaders have are adaptive; yet most of the training provided continues to be technical. Leading change is an adaptive challenge not a technical one. The disconnect between the type of problem and the skill needed is the point at which the change process quickly veers toward failure.

Successful change outcomes require knowledge of the change process, applied adaptive skills, and a leader’s internal capacity to skillfully address and manage the psychological and emotional issues of him or herself and of others. This is an indicator of high emotional intelligence as well as of being a self-differentiated leader.

Positioning and guiding an organization to responsibly respond to change demands an integrated approach to self-development that includes both technical and adaptive skills and inner and outer work. It is the leader’s self awareness and insight that enables self-management and the ability to remain disentangled from the emotionality of the system so that they can be a non-anxious presence in the midst of turmoil. Inner work enables leaders to be honest, real, authentic, and to lead others through a change process that can lead to a successful outcome.

The wise words of French philosopher, and Jesuit priest Pierre de Teilhard de Chardin’s are words I carry with me to keep me mindful of what leaders need to be reminded of :

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time

Impatience fuels the tendency to rush through or skip over the phases of change, both of which lead to failure.

Tackling change without knowledge and understanding of the change process leads to fragmentation, failure, and the regression progress — behavior that will keep the 70% failure rate fixed.

The field of leadership is beginning to see the value of leaders who are not only intellectually competent and technically skilled but also emotionally equipped to deal with levels of intense emotionality in systems that the process of change evokes. We must prepare leaders to be well-differentiated and able to navigate these emotional processes embedded in the change process if we want to reduce, if not eliminate, the failure rate of change efforts. This is especially important right now as communities and organizations begin to emerge from a very difficult and emotional time of crisis and turn their gaze toward the future and new beginnings.

References & Other Sources

Bridges, William. (1991). Managing Transitions: Making The Most Of Change. Perseus Books

Friedman, Edwin H. (2007). A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Seabury Books.

Kotter, John. (1995). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1995.

Katherine Tyler Scott

Katherine Tyler Scott is Principal of Ki ThoughtBridge, LLC, a company that is known for its integrated approach to the development of individual and organizational leadership that increases adaptive capacity, efficacy and resilience. Previously, Katherine developed and directed the Lilly Endowment Leadership Education Program and was President and CEO of Trustee Leadership Development, a National Leadership Development Center.  Katherine has worked in public and private health facilities as a psychotherapist and supervisor of residents in psychiatry, psychology interns, and graduate social work students and has consulted with and provided training to executive leaders in various healthcare facilities. She has written extensively on integrated adaptive leadership, trusteeship, organizational development, and change management. Katherine is a current board member of Women4Change and she previously chaired the board of the International Leadership Association. She is a founding member of the Indianapolis chapter of the Coalition of 100 Black Women.

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