Are you a tyrannical leader without even realising?

Most business leaders are tyrants.

Even the most kind.
Even the most friendly.
Even the most fair.
Even the most democratic.
Even, I dare say, you.

When it comes to the way you run your business, you probably embody the worst archetype of leadership.  One of force, coercion, manipulation, and control.

I expect that intuitively this doesn’t ring true – so let me demonstrate this with an analogy.

Imagine a father who was desperate for his son to play football.  The only problem?  His son wasn’t really interested in football, and wanted to play the violin instead.

What would healthy leadership look like in this situation?

I highly doubt that many of you would answer: “easy, he should smash the violin, drag his son to football practice, and keep pushing him until he finally conformed to his vision of what the lad should be”.

And yet, if we were to judge by how you lead your business, this is exactly the sort of leadership model you subscribe to.

You see there are two basic leadership archetypes, which we might label as “tyrannical” and “nurturing”.  The archetype described with the father above is obviously the tyrannical one, and it’s built on the following logic:

  1. Decide what you want the thing you’re leading to become
  2. Tell that thing what to do so that it conforms to your vision
  3. Bulldoze over any issues that arise which conflict with your vision

In the case of the father and son, this means the father having a clear vision of what he wants his son to be and forcing him to conform to it.  Something which most of us would recognise as pathological.

By contrast the nurturing archetype looks more like this:

  1. Seek to understand the intrinsic nature of the thing in your charge
  2. Create the conditions to allow it to blossom into the fullest expression of itself
  3. Be responsive to environmental feedback so you can constantly tweak your approach for its ever greater flourishing

In other words leadership as an act of service, or “shepherding”, rather than as an act of control and direction.  One in which the father would seek to create the conditions to help his son excel at the violin, never mind the football.

Now the point here is this:

Any old idiot can see that with the parenting analogy the tyrannical model is horrible and ineffective, whilst the nurturing model is healthy.  That’s easy.  However when we take that same tyrannical model and apply it to a founder and their business, it hits different.  It doesn’t seem so pathological anymore.  It seems strong.  Focused.  Inspiring even.

Of course we should have a strong vision, we think.  Of course we should direct things, and bend reality to our point of view.  And of course we should power past the naysayers, the roadblocks, and the contradictory information that gets in our way.

Is this not the very image of powerful leadership we are constantly sold?

Which we are told to aspire to?

Perhaps it is, but I’m here to tell you that it is just as pathological when applied to a business as when applied to a child.

A business doesn’t have “feelings” of course, so we aren’t liable to feel sorry for a business or worry about being cruel to it.  But the tyrannical model isn’t only wrong because it’s “nasty”; it’s wrong because it doesn’t work.

Let me give you another analogy which will make it even more clear.

Imagine a gardener who wants to grow a beautiful flower.  Again they are the “leader” and the flower is the thing in their charge.  Which leadership model works in this instance?

Clearly the tyrannical model wouldn’t only be ineffective here, it would be ludicrous.  The gardener can’t tell the flower what colour it should be, or when it should bloom, or how tall it should grow.  These are all intrinsic to the flower.  No, all the gardener can do is create the conditions under which the flower can blossom into the most glorious expression of itself possible.  The gardener doesn’t “create” the flower, or “grow” the flower.  The flower does that all by itself.  All the gardener does is steward that organic process.  The purest expression of nurturing leadership.

Now of course this doesn’t mean that the gardener makes no decisions whatsoever.  They can choose (within limits) where to plant the flower.  They can prune it for a more pleasing shape.  They can train it to climb up a wall.  And they ultimately do have power over the flower.  They are unambiguously the leader.  But all of this happens on the flower’s terms, and in service to the flower’s own “telos”.

The same thing applies to the father.  Just because he allows the son to “bloom” in his own direction, that doesn’t mean the son is in charge.  No, again the father is the leader, he creates the “container” in which his son is able to flourish, and makes executive decisions over which the son has no say.  But these decisions are always in service to that self-directed flourishing intrinsic in the son.

Strategic leadership of a business works in exactly the same way.

Your job is to create the conditions for the business to fulfil its own nature, and flourish on its own terms – NOT to force it into whatever shape you might want it to be.  You can influence it, yes, but ultimately you are in service to it, not the other way around.

You might be thinking “that’s all very nice, but a child, a flower, and a business are all different things, which need different approaches”.


That’s not how it works.

What we’re talking about here isn’t actually “parenting” or “gardening” or “management”.  We’re talking about the underlying pattern of reality itself, of which all these things are just illustrations.

The principles for how a flower, or a person, or a business, or anything really flourishes are the same.    Each is simply a microcosm or macrocosm of the other, all adhering to the same basic rules as they all operate within the same larger system.

This is why analogies are a thing in the first place.

It’s why you can gain insights into being a CEO through gardening.  Why you can gain insights into being a parent through being a CEO.  You can do all sorts of things like this because the patterns are universal and they repeat.

It’s just sometimes, we miss them.

And, for various reasons, business leadership is one field where this happens.  Where we believe that tyranny and manipulation are not only acceptable, but effective.

So just as a little thought experiment, see your business as a child for a moment.  See it as a flower.  Analyse your leadership accordingly.

What do you see?

I’d love to know.

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