Why Leaders Should Try to Be Overwhelmed

This was the fourth day of our five days together, and we were swirling in chaos. There were almost thirty of us in a small room as part of Ann Bradney’s leadership workshop I wrote about last week.

Sara* was on the floor, cradling the arm and leg she had broken several months earlier, feeling broken herself, crying as she thought about her son who died five years ago. A few feet away from her, Angelo stood with his hands on his chest, also crying, immersed in his experience of alienation from his mother. Across the room, Zoe was huddled with her sister, Chloe, as they felt the pain of losing their own mother and confronted their fear of losing each other.

As I looked around the room, I saw two or three other people scattered about, each struggling with deep emotions of loss, fear, anger, and sadness. The noise was disorienting. People were crying, laughing, shouting, hugging, and comforting each other, all at the same time. It was completely out of control.

Just like life itself.

We were a microcosm of the world and of every organization I’ve ever known. Not just the pain, though that certainly exists wherever we’re brave enough to look, but the multiplicity of activity. The variety of individuals and groups, each occupied, engulfed even, by their own concerns, needs, and desires.

To top it off, we had only one established leader, Ann, to manage the mayhem. It was an impossible job. She couldn’t be in seven places at once. She couldn’t support each of the people who needed her. She had set herself up to fail.

Which, it eventually dawned on me, was her plan all along.

Ann didn’t just let the chaos happen by accident. She welcomed it. Because the perfect ingredient to draw out leadership is exactly the one most of us, including leaders, fight so hard to avoid: overwhelm.

Leaders like to be in control. I know that’s true for me. I want things to turn out right and I feel — often mistakenly — that if I have control over them, they will.

But here’s the thing: the more control I have over something, the less room there is for other people to step into their own leadership. If Ann didn’t need the help, many of us would have sat back watching, happy to let her lead.

When I took a bird’s eye view of the room, I saw that there were only six, maybe seven, people who needed help at that moment. The rest of us, close to twenty, were in a physical, psychological, and emotional place where we could offer help.

But it’s hard to offer help, to step into your own leadership. It requires tremendous courage. You have to risk being wrong, overstepping your bounds, and standing alone.

Which is why we needed a nudge.

So Ann created a situation that she couldn’t possibly handle by herself, and people stepped up. One participant, Janice, went over to Zoe and Chloe, the two sisters, and spoke softly to them. Another participant, Holly, sat next to Sara, who was mourning the loss of her son and held her. And I went over to Angelo, who looked up at me for a moment and then fell into my arms crying.

It’s not that Janice, Holly, and I were the leaders in the workshop. The day before, it was me who was crying, and Angelo who did the comforting. But on this day, in this moment, we were in a position to reach out.

Designing chaos into a process is the antithesis of what most leaders do. Usually, we try to focus on one thing at a time. One objective, one concept, one conversation, one task.

But in real life, in real organizations, nothing happens one thing at a time. And no one can be on top of it all. At one point, one of the participants accused Ann of allowing too much bedlam. Ann’s response was swift and emphatic:

“No. People want to make the leader the one who sees and knows everything. I am just a human being. I can’t see everything. I can’t know everything. I make mistakes. When you make me more than human, you can bring me down while refusing to take responsibility or any risk. Step into your leadership now.”

But wait a second. It sounds great but what if everyone in an organization stepped into their own leadership? What if everyone followed his own impulse? Wouldn’t that lead to anarchy?

Maybe. It depends on the strength of their organization’s container. How clear is the mission of the organization? The vision? The values? The culture? If we know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what’s important to us, and how we operate, then there will be trust, focused action, and abundant, unified leadership. If not, there will be anarchy.

But if the container isn’t strong, there will be anarchy anyway. Because, no matter how much leaders would like to, they just can’t control everything. And trying to control the uncontrollable just makes things worse. People check out. They feel no ownership. They work the minimum. And things fall through the cracks.

Here’s the hard part: leading without controlling. Stepping into your own leadership while leaving space for others to step into theirs as well.

If you find yourself still wanting to control it all, try saying “yes” to everything until you’re overwhelmed and can’t possibly deliver. So overwhelmed that, like Ann, you will fail to be on top of it all.

If that happens, then, like Ann, you will grow leaders around you. Your failure will prevent others from making you more than human. It will encourage them to take responsibility and risks. To step into their own leadership.

And if, on a particular day, you feel good, grounded, and strong, with a little extra energy, then look around for someone else who is overwhelmed and reach out to help. Take the risk to lead.

*Names have been changed