Myth of the Mongrel in Leadership

As a leadership coach and advisor I have come across the myth of the mongrel as a common belief that can shape our notion of what it means to succeed as a leader.

In my early 30’s, I was privileged to be placed in a leadership role leading mainly males who were all older than me. Going against the order of time in this way without a good mentor was fraught to say the least. I was told by my colleague Jeff who was my CEO at the time that I lacked the ‘mongrel’. As I had led teams before and never needed this imaginary dog by my side I was puzzled.

The leaders that I had admired had no such presence about them. Yet the message was clear-to be a success you had to have a certain streak of ruthlessness and be willing to act in a hard-hearted way, to cast relationships aside for the end goal.

Since then, others have sent the same message in different words. Recently I was told that a leader lacked an inner ‘bastard’ and so would not cut it in a challenging company turn-around.

The belief in the need for a mongrel mindset probably stems back to ancient times, periods of war and conquerors, and crushing fellow humans to stand upon one’s own new territory. It sounds extreme I know and yet the mongrel message holds a vital leadership distinction to do with guilt and innocence that many leaders may not be fully aware of.

There is no ignoring the fact that leaders will encounter guilt during their leadership journey.  It cannot all be rewards, promotions, and pay rises. Most ascensions to leadership roles involve leading peers who often have been friends or colleagues whose performance you are now required to manage, not to mention those peers who were unsuccessful in applying for the same promotion.

Does this mean a bastard/mongrel is required to take over at challenging times when friendship must transform into leadership?  Or can we somehow maintain compassion while making key business decisions?  Is it wise to be callous?

A wise leader can discern their personal guilt (feeling the pain of disappointment for someone else) who from guilt towards the system that they lead (I have not acted in the best interests of the business). This requires a presence and perspective that spans compassion for the person while remaining grounded in the purpose of the system itself.

Can we hold this compassion for the person and this wisdom for the whole? Of course we can.

Is it easy?  Absolutely not.

This calls for a quality of presence and an expansion of heart as well as a soul search for the wise path forward.

Inevitably a leader will meet two forms of guilt and innocence: that of which is personal and that which is not personal at all. Welcome to the untold lesson of guilt, innocence and how to befriend the beast/mongrel.

Personal guilt and innocence relate to preserving how we belong in relationships with others. It serves to protect me as someone who deserves to belong.  When I feel innocent, I see myself as a friend and as a good fellow human being. I am honouring my word. I am being kind and generous. I feel the warm glow and safe elevation of innocence.

Personal guilt comes when I do or say the thing that could cause a disruption in a relationship – rejecting someone for a promotion who is a loyal contributor in my team. Hello guilt again.

But what about the guilt + innocence inherent in leadership that is not personal at all?

Is the mongrel at play?

Let’s use an illustration. A senior executive leader had a loyal team member who was viewed as a potential successor. It was acknowledged in several conversations. Due to the organisational policy to externally advertise roles, when a 2IC role came up it went to market. One particular external candidate to the leader’s surprise had more experience and demonstrated the capability to fill the role. What a dilemma!

The leader found themselves at the crossroads of guilty to self or guilty to the system itself? Either way, they would feel guilty. They deemed that the organisation needed the additional capability that the new candidate could bring and so he chose personal guilt over guilt to the system.

How did they feel? Tortured by their own personal guilt. I suppose you could say, like a mongrel and a bastard. This feeling could only be managed by acknowledging what the system needed at that time which was the new external candidate. Then how did they feel? Innocent of course-to the system that is!

But what if they had played it the other way? Becoming innocent at a personal level and guilty to the system? Well then they would not be doing their job.

Leaders are asked continually to choose innocence to the company and its needs over preserving any sense of personal innocence. What is the result? Personal guilt.

Working for a company with a strong purpose eases this tension greatly. It supports leaders to fully occupy their roles and manage the guilt of leadership. That however is no message that leaders must be mongrels.  Indeed it takes extraordinary discernment and presence to recognise in emotionally charged situations that to act to preserve personal innocence over the needs of the business ecosystem (i.e. systemic guilt) helps no one ultimately at all. What helps is equipping the whole with the necessary parts to attract success.

Indeed leaders acting according to the needs of the complex organisation are ultimately the kindest of all, as they enable people in roles where they can contribute what they have in a way that can be sustained for the long term.


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