leading through failure

Erika Summers Effler’s new book, Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes: Emotional Rhythms in Social Movement Groups, delves deeply into the inner lives of social movement organizations. One of the things I like about the book is the rich description of interpersonal interactions that sustain movement organizations facing perpetual failure. The big idea is that emotions are the fuel that keep social movement groups moving, especially in situations where the group is struggling to meet expectations. Here is a great example, in which Summers Effler demonstrates how leaders of movement groups use failure to build a narrative about the organization and cement their own leadership.

Leaders were made and reaffirmed in the recovery of the groups following collapse. To recover, leaders had to pull themselves up by their emotional bootstraps, evoke the emotions associated with success and expansion, and craft the stories that made sense of the groups’ failure….Both of the groups rode emotional roller coasters, but the leaders rode more extreme ones, benefiting the most from success but also losing the most and feeling the most drained and stuck when the group failed. They had all of their proverbial eggs – in this case, identity, expectations, and interaction tools and strategies – in one interaction basket. they stood to gain more when they were able to pull a group back from the edge of disintegration, but they also stood to lose more if the group disintegrated. Charismatic leaders were like emotional batteries. These emotional batteries keep the scenes together through maintaining the focus of attention and the positive emotions associated with this focus (125-6).

I’d say this is true of all kinds of leaders. As I mentioned last week, middle managers, an understudied type of leader, are in many ways the emotional core of their organizations. They keep their teams moving forward by setting the emotional tone of the group. The costs of motivating people certainly go up when the group experiences failure, but the rewards for getting the group through that crisis situation are high. This is, I think, what Summers Effler is getting at in her cases. Leaders have to expend more of their emotional energy when a group is in decline, but if the group is able to recover the leader gains charisma and other sorts of political capital. Moreover, skillful leaders can use those moments of failure to sharpen the identity of the organization. In the face of failure, key questions about organizational identity – “who are we? what is unique about this organization?” – matter much more than during times of abundance. Only an organization that can offer positive, affirmative answers to those questions can make the case that it is worth saving (or at least worth expending emotional energy for).

Written by brayden king

June 17, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Posted in books, brayden, leadership

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