A Paradox of Caring Leadership

25 January 2023

Dr Adrian McCarthy calls for all of us to embrace and support the caring leaders we need today.


Shared observations of the increasing complexity of lives, societies and organizations are commonplace. Yet, when our position, our self-identity and our responsibilities move us from a general acceptance to particular and sometimes crucial challenges, such observations do not help.

Higher education is often at the forefront of complex change, in terms of reach and potential impact throughout societies. It may be that ever growing wants and needs in cultures across the world, have fuelled ever higher expectations, whether reasonable or not, of universities, business schools and institutes. In many ways, business schools appear to be bearing the brunt of such criticism.

What to do? It is not unusual, for any of us, facing ongoing criticism, to respond in ways that might be viewed as defensive and therefore easily dismissed, by those minded to do so. Frequent positive attributions, in relations to self and organisation may appear as myside bias or worse, desperation. Efforts to introduce higher standards, whilst initially successful are in some ways doomed to become isomorphic constraints in times of growing competition.

Whether or not the growing number of competitors in traditional business school service areas, is driven by perceptions of weakness and inadequacy, notions of complementarity, the need to excel and to be seen to excel is great. Yet, it may be an annoying truism, that self-praise is no praise at all, and that standards may unintentionally constrain performance.

Educators have developed, curated and disseminated learning and knowledge from the earliest times, until now we find in business schools, huge learning and knowledge repositories, in many and various forms. Knowledge, may in the past have provided a safe haven, to shelter from leaderships stresses, a reassuring certainty that could serve as a grounding for positional authority. In the past, such authority, supported by disciplinary structures, processes, standards and regulations, has arguably been core to many great academic achievements, over centuries and even millennium. Knowledge has been a reliable, valuable and comfortable asset for educators in general.

Over the last century, knowledge has been an increasingly valuable asset for business schools and business school leaders. Now, though, in our times of significant and dynamic change, a great challenge for business school leaders is that of understanding the often-shifting knowledge asset-liability relationship in context. Knowledge and knowledge-based authority, can no longer be relied upon as a safe haven from stormy stresses of business school leadership.

It is not surprising that the combined pressures of resource constraints, growing competition and often, uncompromising expectations result in unprecedented escalating stress for business school leaders. There are of course many ways to respond to professional and vocational stresses, some highly individual and others more common. Seeking certainty, being more risk averse, herd participation, deflection and conservatism are not unusual. In some ways at some times and in some situations, they are not perhaps unreasonable, yet not particularly useful in meeting stretching goals and entering unknown territories.

Who then is most at risk from these growing stresses? Not any who might quietly quit, keeping head down for a quiet life, not any who spread the load, under the guise of career opportunity and experience for others, not any who seek to follow herd type norms or any who manage to successfully deflect attention onto environmental factors. No not any like that.

Those most at risk of being pulled apart by the stresses of business school leadership are those that really care. Those who care with a passion to excel, to matter, to make a positive difference. Care enough to bear the stresses of conflicting wants and demands, to deal with the reasonable and make room for the unreasonable. Those caring leaders who are willing to take necessary risks, yet unwilling to fail, though understanding they might.

The paradox of caring leadership, is that such caring comes at a cost. It costs the leader, as they must inevitably sacrifice self-care for care of others. They may, without being asked, neglect other key areas of their life and even their health. Of course, we do not want that, would not ask it, so we must care for those, who in caring so much for others, may not care for themselves. Even if we do not do this in an entirely selfless way, it is in all of our interests to hope for such caring leaders and to give them the support that they may need, even if they may not initially recognise that need for themselves. We need to care more for those who really care.

Photo by fauxels

Dr Adrian McCarthy is a professional cognitive explorer and adventurer. Passionately committed to the sustained development of dynamic expertise, he is focused on the pragmatic creation, development and application of solutions to complex and important, organisation unknowns. Proven willing and able to transcend disciplinary and specialist boundaries, he pursues challenge and opportunity through known and unknown spaces. A paradoxical shapeshifter, he delights in positively integrative, goal achievement. Adrian has worked successfully, across the world, with leading business schools, global corporations, public sector services and entrepreneur start-ups.


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