01.06.2020

The Bright and Dark Side of Leadership

By Marina Jankovic
Marina Jankovic

I remember when I heard for the first time about the catastrophic event at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I was a child, trying to find a connection between the explosion somewhere far in the Soviet Union and my parents’ debate whether my elder sisters should join the school trip. I only later understood my parents worry and the impact this accident had on the planet and human lives.

Now, many years later, the story and its meaning has been brought back to my life through the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. No one can be prepared to see the stressful scenes of death caused by radiation in this horrific tragedy. But what I found darkest in this story is the harsh truth about human nature – insidious manipulation and fear, toxic leadership covering up the truth even when it was clear that accepting responsibility and opening up communication would save lives.

There are lessons for all leaders when we read about or watch stories of heroic difference makers, but there also are lessons in the warnings we can see in those leaders who were tested by history and flat-out failed. The Chernobyl miniseries provides us with both.

Is Chernobyl something that happened once, somewhere far away? Or is it the story of a leadership dynamic that continues to live?

Power. How much are we really immune to a tendency to try to earn more, even if someone else is going to lose? How many organizational leaders would try to reduce spending without looking at the consequences of their decisions? Putting profit ahead of people.

Fear. An intense and unpleasant feeling, pushing us to become part of something we don't want to become part of. We are often pressured by ‘what must be done, must be done’ whatever the price, because we feel that we are in danger. Even if the danger is just perceived, it is equally powerful and affects our judgment and decision making.

How many leaders today, here, everywhere, rely on a culture of fear they consciously create? I'm sure we've all met them, in our career and in life. We meet and recognize them all too often. So, when we recognize them, the question we should ask is how much do we feed their power, even by deciding to mind our own business? If we “mind our own business” and decide to avoid conflict and not take a stand because we don’t feel directly endangered, what are the consequences? Are we complicit in perpetuating this fear culture? By avoiding taking a risk, we may be jeopardizing more than we can imagine.

Fortunately, most of us do not manage a nuclear power plant, but the lessons from this story are profound and applicable in today’s volatile world. To support a culture of toxicity, based in fear and manipulation will only lead to mistrust and ineffective leadership.

On a brighter note, there are courageous change-makers, leaders with stronger integrity than ego, who don’t give in to personal fears and insecurities even when the stakes are at their highest. We have them in the Chernobyl series, and in our reality. What are they teaching us? One lesson is that if we aren’t creating a culture of trust and transparency during stable times, people won’t act with trust and transparency when things get tough.