Ragnar Lothbrok vs Ira Glass: The Spectrum of Leadership

There are two kinds of leaders.

One propels the team forward, aggressively tackling every problem. Fighting like hell to push everyone beyond the realm of possibility, exploding the obstacles along the way, motivating everyone with a battle cry and personally demonstrating what it truly means to struggle and win.

Another creates emotional safety, an environment of trust and respect, where every team member feels supported and engaged. Serves the team, multiplying their output through behind-the-scenes work. Cheering them on while they’re down, believing in their ability to persevere – as, let’s face it, there are a lot more downs than ups along the way.

Let’s acknowledge that there’s something very polar in these descriptions of leadership; like Yin and Yang, opposites; and like Yin and Yang, they need each other.

Ragnar, the warrior king

The first one makes me think of Ragnar Lothbrok, the mystical king of the Vikings, bashing in skulls of his enemies on the battlefield. His remarkable place in folklore (and a long-running show on the History channel) is secured by his own courage which gave courage to those by his side; his own strategic brilliance that multiplied the effectiveness of his army; his own skill as a fighter that made every Viking want to be like him.

The second one makes me think of Ira Glass, a quiet and introverted host of one of the most popular radio shows in the US of the last 20 years, This American Life. Possibly one of the most influential progressives of our time, he’s been able to create the kind of following that many politicians dream of – 5 million people tune in to listen to what he has to say every week.

Ira, the master of empathy

Ira’s magic is based on a simple premise: that empathy and authentic storytelling change people’s minds better than any pep talk, fear, or intimidation ever could.

You can probably guess where this is going: these two leaders define opposites ends of the spectrum. Don’t take Ira into a sword fight. Don’t ask Ragnar to persuade a stuck-up and somewhat disinterested group.

At work, we rarely see characters that are this polarized – almost caricatures; and yet, you’ll often find leaders who are “90% of the way” tilted one way or the other. That usually doesn’t end well.

On the too-compassionate side, you’ll find:

  • Bosses that can’t hold their employees accountable – which means that employees receive no critical feedback, and are thus stuck and endanger the rest of the team.
  • Those that think that the workplace is a family; and that “you don’t fire your sister when she’s not pulling her weight” – which of course is disastrous to the rest of the firm as it makes the many suffer for the few.
  • Managers that put relationships in front of results 100% of the time, unable to sharply over-rule their subordinates when they’re about to make a fatal mistake.

On the too-hard-driving side, you’ll find:

  • Brilliant assholes – which are very right 95% of the time because they’re brilliant, but in the remaining 5%, they are fatally wrong – and since it’s their way or the highway, everyone suffers;
  • Unengaged workforce – if the boss is the most productive, most anal-retentive member of the team, employees can get scared and paralyzed: “s/he’ll be redoing this anyway..”
  • Leaders with super-high turnover – nobody likes being intimidated/berated all the time.

Most of us have a natural bias – some of us are born aggressive, confrontational; for a person like this being a mentor, a servant-leader 20% of the time is extremely difficult. For others, relationships are easy, but confronting an employee that’s not performing is super hard.

In my mind, a significant portion of growth for each leader has to do with understanding own biases; and forcing yourself to go against the grain, widening the toolset as far as viable. So when the time comes, you won’t be a Ragnar with a microphone or an Ira with a sword.

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