Leadership “Intervention:” teachings of popular culture

It’s a familiar story: boy/girl meets drug-of-choice, boy/girl falls in love, boy/girl’s family intervenes, boy/girl goes to rehab and starts over.

In the TV series, “Intervention,” this plot happens over and over again. Most of the addicts go to rehab, and many stay sober for awhile, maybe longer. The stark white postscript on the screen sometimes announces a relapse, but usually we hear the short-term good news. They start out sick, gray and sloppy, they end up pinker and neater and more hopeful. Intervention as a technique seems helpful, maybe even necessary, in the narrative of this TV show and the culture.

promo for the Emmy winning A&E show

promo for the Emmy winning A&E show

Although it’s hard to know what power the camera has in convincing addicts to commit to rehab, the real leaders of the show are the desperate family members who gather for the final intervention. Through the intervention process, they take back their power in the relationship with the addict, who has been the defacto leader of the pack.

As the family faces their fears and learn tough love, they let go of enabling habits. By confronting the addict, they force him or her to acknowledge the problem, and accept responsibility for choices and compulsions that must be changed by the addict alone in order to survive.

Intervention offers a model of “courageous followership,” to use Ira Chaleff’s term.

The Intervention model is based on a broken family system — in essence not that far from a toxic corporate context led by a self-protecting, dangerous leader.

The main difference is probably the difference in risks. Challenging the intoxicated leader in a business situation might mean loss of a job, promotion or other workplace security. The entanglement is money and power here.

Challenging an addict in a family system means risking the loss of that person altogether — if they resist going to rehab and decide to cut themselves off from their family altogether. Here, the entanglement is love, money and emotional power.

Neither situation is pretty. When followers become enablers in any way, it’s a huge risk to challenge to change the system and the comfortable (if delusional) position of the leader. That’s why collective action, modeled as an Intervention, is more effective than individual challenges. If one follower fights back, they’re expendable. If all key followers challenge the status quo, the status quo is more likely to change.

Enabling is an interesting behavioral metaphor for fearful followership and leadership.

Last week I wrote about David Ignatius use of that metaphor to criticize Obama’s strategies dealing with an out-of-control GOP.  Building on that metaphor, and the idea of the courageous follower, it may be that we ought to consider collectively-led interventions as a way of challenging toxic leaders to heal — or step down.

Sally Erickson (link goes to her great YouTube interview!) created a whole movie about our toxic culture, our traumas and the resulting addiction and emptiness that characterizes our disintegrating social webs. Check out What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire. This film, tracing the story of one man’s journey with comments and stories from some remarkable thinkers, argues that our families, our organizations and our empire are all locked into denial.

There are a lot of courageous followers standing up as leaders in their own right, doing their best to help bad leaders learn how to become good ones, to bring us into right relationship, to remind us how to lead with aloha/healthy values.

Intervention, collective action against toxic patterns, might just be a way to jumpstart the process.



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