Courage: Ditch the Armor (Part II)Posted on January 12, 2020

Vicki Noel, MLHR, SHRM-SPC, SPHR

Why are leaders hesitant to focus on this?

Other forms of armor in leadership that are not as obvious, but could have adverse effects on a team’s high performance, are the self-protection behaviors of being “right,” cynicism/sarcasm, and criticism.  These protection behaviors are challenging to let go of because they provide a false sense of self-esteem – “I am right, “I am witty,” and “I can pick apart obvious problems.”  If you have been rewarded in the past for being the person who always knows the answers or has the best comebacks, then these protection behaviors can become the “go-to” when under stress or when being challenged.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

A high-performance team will not have the confidence to learn or speak up with new ideas if the leader of that team regularly deploys this type of protective armor.  Having always to be the “knower” or the “right” one is defensive and posturing.  This type of armored leadership can stifle the flow of new ideas on a team.    The armored leadership of cynicism (or its relative, sarcasm) can often leave behind hurt, confusion and resentment among teams if misunderstood or unchecked.  Criticism often arises from feelings of fear and unworthiness.  This behavior is identified as leadership armor because it shifts the spotlight off of the leader and onto someone or something else, allowing the leader’s brain to feel safe and “better than.” 

How can you do it? 

Aim to “get it right” versus “be right.” Actively practice curiosity.  Stephen Covey’s 5th habit of effectiveness is to “seek first to understand before seeking to be understood.”  Rather than leading with the desire to answer everything for your team, lead with questions.  The more input we can encourage when facing an issue, the better our chances are at a practical solution and an engaged team.  

Model clarity and kindness. It is hard to admit that sarcasm and cynicism are a form of armor that I use.  When I learned that the word sarcasm is from the Greek word sarkazein, meaning “to tear flesh,” I said, “ouch.”   Remember that being clear is kind.  If we have something to say, let’s not hide behind a sarcastic remark.  Be straight with your team.

Focus on making contributions instead of criticizing. At the end of each day, aim to have contributed more than you have criticized.  Before picking apart another’s idea, contribute a few of your own.  Be aware of languishing in “nostalgia” as it may be perceived as a resistance to try or a criticism of new ideas.

What are some additional strategies you have used with success to minimize these self-protection behaviors? Log on and join the conversation at www.somc.org/leadership.  We learn best from each other’s experiences.

1 Response

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA January 15th, 2020

I have found it helpful to focus on clarifying others’ positions by asking questions instead of challenging their positions directly. I am more effective when I adopt the curious investigator role instead of the advocate role. An attitude of indifference is helpful in “remaining in character” when playing the objective investigator role.


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