How to Lead a Demon

Many educational sessions are conventional. The teacher provides information consistent with existing beliefs. The participant listens and gains a small increment of knowledge. They already know, for example, that 2+2 = 4. Now they learn that 3+3 = 6. They have gained an increment of knowledge consistent with their underlying framework, but the underlying framework is unchanged.

Some sessions result in deeper learning. The teacher focuses on a topic that is relevant and creates a context that is both safe and challenging. The participants become more deeply engaged. Some participants take the risk of responding to questions with increased authenticity. A sense of vulnerability and trust begins to permeate the room and the human network becomes more connected. When purpose and trust increase, the people begin to act differently. They begin to co-create a conversation that is highly generative.

Learning becomes inspirational. The ideas are novel and stimulating. The learning challenges existing assumptions about the world and about self. People begin to make new assumptions about who they are, where they are going, and how they can get there. As soon as they do, the imagination provides new strategies. These new strategies feel inspired and people are anxious to experiment on them.

I was in the midst of a workshop like this. A woman on the front row was taking careful notes and offered several wise comments. I concluded that she knew who she was and that she was thinking deeply about some particular issue.

At the end, she approached me. She told me she has a boss who advocates a narrow strategy with no concern for people or culture. She believes that the organization is suffering because of it. In the past she had tried to enlarge his perspective, but he refuses to listen.

She said that participating in the workshop had had two impacts. First, she felt a renewed interest in trying to influence her boss. Second, she had some insights about the need to first do some self-work. She said, “I need to change myself. In approaching him, I need to talk to him without demonizing him.”

Her words stayed with me. In pondering them, I assumed that demon meant devil. I decided to look it up. In the thesaurus, demon has three sets of synonyms. The first includes words like expert, genius, or wizard. The second includes words like fear, anxiety, or terror. The last includes words like devil, fiend, or monster.

If we hold and integrate all three clusters, an image emerges. When people gain a position of authority, we assume they have the requisite knowledge to perform the role. We expect them to be experts. Since they do not know everything, it is hard for them to be an expert or wizard. They fear exposure and cannot express vulnerability or ask others to join them in learning. They have to know and direct. When they assume expertise and direct without mutual dependence, they exercise authority without love.

This is what a devil does. A devil seeks to take our agency and act upon us without loving us. When someone exercises authority without love, we feel it and we tend to demonize the actor.

My associate was expressing a self-discovery. She was recognizing the need to change (“I need to talk to him without demonizing him”). Even though he was exercising authority without love, she needed to exercise authority with love. This is an unconventional insight, but it is a key to transforming a relationship. To turn demons into human beings, we have to love them; we have to make them safe as we simultaneously challenge them to learn. This defies our sense of justice and calls us to live in love. It calls us to leadership.


  • Does anyone in my life exercise authority without love? How do I react?
  • Does anyone in my life exercise authority with love? How do I react?
  • What could I do today to exercise authority with love?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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