Last week I extolled the virtues of goosebumps as a metaphor for recognizing and pursuing your purpose. This week I’d like to consider another physical sensation that can signal something important in your leadership search, or indeed in your role as a leader. or life in general.  Hackles.

Hackles are related to goosebumps in that they originated as a ‘fight or flight’ response in animals. They physically manifest as the erectile plumage or neck hairs on some birds and animals when they find themselves threatened or alarmed.   If you have a dog in your life, you probably see hackles regularly when s/he encounters unfamiliar animals.  Roosters are a great example of ‘permanent’ hackles, an evolutionary adaptation that started as a response to threat and then got built in as a signal of dominance and ‘don’t mess with me.’

For us humans, we don’t have enough hair on our necks, nor were we fortunate enough to inherit plumage, to physically display hackles when we feel them.  But feel them we do.  And they feel decidedly different than goosebumps.

Where goosebumps can make one feel tip-toe-y-vulnerable or tingly-excited, hackles can have the opposite effect: conjuring anger or defensiveness or poised for attack.  

In the context of the leadership search, or leadership-on-the-job, what’s the role of hackles?  What are the circumstances in which you feel your hackles rise?  Generally speaking, this happens when something doesn’t sit right with you.  Perhaps it’s when you feel mis-judged.  Perhaps it’s when your core values are tested.  Perhaps it’s more blatant: you come across something that’s illegal, immoral, or against the best interests of the students you serve or the other members of your school community.

A few instances this week where my hackles were raised:

·      The plumber who, prior to coming to my house to investigate why my toilet was backed up, assumed this was because, since I’m a female, I must have put a sanitary napkin down the toilet. Does it matter that I’m 55 and post-menopausal, let alone that females generally *don’t* put sanitary napkins down toilets?  (And guess what?  The actual reason, it turns out, is that the toilet plumbing was done incorrectly.) Hackles!

·      A coaching conversation with a leader who had received drunk texts in the middle of the night from a male teacher making sexual innuendos towards her.  He’s married with children.  His – shall we say – ‘lack of restraint’ has implications for several people. Hackles!

·      Word from another coaching client that the reason given for her failure to advance to the next level in a leadership search was her relative lack of experience in the role – and then finding out that the successful candidate was a male with less experience than she had.  Hackles!

·      Being in a webinar focused on women in leadership and hearing a presenter speak about men (in general) in a derogatory way.  Hackles!

Trying to ignore or smooth down raised hackles is like trying to clean up your room by putting that mess behind the curtain.  It might stay hidden for a while but eventually it will make itself known. And probably stink.  Put another way: since hackles can actually be felt physically, they are likely to remain a physical phenomena in your body, and a niggling itch in your brain, unless and until you address the root cause. That might mean holding an uncomfortable conversation, writing an email of (measured) protest, seeking help from a coach/mentor/counselor or mediation from an objective third party, or removing oneself from relationship with the person or situation causing the hackles. Not addressing hackles could result in inconveniently-timed outbursts at something even remotely resembling a threat, or in a rather permanent-seeming defensive demeanor that would physically manifest as vibrant plumage if we hadn’t evolved the way we did.

It takes courage to address hackle-inducing situations.  The consequences of not doing so usually far outweigh the temporary discomfort of confronting the hackle-cause.  I believe it can be done, in most instances, with respect and empathy for the ‘other’ while elevating respect and empathy for yourself.  Better than elevating those hackles even further.  They WILL start to show, and scare off friends as well as adversaries.

Yours in smoothing ruffled feathers,