Why Inspiration and Fables Cause Problems and Fix Nothing
The leadership industry has clearly been better at providing heroes, myths, stories, and inspiration than it has been at making workplaces better or leaders last longer in their jobs. At some level, that’s not completely the leadership industry’s fault. If audiences want inspiring stories and will pay for them, the market will work at least moderately well and provide those stories. If people prefer excitement to education, emotional uplift to intellectual insight, then they will get what they prefer.
This means that the leadership industry’s faults and failings come in large measure from that industry’s clientele, the human resource executives and CEOs who hire the leadership gurus—and the employees who fill out all of those smiley-face surveys based on how good the leadership industry’s infotainment has made them feel. It was only when consumers demanded higher-quality, safer, more reliable automobiles that the car industry responded. Similarly, when shoppers demanded organic food, they got it, not only from new chains like Whole Foods Market but even from more conventional food retailers. Only when and if the consumers of leadership products and services stop craving inspiration and instead pursue insight, only when people demand organizational measures and leadership practices that help improve the condition of organizational workplaces, will anything change.
Modesty: Why Leaders Aren’t
The extensive research literature that includes both experimental and field data paints a consistent picture. Regardless of what one may believe about the virtues of modesty, several facts emerge from considering leaders in the real world. First, modesty is rare, while narcissism, in its productive or unproductive variants, is common among leaders, even among some of the most prominent, iconic, and celebrated of such leaders, including U.S. presidents and corporate CEOs. In fact, the most celebrated leaders are particularly likely to be narcissistic and immodest, which is one of the reasons they became so well known and celebrated in the first place!
Second, narcissism and self-aggrandizement and the behaviors associated with these constructs reliably and consistently predict the selection of leaders, the evaluations made after interviews, and the selection of emergent leadership. And third, narcissistic CEOs seem to earn more compared with others in the top management team, and last longer in their jobs—probably because they are more ready and willing to eliminate their rivals. Furthermore, narcissistic individuals are often superior performers in at least some dimensions; they are great at selling their ideas and vision, effective in attracting the support of others (particularly outside others), good at getting attention and its attendant benefits, and often effective at getting things done. The many benefits of immodesty help explain why modest CEOs are so rare, the leadership industry’s blandishments notwithstanding.
Authenticity: Misunderstood and Overrated
People change and grow all the time as a result of their work experiences. No one is born a doctor, lawyer, nurse, professional golfer, carpenter, or, for that matter, as a creature that walks and talks. We learn not only skills, but also the values and the culture that surround our particular jobs and organizations. We become what we do, in terms of not just skills but also preferences and values. One of the more robust findings in social psychology is that attitudes follow behaviors
After you have been a doctor, or a tax accountant, or a professor for long enough, you probably come to like what you have to do every day, and in many respects you also become the role you have been doing.
Learning and adapting to what we do never stops. So what does it mean to be true to yourself? Is that your high school self? Your college self? Your postcollege self? Your role as a friend? A family member? An employee? A leader?
People need to figure out how to be effective, regardless of their wants, needs, upbringing, and so forth. They need to learn how to be successful in the environments they confront, or they must learn how to find different and better environments. People need to grow, develop, and change, not get stuck in their temporarily authentic selves.
Should Leaders Tell the Truth—and Do They?
One reason people lie is to smooth over otherwise difficult situations—to make relationships and interactions proceed more smoothly. And lying often accomplishes this goal of making important social relations work better. Because people lie often for good reason, one interesting research finding is that people judge others’ deceptions much more harshly than their own. As one review of part of the literature on lying noted:
As deceivers, people are practical. They accommodate perceived needs by lying. . . . People may lie in the interest of impression management. . . . They exaggerate, minimize, and omit. . . . Regarding half-truths and self-editing as necessities of social life, deceivers see deception as similar to these sanctioned practices. . . . lies occasion little anxiety, guilt, or shame. . . . They are easy to rationalize.
A second answer to the question of the benefits of lying comes from a series of experiments that show that individuals actually have higher levels of positive affect when they cheat, a phenomenon researchers call the “cheater’s high.” The studies in question eliminated some alternative explanations for why cheaters feel happier, such as the fact that they earned financial rewards or believed that their good performance made a statement about their abilities. The authors noted, “Even when prospects for self-deception about unethical behavior have been reduced, the high cheaters experience from ‘getting away with it’ overwhelms the negative affective consequences that people mistakenly predict they will experience after engaging in unethical behavior.”40
Not only do lies often smooth over difficult situations, not only are people readily able to rationalize their own prevarications, and not only do people apparently feel good about engaging in deception and getting away with it, there’s a fourth explanation as to why lying may be helpful and often unpunished: Lies, told often enough and convincingly enough, can become the truth—sometimes with positive effects. That is because what people say, whether truthful or not, helps construct a social reality that then becomes real.
Why Leaders “Eat” First
Research shows that people are more likely to help those who are similar to them, even in trivial, unimportant, and random ways—a finding that suggests identifying and helping similar others is an almost automatic, mindless behavior. Some studies show that sharing even incidental and irrelevant similarities, such as birthdates, fingerprint patterns, or initials, increases the likelihood of an individual’s acceding to a request from another for help.
Leaders share little or nothing in common with those they lead. Leaders often travel on private planes, and they have staff who attend to their wishes with such diligence that leaders need to be careful about the casual remarks they make, as others may not take them casually and implement offhanded comments. Some companies still have executive dining rooms and reserved parking based on rank. All of these practices reduce not only shared experiences but also even incidental contact.
Particularly with the growing frequency of outside succession into leadership, including the CEO position, leaders share few experiences with the people they are leading. The new bosses may be from outside the industry and as a result share little common history or experience with the rank and file. Leaders appointed from the outside are, in fact, often strangers when they take on the leadership role, except possibly to the board members who hired them.
Research shows that leaders take credit for good company performance and attribute poor performance to environmental factors over which they have no control, to predecessors, to macroeconomic issues, or sometimes to other organizational interests, particularly frontline employees
So when senior leaders complain about the competitiveness problems stemming from high labor costs and excessive staffing, they are mostly referring to the costs of frontline salaries and the number of people actually doing the work.
Leaders who have come up through the ranks and have done many if not most of the organization’s jobs are much more likely to look out for the interests of those they lead because they have been there themselves. That is one plausible explanation for why, in general, leadership in the military is not just better but why senior military officers typically show a higher level of concern for the well-being of their people than do leaders in many companies. Military leaders come up through the ranks, so they once were in the positions of the people they lead, and therefore have much more empathy for and understanding of their subordinates. Outside succession, and particularly succession by industry outsiders with limited frontline experience, exacerbates the tendency for leaders to not give the interests and well-being of others much priority.
Fixing Leadership Failures: You Can Handle the Truth
If we want to change the world of work and leadership conduct in many workplaces, we need to act on what we know rather than what we wish and hope for. It is also imperative that we understand why we are stuck where we are.
- Stop Confusing the Normative with the Descriptive, and Focus More on What Is
- Watch Actions, Not Words
- Sometimes You Have to Behave Badly to Do Good
- Stop the Either-Or Thinking
- Forgive, but Remember
In the end, people can handle the truth, and the sooner they confront those truths, the better off everyone will be. And until then, everyone, not just leaders, but everyone, will have to keep working away, until we get it.