Requisite to Good Leadership: Holding Your Leaders Accountable

In 2008 the popular television show How I Met Your Mother put forth “The Pyramid of Screaming” as a model for explaining where some of our frustration and come from – and where it can go to. The concept, detailed thoroughly in The Bro Code (a humorous read, highly recommended), essentially explains the process in which our bosses yell at us and, out of a need to ease our own frustration, we then yell at someone lower on our personal totem pole: whether it be a hapless employee lower in the office hierarchy or a family member.

How I Met Your Mother

While The Pyramid of Screaming was meant as entertainment, it has an obvious foundation in reality: when we feel that someone has yelled at us unjustly, we have a predilection for passing on that frustration to someone easily within our power. It isn’t a nice human quality, but examples of it are abundant. This habit, of course, speaks to something larger: a dissatisfaction with our ‘superiors.’  We are much more likely to feel maligned – that is, unjustly admonished – if we don’t respect the figure performing the act, or his/her position.

With skepticism about someone’s right to admonish us as pervasive as it is, it begs the question whether there is something intrinsically wrong with us (the followers) or them (the leaders)? Are we terrible followers or are they terrible leaders?

Some recent studies suggest what many of us have long suspected: that many of our leaders are not as advertised. Specifically, there is nascent evidence which suggests that – by virtue of their leadership roles – our bosses have increased capacities to fake their own competence and to lie.

As reported by Jeffrey Kluger at Time, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley subjected a number of groups to a series of exercises. After each, participants were asked to rate their fellows on specific qualities. Almost without fail, participants gave higher marks to individuals who spoke out more often and more loudly, whether or not what they said had any merit. In short, the participants demonstrated a tendencies to view someone as a leader based on how confident or competent they made themselves appear.

A study with similar experiences was detailed by the Harvard Business Review just this month. In it, Dana Carney divided participants into two distinct roles: either bosses or employees. They were subsequently given instructions to follow which involved lying to an interviewer. Participants were then studied to see how they dealt with certain biological and psychological results of lying. In Carney’s words,

“Just as kids don’t touch a stove once they learn it burns them, people don’t like to lie because it hurts them emotionally and physiologically. These data suggest that powerful individuals—CEOs, portfolio managers, politicians, elite athletes—don’t get burned when they touch the figurative stove. They seem to be more physiologically “prepared” to lie, which could lead to their lying more often.”

“Just as kids don’t touch a stove once they learn it burns them, people don’t like to lie because it hurts them emotionally and physiologically. These data suggest that powerful individuals—CEOs, portfolio managers, politicians, elite athletes—don’t get burned when they touch the figurative stove. They seem to be more physiologically “prepared” to lie, which could lead to their lying more often.”

After perusing these studies, it is easy to feel some angst towards people in all positions of power. But is that justified? Ask yourself these questions:

1) Who is to blame for this state of affairs?

2) Who can fix it?

The answer to both questions, of course, is “You” – the Everyman of American organizational culture. In a follower role, it is easy to persuade yourself to think you have less responsibility for your organization’s success. But that’s preposterous – followers have just as much responsibility for being good shepherds of their organization as their bosses do. You really are your bosses’ keeper. As Warren Bennis said:

“If I had to reduce the responsibilities of a good follower to a single rule, it would be to speak truth to power.”

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