The Icarus Paradox

A Kellogg School of Management study underscores that the more flattery we receive, the more we allow our self-impressions to be inflated. According to this study, this holds true for CEOs and constitutes “the Icarus Paradox:”

  • “’What we are saying,’” Stern explains, ‘is that with CEO status, the greater the status, the more flattery and opinion conformity will be directed towards the CEO. And the more flattery and opinion conformity directed at the CEO, the greater the CEO’s self-enhancement.'”
  • “The results showed that CEOs subject to flattery were more likely to believe themselves to be better leaders and more adept at strategy. Firm performance data, however, did not bear that out. Firms with flattered CEOs were less likely to change strategy when company performance dipped.”
  • Stern and his colleagues call this the “Icarus Paradox.” “The high levels of flattery and opinion conformity that high-status CEOs receive can foster self-enhancing cognitions that lead them to become over-confident in their strategic decisions and in their ability to correct performance problems with the current strategy,” the authors write.

From, “Flattery’s Dark Side – Why you may want to consider how much you compliment.”

Promoting Women (Promoting Themselves)

Women are not promoted as frequently or as far as men are. How much of this is attributable to circumstance, prejudice, or women’s preference?

“Women who are offered promotions ‘generally feel they need to know 80% to 90% of their current job before they feel ready to step up into a new role,’ she says. But if you are smart and knowledgeable, “probably somewhere closer to 40% to 50%” is all that you need. Men, on the other hand, feel no such constraints.”

“The Journal report was based on the comments of a task force set up to study the obstacles that women continue to face in the workplace. According to a McKinsey study quoted in the article, women get 53% of entry level jobs and ‘make it to ‘the belly of the beast’ in large numbers.’ But then ‘female presence’ drops sharply, ‘to 35% at the director level, 24% among senior vice presidents and 19% in the C-suite.'”

From, Do Women Shy Away From Promotions?

Managers shouldn’t know it all

Moral: If you know everything going on in your team, you are an obstacle – and you’re likely taking up valuable time which your team could be spending on producing in a more innovative way or at a higher quality, but instead they’re reporting on the humdrum to you.


“Do [you] know everything happening on [your] team?”

“Well, you shouldn’t. If you know everything happening on your team, you are likely too involved and stifling innovation. As long as a team has a clearly understood vision, empowered team members will consistently solve problems in unexpected ways.”

“An effective leader is constantly surprised but rarely stunned. Being surprised means you see solutions not of your own doing; being stunned means something happened that is out of alignment with the team vision. If you are not surprised regularly by your team, reaffirm the vision and back off” [1].


  1. Bill Tolany. “3 quick questions to help leaders get out of the way,” SmartBlog on Leadership. March 27, 2012.

For managers: Indispensable to a meeting? Cancel it.

Moral: Indicate you value others’ time by not holding meetings which are mostly or entirely for your benefit.

“Go through your calendar. If you find a group meeting that is solely for your benefit, cancel it. This will signal to your team members that you value their time and that they should value it, too. If you aren’t sure about the meeting’s value, announce that you are going to miss it once and see what happens. If the meeting doesn’t take place, you have your answer” [1].

I’d only suggest two alterations (dare I say, improvements) to this insight:

  1. This holds true more, I think, for managers than individual contributors.
  2. This holds true more, I think, when the team in question is stocked with talented team members with expertise and/or initiative and common sense. But, if you hire right (like Netflix seems to), this wisdom should prove golden.


  1. Bill Tolany. “3 quick questions to help leaders get out of the way,” SmartBlog on Leadership. March 27, 2012.
  2. Reed Hastings. “Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility.” August 1, 2009. (PDF)



Terrorism Steeped in Tao?

Back in November of 2009, I recounted my befuddlement by the perspective that al Qaeda is inherently weak because it utilizes a strategy of ‘leaderless resistance.’ The government advisor who expressed this view seemed to think that because al Qaeda cells did not have leaders following the Great Man archetype, boldly marching on the field of public consciousness, that they were weak and easily eliminated.

On the contrary, I mused. Perhaps these terrorist cells have selected a strategy of great strength and endurance. After all, as Lao Tzu said,

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him… But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.'”

A 2009 analysis published in Security Studies, which the aforementioned government advisor must have missed, seems to support my view that this strategy of ‘leaderless resistance’ may be stronger than it appears to the casual observer. This article, by Jenna Jordan and aptly titled “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation,” states that

“despite a tremendous amount of optimism toward the success of [leadership] decapitation, there is very little evidence on whether and when removing leaders will result in organizational collapse.”

In fact, Jordan goes on to say,

“The marginal utility for [leadership] decapitation is actually negative. Groups that have not had their leaders targeted have a higher rate of decline than groups whose leaders have been removed. [Leadership] decapitation is actually counterproductive particularly for larger, older, religious or separatist organizations.”

Perhaps, anticipating the incredibly predictable strategy of eliminating the ‘man at the top’, al Qaeda took heed of some ancient Tao wisdom and integrated it into their organizational culture.

If only Taoism was more widely (and thoroughly) followed.

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.”