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.”

Communicating Meaning is Prerequisite to Good Leadership

There are nearly as many definitions for leadership now as there are examples of poor leaders. Attempting to define such a concept is a challenge for many reasons, not the least of which is determining what qualities your definition should be built upon. Some definitions, for example, play up the need for charisma, assertiveness, and organization (personal qualities) while other definitions might lend weight to relationships as the vehicle through which leadership is accomplished.

“What will distinguish effective leadership…is not just the dissemination of information; it will be the ability to communicate meaning and to translate that meaning into responsible, ethical action.”

Although my personal definition of leadership has evolved over the years, one quality has remained constant: communication. Originally, I think I included communication as a personal skill necessary for someone to become a good leader. That seems rather obvious: of course a leader will need to be able to communicate a vision to followers, communicate progress towards that vision, and communicate what still needs to be done to accomplish it. And that’s just one side to the communication coin – the other being a need to listen to followers. Furthermore, the act of listening need not be a purely physical act; it will also require attentiveness and concern.

Recently, the role of communication in my definition of leadership has grown. Reading the Washington Post’s On Leadership column, I came across an essay which I thought expressed my view on the importance of communication. In an April 9, 2010 column, Katherine Tyler Scott discussed some of the leadership challenges facing the Episcopal church. A board member of the International Leadership Association and a Managing Partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, Scott succinctly summarizes some of the major 21st century issues the Episcopal church is facing and adroitly seizes upon the tools they will need to succeed. She writes,

“What will distinguish effective leadership…is not just the dissemination of information; it will be the ability to communicate meaning and to translate that meaning into responsible, ethical action.”

Scott wisely emphasizes the primacy of communication not just as a technical act – an item to be checked off a list – but as a  methodology to effecting impactful leadership. Good leadership, then, is a state of being, a relationship in the strictest sense of the word, which is born out of shared meaning. This shared meaning is fostered by an individual (a leader) for the purpose of motivating a group to action.

A Social Media Autopsy: A Eulogy for Bebo

or, Bebo: A Cautionary Tale

I am convinced that the study/observation/analysis of social media has been, to date, simply a prologue. Social media has been the “new frontier” which none of us have experienced before. Thus, most theories regarding it have largely been bald suppositions. This is not a bad thing: it is how the study of all subjects evolve. First, blind ignorance. Next, awareness. After awareness, curiosity. After curiosity, relentless pursuit of knowledge. Throughout it all, answers – even if they aren’t the final answers.

And while our disposition towards a subject changes, it must change also. In order to facilitate proper examination, we must see our subject in all its phases. Consider medicine, for example. Consider yourself a medical student. Do you think you could glean all you need to know about the human body just from work with infants? Could you learn how to treat the feverish symptoms of an adult simply by examining the hiccups of a child? No. For medicine to arrive at where it is today, we have studied humans of all ages and varieties – but especially, we have studied corpses.

So, does it not hold that we would need social media corpses in order to study what factors determine “healthy” social media? If so, we need not wait much longer. While I’ll grant you that some social media corpses littered the internet more than a decade ago, I suspect there will be distinct differences between social media sites which were born and died in virtual anonymity (read: no media attention, very little public awareness) (pun intended), versus those which matured in the spotlight and then faltered or became titans.

In an April 8, 2010 CNN Tech column, Mashable‘s Pete Cashmore observes that Bebo – the social networking site which has found broad acceptance in the UK – might soon some crashing down. More important to us – as consumers and technorati – is why? He suggests that innovation is the key.

James Robinson of The GuardiansObserver column seems to agree. He points out that Bebo’s unique visitors have fallen 45% in the last year and asks, why? Why has Bebo lost traction while Facebook and Twitter have gained it? Ultimately, he agrees with Cashmore: Bebo simply failed to be creative, therefore, it faltered.

Darwinism is certainly at work on the internet and this is exemplary evidence of that. Innovate, it seems, or go the way of Bebo.

This is a good warning to be heeded by companies large and small who wishes to establish an impactful online presence. After all, as Robinson points out, one of the major challenges facing social networks is that they are subject (i.e. they have subjected themselves to) the fickle desires of the viewer. Nowhere is this more poignant, because on the internet your competitor – or some beckoning distraction – is only a mouse click away.

Hikikomori – a digital recluse?

In the March 15, 2010 edition of Newsweek, Devin Stewart reports that “the estimated number of hikikomori” is burgeoning. Hikikomori, as it turns out, is the Japanese term for “shut-ins who have given up on social life.”

Stewart seems to suggest that this is related to the miserable economy, where Japan’s massive debt has contributed to just 14% of respondents reported feeling confident in Japan’s direction, according to an Ipsos/Reuters poll cited by Stewart. But, what if the economy is just a single contributor among many? And what if hikikomori are cropping up across the globe and not just in Japan?

As I read Stewart’s brief column, I couldn’t help but remember a March 2007 essay published in Harper’s where I first encountered Internet Addiction (“I was a Chinese Internet Addict.”) That essay discussed the phenomenon, likely to be added to the DSM-5, in which individuals become so obsessed with the internet that they lose touch with reality (I’m dramatizing, but only slightly). What of the people who give up on physically social lives, and opt for solely (or predominantly) digital ones?

This bears keeping in mind. As social media develops and becomes more pervasive – as comprehensive connection to a digital world becomes more facile, what do we stand to lose?

Email Addiction. Side-effects: Stupidity.

Way back in aught 08 (September 2008), I wrote about the building evidence for Internet addiction. The March 2010 Entrepreneur brings us an article by Joe Robinson  (“Email is Making You Stupid“) which explores several aspects of technological addictions – including the harmful side-effects.

This article suggests that the burgeoning amount of emails, instant messages, tweets, and texts we receive  are becoming a harmful and prohibitive cacophony of hyper-communication. So why can’t people reduce the amount of messages they send (and receive)? Well, they could be addicted (“e-compulsion”). In such instances researchers notice decreased attention spans, increased stress, and decreased productivity (Alarming statistics! Read the article).

The most frightful thing to consider? What if what we’re doing – emailing about – day-to-day really impacts our life in the long-term? Robinson brings to light an argument by Winifred Gallagher, authored of Rapt, that “humans are the sum of what they pay attention to: What we focus on determines our experience, knowledge, amusement, fulfillment. Yet instead of cultivating this resource, she says, we’re squandering it on ‘whatever captures our awareness.’ To truly learn something, and remember it, you have to pay full attention.”

As noted by Robinson, it pays to pay attention to attention.

[Blog] carefully, for you [blog] on my [goods or services?]

Bloggers beware! According to guidelines published by the FTC in October 2009, writing about goods or services – personally or professionally – makes you a target for investigation by the FTC. Your spidey-sense should tingle especially if you have received free goods or services which you then write about – unless you disclaim your “material connection” to the vendor (Disclaimer: I have received these FTC guidelines free over the internet).

Note an example of a blogging “no-no” which the FTC provides:

“Assume…the consumer joins a network marketing program under which she periodically receives various products about which she can write reviews if she wants to do so. If she receives a free bag dog food through this program, her positive reviews would be considered an endorsement under the [new guidelines]” (60).

Does Google Make Us Stupid?

Does Google Make Us Stupid? Originally put forth by Nicholas Carr in the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic, this idea received a rebuttal one year later by Jamais Casico (“Get Smarter“) in that same publication. The next chapter in this debate is being written by experts responding to the Pew Research Center (“Does Google Make Us Stupid?“) – and the answer seems to be a resounding, “No.” 76% of respondents (internet experts) agreed that, “By 2020, people’s use of the internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid.”

Curiously, Janna Quitney Anderson and Lee Rainie, who authored the description of the survey, seemed to assume that just because experts suppose so, it will be true. To my eyes, Nicholas Carr isn’t wrong – yet. Only time will tell.

Capitalist 2.0

“80 to 90% of user-generated content on the web, including comments and questions, is created by less than 10% of web users,” according to Rubicon, a strategy and marketing consultancy [1]. The findings included in their most recent report must seem a breath of fresh air to  Jack Nielson, who predicted somewhat similar numbers two years ago [Link]. Together, these two models challenge the notion that material found online hardly represents society’s true sentiment, rather than just the views of a small number of energetic enthusiasts.