The Toxic Tandem in Leadership

“Followers look a the leader; the opposite does not happen as regularly or intensely.”

The above is from Good Boss, Bad Boss. It’s a quote by anthropologists that study group dynamics among chimpanzees, gorillas, and baboons. These species are unique in that they have a set power structure. They have alpha males and leaders among their ranks.

Anthropologists studying these groups noticed something unique:

Studies of baboon troops show that a typical member glances at the alpha male every twenty or thirty seconds.

Followers revere the leader of their group, assembling cues on how they should think, feel, and act. Psychologist Susan Fiske elaborates on why this might be the case:

In an effort to predict and possibly influence what is going to happen to them, people gather information about those with power.

This makes sense. If someone has even a small stake in your future, it’s in your best interest to understand how they think and respond in specific situations.

This wouldn’t be a problem if leaders were always conscious it was happening and acted accordingly. But, that’s not always the case. There’s plenty of evidence that power warps the awareness, thoughts, and attitudes of those that have it*.

The overarching themes are laid out in Good Boss, Bad Boss. Leaders tend to:

  1. become more focused on their own needs and wants
  2. become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions
  3. act as if written and unwritten rules others are expected to follow don’t apply to them

The “toxic tandem” is this: Leaders are under intense scrutiny from those around them yet their position often results in self-serving behavior.

So, what should we do about it? Five ideas:

  1. Mind the little things because they make a big difference. Be aware that your reactions and words are studied closely.
  2. Find a canary. Your canary is a close confidant that will call you out when you’re acting like a self-serving prick. They’ll give you the honest answers when you need them. Canaries provide useful “gut checks” when you’re unsure how to proceed.
  3. Make concerted efforts to close the gap. The “gap” in this case is between your role and the roles of those you lead. Do this through shadowing, regular one on ones, and jumping in the weeds yourself when necessary.
  4. Build in a habit of reflection. Create a scorecard to represent the model team member. Then, hold yourself to that standard and grade yourself each week. Better yet, do it in public. Try to close the gap more and more each week.
  5. Balance performance and humanity. Performance examines whether team members are delivering results that meet or exceed expectations. Humanity looks at the more personal aspects of that work (i.e. Is this work bringing happiness and fulfillment?). Assholes focus on the former and care little about the latter.

*For two studies in particular, you can check out the Stanford Prison experiment and the Cookie Monster study (my personal fave).