It is the second week of February and I have, through a heartless trifecta of sickness, icy roads, and federal holidays, been forced into a five-day weekend with my nearest and dearest. It is the perfect backdrop for my post today. I am witnessing first hand the way one influential person has the ability to create a snowball effect that can raise or lower the qualitative energy of the environment and shape the behavior of the people in it. Say I wake up on the wrong side of the bed and snap at my loquacious early riser, who then needles his brother, who surreptitiously pokes his sister in the eye. In the span of a minute, the house is filled with bad juju and everyone is prickly. Luckily we are trapped inside with only each other to torment.
Because worse yet is seeing this same scenario play out in the macrocosm of the workplace – and I see this, too, far too often. A cold, critical leader snarls and pounds his fist in a meeting with his executive team, who scamper out and attempt to drive their own team members through fear, who respond by guarding their turf and micromanaging their direct reports. Their people in turn pull back, disconnect; they don’t go the extra mile for the customer, they don’t feel safe offering an innovative idea. One cranky leader can lead to an entire culture of miserable creatures, not to mention quashed customer opportunities and diminished results. To say that a bad attitude can be viral isn’t just a funny saying – it is all too real. Transient moods are contagious, but so are dysfunctional behavior and unpleasant dispositions – these become toxic cultures.
How individual leaders behave really matters. Demonstrating empathy and concern for people doesn’t just make a nice place to work, it creates a positive culture that has a multitude of downstream effects that impact the bottom line. Unfortunately, what makes someone emerge as a leader is not the same as what makes them effective leaders. Many of the attributes that lead a leader to rise to the top – intelligence, dominance, and confidence – do not go hand in hand with these subtler interpersonal skills. Further, we now have evidence that simply being in a position of power decreases a person’s empathy – power truly does have the potential to corrupt. These are twin dangers that need to be acknowledged and addressed. Because while these leaders can get results in the short-term, and maybe even the medium-term, ultimately they will not be able to create an organization that is sustainable in the long-term. This assertion is reflected in the Hogan’s “dark side” tool – the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), which was developed based on the notion that it is not the absence of strengths/skills that lead to leader derailment, but rather the presence of dysfunctional behaviors, which can be understood and coached on. The Hogans themselves argue a moral purpose for the development of this assessment instrument, because of the enormous impact bad leaders and managers have on the wellbeing of employees.
So leaders: be mindful of what you project and emote into the workplace. It amplifies and accretes and has a more far-flung impact than you would likely predict. A leadership position is like a lens or a prism that focuses, strengthens, and disperses your behavior and emotions. If your less ideal personality peccadillos shine through in your role, their impact will be felt acutely and broadly. We need to also remember that what got us where we are is not necessarily what will keep us there or help us be successful, and continual development is critical for all of us. Leaders have a unique impact on the people in their organization and need to be especially cognizant of that fact. Humility, empathy, compassion – these are not weaknesses. These are true leadership qualities that create a sustainable culture and promote an engaged workforce.
“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” –Mahatma Gandhi
“He who has great power should use it lightly.” –Seneca
“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” –John Rohn
“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.” –Dwight Eisenhower