Leaders are viewed critically, constantly observed and qualified. In the process, they rarely come off well, at least in the public, media portrayal. But is this positioning really accurate? Is the positive effect of leaders systematically downplayed? And what does all this have to do with you?
I was startled by the NZZ article “Why are so many bosses lunatics and psychopaths?”. There, basic character traits are derived from individual examples and it is shown “how superiors plague their employees”. The author even claims that leaders are basically more narcissistically inclined and prefer to assert their claims in an intriguing, exposing and condescending manner. This behavior is, in particular, a reaction to the inclusion efforts in companies: Power is no longer allowed to show itself openly and must therefore be exercised more or less from behind the scenes.
So I ask you: Are superiors systematic character lumps? Do you behave like a lunatic? And how many (other) psychopaths do you know?
Regardless of the level of craftsmanship of the mentioned article, one has to wonder if these claims are actually true and if not (or not to the extent), why such an opinion about leaders exists anyway. Cui bono?
Possible answers are offered by the article in “Die Zeit,” which, with the University of Groningen in the aftermath of Covid-19, explored the question of whether we humans tend to behave more selfishly or more altruistically in crises. The short answer: it depends on what is played to us every day - and that is precisely why there is hope of influencing the publicly colocated opinion about superiors. But let’s take it one step at a time.
What actually shapes our perception of leaders?
Our opinion about the basic behavior of leaders is not shaped by sober observation, but above all by our emotional charge of what we observe. And this charge is in turn determined by our thoughts and interpretations.
Or the other way around: Our thoughts (G) influence our emotions (E) - and NOT vice versa! - and these drive our behavior (V), which leads to certain results (R). Two important insights can be spontaneously gleaned from this. First, we are not helplessly at the mercy of our emotions and can direct them by learning to think differently about situations. Second, by systematically reflecting on what I have experienced, I can develop and come to different (better) results.
Thus, reporting on leaders not only shapes our thoughts, but also our emotional evaluation as well as our basic expectation about leadership behavior.
Thus, in the context of the aforementioned survey on whether people tend to behave more selfishly or more altruistically in crises, media coverage was also evaluated. It turned out that egoistic behavior was mentioned more frequently and extensively in the media than altruistic behavior - even if the volume of events alone clearly shows that we do indeed behave altruistically in crises.
Now I don’t want to accuse the media of lying here. But media reporting should always be understood as a product that is designed according to economic criteria, i.e. that seeks to satisfy buyer needs. And since experience shows that negative reports sell better, objective, diversified (positive?) reporting suffers as a result - as the survey mentioned above shows, for example.
This distorts our perception, our image of leadership - and not only our current image, but also our fundamental expectation of how leaders behave. For example, it became clear in the survey that the distorted image leads us to expect (and prepare for) more selfish behavior from our neighbors. So even when we experience “good” leadership behavior, we understand it to be the exception because the rule is portrayed to us differently.
Whether we experience “so many bosses as lunatics or psychopaths” depends largely on how we consume, question, and process information about leadership behavior. This is a task we should approach not only from a personal perspective, but also from a societal one: There is a shortage of skilled workers everywhere; employees today set the conditions under which they want to work. They experience criticism and inquiry as tedious, positive feedback as the rule.
What expectations are placed on leaders?
Is it possible that the basic exercise of leadership (e.g. shaping) is interpreted as interfering, restricting or influencing and is therefore unpleasant? If so, we would have to assume that younger employees in particular have grown up in a sheltered, all-enabling and all-permitting - i.e. positively distorting - environment. (PS: This is also something the media report on extensively in connection with the generational shift). Then, superiors who expect performance and personal responsibility, who demand, who are not immediately satisfied, are not people you want to surround yourself with. Interactions with leaders are then not considered digestible.
However, if negative biased reporting ensures that leaders are expected to behave in a fundamentally bad way, and (younger) employees are expected to be overly demanding, then it becomes difficult for both parties to meet on a constructive, productive level. One party always has the impression of being taken to the cleaners, of deserving better.
Is there a way out in sight?
In my view, there is only one approach here: constant, value-creating dialogue. Only a constant, continuous and consistent exchange creates mutual trust and also familiarity. Both promote reflection and thus our emotional attitude towards each other and ultimately our behavior (cooperation, support, integration, …) - as shown in the graphic above. And this exchange should not only take place regularly (and by that I mean at least monthly), but precisely in a value-creating way. This can be translated as clarifying, helpful, moving.
Basically, my point in this article is that leaders should also talk consistently about leadership successes, about positive experiences. This is the only way to counter the media headwind. I know neither crazy nor psychopathic leaders. Nor do I hear any stories about them. I do not deny that not all of them cope equally well with the current environment and its developments, or that they are not fluffy (enough). But I find it exaggerated and dangerous to attribute character weaknesses to leaders. And above all, it is unfair to all those leaders who work hard every day so that employees can flourish, are given opportunities, so that crunchy challenges can be solved together.
So: Cui bono of negative opinion about leaders? Neither you nor me. Neither employees nor leaders. Neither transparency nor quality. It is the information trader alone. So we all need to consistently talk about positive examples. And every day. Let’s trade information too!