Whether leaders put themselves on a pedestal or the employees who work for them do, the pedestal is a wobbly place to be especially when the ground shakes beneath it.
I recently interviewed for a position in our Executive Leadership Development organization. The interviewer, a person I’ve known for some time and greatly respect, had some of the best interview questions I’ve come across.
One question which resonated with me:
“If you could sprinkle magic dust over our leaders to change a perception or the way they do things, what would that be?”
The Faux Pedestal
In previous positions, I worked closely with technical assistants or directly with the executive. What I found most interesting was that in many cases, employees feared these executives or put them on an unrealistic pedestal.
I also discovered that an executive’s technical assistant could be much more demanding than the executive would have condoned. Leaders cannot be successful unless the people they lead respect and trust them.
Fear rarely triumphs.
Jim Collins outlines the issue when leaders care about themselves more than the institutions they are responsible for in his article The Misguided Mix-Up of Celebrity and Leadership.
A Most Respected Leader
The best memory of my favorite, most respected executive was the leader of the sales and marketing organization, we’ll call him Shane. I had taken over a highly visible position running our largest internal conference.
I was quite nervous to actually hold a meeting with him the first time. I thought it odd that everyone was waiting patiently outside of the conference room when the clock struck 2:00pm.
Then I realized we had to “wait” until Shane invited us in.
One of the meeting attendees came up to me nervously and said “I promise I won’t speak. I know that you aren’t supposed to speak, especially when Shane is thinking.”
My first thought was to run for the exit door.
A Better Approach
Was this exemplifying the “open door” culture my company embraced? During the meeting while waiting for the thinking process to happen, I did not get the critical decisions I needed to move forward. So my initial reaction after the meeting was that this standard approach was not going to work going forward.
Needless to say for subsequent meetings:
- I entered the room at the time the meeting was to start.
- I led the conversation to ensure the critical decisions were made.
- I didn’t stress about the order of slides but focused on the context.
- I was also very selective about having groupies not in attendance.
This created an environment of trust built around the conversation. This approach allowed me to get what I needed and what Shane needed to make the necessary data driven decisions. The two-year relationship was one of the best I have had with a great leader.
I am always amazed how employees still hold Shane on a pedestal he never put himself on.
He is the most “real” leader I’ve ever met.
It is a shame that others don’t get the opportunity to get past the celebrity persona.
Acting Like Drunken Kings
Unfortunately all of our executive leaders are not like Shane.
- I have dealt with leaders who demand special treatment even though it goes against our company culture.
- I have seen leaders dismiss the “peasants.”
- I encountered one leader whose entourage walked around introducing themselves as “I’m John, I work for Mike”. “I’m Chris, I work for Mike.”
Apparently I hadn’t had the privilege of drinking the “Mike Koolaid.”
In many cases regardless of a leader’s inappropriate pedestal, employees are still spellbound. In many cases for those who see through the ego and acts of greatness, the disappointment and de-motivation comes at a high cost that the leader doesn’t even realize.
The key lessons on the Pedestal Phenomena:
- Get off the pedestal, it doesn’t benefit anyone including you
- Be real. If most employees knew leaders for the people they really are as human beings, the respect and output from the employees would be much higher
- Make sure the ego doesn’t trump the cultural expectations of the ranks
- Leaders need to be involved, human and respectful. Remember “it takes a village” to run a company. Every employee plays a role.
- Don’t forget your roots. Unless you are royalty, most aren’t born into a leadership role; they all started somewhere and earned their role to lead others.