Category Archives: Politics

When Leaders Insulate: The Dangers of Corrosive Privilege

I recently read a fascinating article by Rebecca Solnit on how being born to privilege has had a corrosive effect on Donald Trump and his presidency. She discusses the ways an individual raised in a protected bubble of wealth and power becomes isolated from the rest of the world. After reading Solnit’s piece, it’s evident that the trappings she associates with Trump can become obstacles for all leaders. Here are three lessons that sound out:

Setbacks

We gain awareness of ourselves and others from setbacks and difficulties; we get used to a world that is not always about us.—Rebecca Solnit

There is a mentality amongst some leaders that acknowledging failure is a weakness. As a result, they shift responsibility (i.e. blame others) so they are no longer accountable, artificially reframe setbacks as new opportunities, and/or outright change the end-goal so the outcome can now be viewed as a win.

While “not failing” may feel good, it is a false sense of satisfaction. Leaders must build the thick skin necessary to accept and learn from disappointment without carrying the weight of feeling like a failure. Otherwise we risk becoming overly sensitive and brittle, unequipped to make the adjustments necessary to rebound and adapt.

As leaders, we must also allow others to fail. Solnit writes of rich college kids who are not allowed to fail because their parents “[keep] throwing out safety nets and buffers” that protect them from experiencing adversity. As nice as this may sound, when we live without consequences, our lives become inconsequential—we cannot feel the highs of achievement without also having faced the lows of failure.

Self-Reflection

Power corrupts, and absolute power often corrupts the awareness of those who possess it.—Rebecca Solnit

In Hannah Arendt’s book On the Origins of Totalitarianism, she promotes the need for an inner dialogue where we can cross-examine ourselves, where we can ask the difficult questions. If we can master this skill, we are better equipped to have these discussions with the people around us. If we lack the ability to self-interrogate, we are prone to suffer from, what Arendt calls, the banality of evil, i.e. “the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself, or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.”

Obliviousness

Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society.—Rebecca Solnit

We need people in our lives who have the ability to provide unfiltered commentary. These individuals cannot be fearful of repercussions, nor can they hold back in the hopes of gaining some type of advantage. They must be willing to give it to us straight and we must be open to what they are saying. Otherwise, we risk becoming oblivious.

Obliviousness is not a sign of low intelligence, but an indication that the leader is sequestered from information that runs counter to their viewpoint. It tends to happen over time as we weed out those who are the bearers of bad news, those who are perceived as not being “on board,” and those who are damaging our precious self-esteem with their critique. Before we know it, we are surrounded by yes-men and sycophants who tell us what we want to hear versus what we need to hear. In the end, not only are we alone, but their biased feedback has infected us with delusional thinking, faulty decision making, and a general lack of insight into how our team and the population-at-large are feeling.

Being in a position of power can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to. Leaders must seek and foster relationships outside of their power structure. Our associates keep us honest. They ensure we remain grounded and in touch with reality. And they provide the feedback, criticism, and advice that, while not preferable, is essential to avoiding the impairments of corrosive privilege.

Presidential Hubris: How Narcissism Influences Leadership

Imagine a world were the President of the United States uses the office to do whatever he wants. Whether he’s sacrificing the truth, ignoring basic ethics, indulging in harmful measures of entitlement, or abusing underlings and colleagues, we are all treated as pawns on his ascent into power. Of course, I’m referring to Frank Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards (why, who did you think I was talking about?).

In Frank Underwood’s time on television, he has been diagnosed with numerous psychological disorders. One that seems fitting for today’s political climate are his narcissistic tendencies.

Narcissism involves excessive self-aggrandizement, a grandiose view of one’s talents and achievements, and a preoccupation with fantasies of power. These predilections result in extreme selfishness and a shallowness of emotion where the individual maintains a strong distain towards criticism, is unwilling to compromise, and is over-reliant on the need for praise (as a note, we’re still discussing President Underwood).

The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties – never regret.—Frank Underwood

The indicators of narcissism are often confused with those of self-esteem. Jean Twenge, a professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, makes the distinction that while people high in self-esteem value individual achievement, they also value their relationships. Narcissists, on the other hand, are “missing that piece about valuing, caring and their relationships, so they tend to lack empathy, they have poor relationship skills.” They are likewise linked to materialism and a greater focus on money, fame, and image.

If narcissism sounds like a leadership style you would enjoy, the research is clear that it is ineffective. One study I read on Knowtro found that narcissism decreases task performance by almost 10%. According to the authors, these behaviors have a significantly negative impact on core job responsibilities, team performance, and promotions. Another study concluded that narcissism increases workplace deviance by up to 24%.

But, you may be thinking, aren’t most CEOs associated with being narcissistic? The short answer is, “No.” Sure, there have been articles written about particular individuals, but research does not support the argument that the majority of CEOs are any more self-centered then the rest of us. In fact, the Center for Executive Succession found that only 5% of leaders can be classified as narcissists. At the same time, 60% were described as being high in humility. For you math folks, this means CEOs were 12 times more likely to be humble than narcissistic.

The American people don’t know what’s best for them…I do.—Frank Underwood

Now that we’ve determined how narcissism is 1) not desirable and 2) not a component of success, it’s time for the difficult question: Are you a narcissist? As a hint, if you are offended by my merely asking the question, you are in danger. Those leaning towards narcissism are reluctant to admit they may have such a flaw, as doing so would conflict with their self-image of perfection.

To gain a more unbiased perspective of ourselves, psychiatrist and author Mark Goulston has a quick self-assessment. Called the Narcissist Inventory, answer the ten questions below using a 1-3 scale (1 = rarely; 2 = sometimes; 3 = frequently):

  1. How often does the person need to be right at all costs?
  2. How often does the person act impatient with you for no good reason?
  3. How often does the person interrupt you in the middle of what you’re saying, and yet take offense if you interrupt?
  4. How often does the person expect you to drop whatever you’re thinking about and listen to him or her — and does the person take offense when you expect the same in return?
  5. How often does the person talk more than he or she listens?
  6. How often does the person say “Yes, but,” “That’s not true,” “No,” “However,” or “Your problem is”?
  7. How often does the person resist and resent doing something that matters to you, just because it’s inconvenient?
  8. How often does the person expect you to cheerfully do something that’s inconvenient for you?
  9. How often does the person expect you to accept behavior that he or she would refuse to accept from you?
  10. How often does the person fail to say “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” “Congratulations,” or “Excuse me” when it’s called for?

To score your inventory, add up the total:

10-16 = The person is cooperative

17-23 = The person is argumentative

24-30 = The person is a narcissist

The President (Underwood, obviously) is unable to feel sympathy, remorse, or a genuine connection to others. His thirst for power is too overwhelming to allow such interference. And I doubt he’s interested in or able to change. We don’t have to be stuck is such a caustic trap as the President (still Underwood). There may be instances where we demonstrate a few narcissist traits, but this does not make us narcissist. What matters more is that we remain vigilantly aware of these tendencies so we can identify them before they influence our decision making and wreak havoc on our reputation. It’s the difference between suffering the inevitably bleak fate of Frank Underwood and being a real life leader.

Insults and the Insulting Leaders Who Use Them

I recently read an article on foreignpolicy.com discussing how the media and U.S. policymakers commonly depict North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as irrational. The piece explains the current state of affairs from Kim’s point of view and provides historical reasons that may validate his behaviors. While I’m certainly not condoning Kim, it does remind me of the power in diplomacy.

Many U.S. politicians have verbally assaulted North Korea over the years. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said, “We are not dealing with a rational person, who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly” and President George W. Bush labeled them as part of an “Axis of Evil.” My question is why you would want to insult someone with whom you’d like to build a constructive relationship?

This isn’t the first time I’ve considered this. I remember when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi continuously insulted Republicans while she was concurrently trying to gather votes for the Affordable Care Act. Or when a Congressman shouted “You lie” to President Obama during a joint session address. Or when a Democratic Congresswoman called her Republican colleague a “Howdy Doody-looking nimrod” during a budget debate. You could even go back to when Theodore Roosevelt disagreed with then President Benjamin Harrison calling him “a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.”

In each of these cases, one politician was in the process of garnering support for his/her legislation; and in each case, they allowed productive debate to be disrupted by empty slurs…and they were empty. There was no substantive argument or strategic need for discord. It was frustration, pure and simple, boiling over in ineffective ways.

In the newspapers, we see this [politician] insulting that one, that one says this about the other one, but in a society where the standards of politics has fallen so much – I am talking about world society – we lose the sense of building society, of social co-existence, and social co-existence is built on dialogue.—Pope Francis

Now I am not so naïve as to argue for kumbaya-like unity, nor am I compelling you to admire your rival, but insults are not the pathway to results. Even President Trump on occasion (very rare occasion) has recognized the destructive nature of insults:

We don’t need to like the other person or agree with their point of view. We do, however, need to find ways in which to support a culture of mutual respect where work can get done with all affected parties. This, if nothing else, is a core responsibility of a leader.

As leaders, we must be focused on getting things done. This sometimes entails swallowing your spiteful thoughts in the pursuit of progress. You cannot bring people together if you’ve already alienated them and their ideas. It does not mean you should pretend to be in accord; just that you can be nice.

Don’t let pettiness distract from your ability to influence. In the midst of intense discord, feelings are raw and people tend to act out, but this does not excuse impolite behavior. Find an outlet for your resentment, but also find the right time and do it in a way that will not sabotage your deal. With practice, who knows, maybe you’ll even win them over to your side.

How ‘Fake News’ Damages Your Company and What You Can Do About It

Since the election, the idea of “fake news” has been prominently debated. Whether from willful blindness or a general sense of gullibility, stories that appear real have spread throughout social media…but this is not a new phenomenon.

200 years ago it was reported that after cutting down a cherry tree, a six year old George Washington guiltily told his father, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” Similarly, Paul Revere didn’t ride through the streets of Concord, Massachusetts yelling, “The British are coming” and Isaac Newton did not discover gravity when an apple fell on his head.

While these stories are technically fake news, they are distinguished from today’s fake news in their intent. When Mason Locke Weems penned the cherry tree tale in 1806, he was trying to illustrate Washington’s virtue so as to inspire young Americans to emulate him. Elias Phinney relayed Revere’s ride as an act of patriotism. And John Conduitt used Newton’s apple story as a metaphor so the less educated could understand the concept of gravity.

The fake news in our current political climate is more in the vein of Marie Antoinette’s, “Let them eat cake.” This quote was inaccurately attributed to Antoinette when a French Revolutionary anti-establishment pamphlet distributed it as a cartoon. In publishing such an untruth, the author was not trying to generate a metaphorical narrative; rather he was seeking to fuel the insurrection and overthrow of the French government.

As Antoinette can attest, fake news is inherently destructive in nature. Whether it’s from protesters or government leaders, these stories have no purpose but to disparage those with opposing views, stoke irrational fears, and spread falsehoods. There is no way to rationalize it; if an argument is well-intentioned, the truth should be sufficient to convince the masses. If it’s not, you need a better argument.

Consider how your company reacts when a malicious rumor is started. These localized fake news stories have long lasting negative ramifications on your team. Not only are they distracting, but the fabrications harm reputations, working relationships, and the overall culture. This then affects performance, productivity, and the bottom line.

There are two action items we can learn here. One, we need to do a better job identifying and quashing fake news. If you think this sounds easy, think again. A recent Stanford study found that students cannot determine fake news from real news. This lack of critical thinking is particularly alarming considering their nonstop media consumption. Participants had a hard time distinguishing advertisements from news articles and were unable to identify where information came from. In addition, more than 80% believed a native ad identified with the words “sponsored content” was a real news story AND only 25% recognized and were able to explain the differences between a verified Twitter account and one that simply looked legitimate.

This finding indicates that students may focus more on the content of social media posts than on their sources. Despite their fluency with social media, many students are unaware of basic conventions for indicating verified digital information.—Sam Wineburg & Sarah McGrew

The second action item is that as leaders we must take responsibility for this fakery within our organizations. This begins with educating those on our team to be discernable absorbers of information. When new information is presented, teach them to evaluate it based on the following questions:

  1. Do you know the source? Is he/she reliable and trustworthy?
  2. Can you verify the information?
  3. How does it measure up to what you already know?
  4. Does it make (common) sense?
  5. Do you understand the complexity of the information?
  6. Do you understand the context of the information?
  7. What biases do you have that could affect how you interpret the information?
  8. Have subject matter experts corroborated the information? What about the company’s executive team?
  9. How current is the information?
  10. What is the intent of the person disseminating the information?

Fake news is an epidemic. Thankfully, you are in a position to be the Senior Editor of your organization’s “news” outlet. When fake news stories arise, no matter how trivial, report the truth. Don’t allow even one minor fib to become part of the dialogue. The more you practice this, the more fact-checking will become engrained in your culture.

Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth: Part 3—Deceiving with Fact-based Lies

Check out Part 1 of this series where we discuss the logical fallacy of believing you are entitled to your opinion and Part 2 involving the destruction nature of alternative facts (lies).

We’ve been talking about the deceptive nature of alternative facts (i.e. lies) and their effects on the workplace; however, there are many practices beyond lies that can have equally destructive results. One of the most common is paltering.

While a lie entails either the active use of false statements (lying by commission) or holding back relevant information (lying by omission), paltering involves the use of truthful statements to influence someone’s beliefs by giving a false or distorted impression. For example, let’s say you are asked about a prior lawsuit where your company was charged with housing discrimination. You can lie, you can change the topic, or you can palter like Trump in the September 26th presidential debate:

We, along with many, many, many other companies, throughout the country—it was a federal lawsuit—were sued. We settled the suit with zero—no admission of guilt. It was very easy to do. But they sued many people.

Trump’s response is technically a truthful statement in that he did settle the suit and he did not admit guilt; however, it presents a misleading sense of innocence. In reality, Trump signed a consent decree, which included “pages of stipulations intended to ensure the desegregation of Trump properties.” And while many companies have been sued for housing discrimination, this lawsuit was 1) “squarely aimed” at Trump and 2) his company was the only one sued at that particular time.

Trump has shown that stating the aggregate truth is not one of his more predominant traits, though let’s not get too sanctimonious about our own ability to be honest. Research finds that on average, people tell one to two lies a day, most often to family members, friends, and work colleagues. These tend to be harmless white lies, but they are lies. Leaders are no different.

I’ll go into my inbox and look at an email I was supposed to reply to weeks ago. And I’ll look out the window and think about it for a few seconds, and then write, ‘I’ve been thinking about your email.’ I’m clearly creating the impression that I’ve been thinking this over for the last three weeks, when in truth I’ve been thinking about it for the last second and a half. I’m creating a false impression by telling truthful things—but yet it doesn’t feel as unethical as lying.—Todd Rogers, associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School

Leaders report paltering as often as they lie by omission and more often than they lie by commission. In the study, 52% stated they palter in some or most of their negotiations, whereas 21% said they lie by commission. When asked why, participants felt that paltering is more ethically acceptable than lying (by commission and by omission).

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology went even further to say that most people who palter see nothing wrong with it. According to co-author Francesca Gino, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, “People seem to be using this strategy because in their minds, they’re telling the truth, so they think they’re being honest.” In some cases, the leader even shifts responsibility to the audience for believing what the leader said; judging the audience for not paying closer attention to what exactly was articulated.

While these leaders may erroneously take the moral high ground, that does not change the damage paltering is doing to their reputation and relationships. In the aforementioned study, they often benefit in the short term, but when the deception is exposed the recipients of paltering feel misled, code the individual as a liar, and are less likely to work with them again.

Avoid the repercussions of truth-based deceit. You may take satisfaction in your plausible deniability, but the world is a small place. People talk and you do not need a negative stigma that may likely stick far longer than you’d prefer. If you do not want to be re-branded as a con artist, in Part 4 of this series we’ll discuss what you as a leader can do to cultivate and enforce a culture that emphasizes truthful facts, truth tellers, and truth seekers.

 

The Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth series:

Part 1—You are NOT Entitled to Your Opinion

Part 2—The Destructive Nature of Alternative Facts (i.e. Lies)

Part 3—Deceiving with Fact-based Lies

Part 4— 10 Ways to Create a Culture of Trust