When It Comes to What Leadership Is, You’ve Been Duped

By Lisel Douglas

I might smack the next person I hear say, “No one saw this coming.” And I feel okay saying that since I won’t actually be able to reach them through the internet anyway, and this is unlikely to be something I would actually do. So, please understand this is mostly a humorous sentiment meant to convey how bothered I am by this statement, though not at all intended to offset the seriousness with which I regard the situation. But it is fair to say that I am tired of poor leadership, underlined and populated by self-interest, self-preservation, lack of accountability, punching down, and a focus on appearances and false loyalty rather than an actual resolution of the issues. 

Like the stories that we have told in the past about happiness, love, sex and sexuality, and what these things should look like, the bastardized way we’ve continued to choose to talk about leadership is dangerous. A new narrative is required. Chances are, you’ve been duped about what leadership is, what it requires of those with the responsibility, what exactly is so hard about it, and why it takes all of us for it to function effectively. There are no gods or islands in the scenario where the rest of us thrive. Today has to be the beginning of the end of doing very little if anything at all to ensure the welfare or earn the loyalty of the people being led while denying that things could have been done differently.

The Dupe

“No one saw this coming”. It’s the most recent example of things an inadequate leader might say to sidestep the matter of accountability in the face of criticism or mere questions about actions and outcomes. But it doesn’t work as an excuse. Not because it doesn’t lessen blame. Sometimes there are scenarios and outcomes we cannot predict and there truly isn’t anyone we can hold accountable. But the reason it does not work is that it’s not true and usually isn’t true. In my experience with what I choose to call toxic leadership culture, where positive people outcomes are not ensured or adequately prioritized, not seeing or acknowledging things that are likely outcomes, and sometimes, perfectly predictable is typical. Foresight and strategic planning tend to be neglected and even devalued where those in charge believe they can only make time for urgency or chaos. If it’s not happening right now, it’s not happening. And you might ask, “What’s wrong with this?”. Well, things ignored when raised well in advance, eventually become matters of urgency and chaos. And when the game of whack-a-mole ensues, the chaos wreaks havoc on the rest of us who have to deal with the ramifications. 

Using an example of the Phoenix Pay System disaster, it’s not too hard to imagine that if you rush produce software that manages government-wide employee pay for several hundred thousand employees, and you don’t sufficiently test it or consult with due diligence the people who will use it, or I don’t know, put the priority on whether it works to deliver positive outcomes for the people, rather than the timeline and the cost, that it might function poorly, is it? It’s not hard to imagine that it might be a complete disaster and ruin some people’s lives due to delays in pay, is it? That it might cost billions of dollars to fix rendering the money-saving aspect of the whole thing entirely pointless? Yet “not understanding the impact or implications” was an excuse (or reason, I’m not sure of the intent) put forward for why decision-makers in this situation failed to do as they should have. No one, other than the people responsible at a high enough level decided that “delivery”, or “business outcomes”, or how I would prefer to translate it “looking good on the surface”, trumped delivering something that they knew for sure would work for the people who have to actually use it. I know. It, like, doesn’t make any sense. Even if we buy the provided reason or excuse, the reason they acted without adequate understanding would still be that they were either incompetent, lazy, scared, or evil. With toxic leadership culture, more than one is possible. But here you see, no one at all seeing it happening isn’t true. People saw it, raised their concerns, and were ignored. Regardless, the potential risks were rather obvious, and if they truly weren’t obvious to decision-makers, that deserves a separate essay.

But specifically, in the case of a pandemic, no person at all having seen it coming could also never be true. There’s nothing to see really. It’s a known hazard. It’s an eventuality. Is the fact that a building could catch fire, not an eventuality for which it and its occupants are usually equipped? Do we just like watching catastrophe unfold on feature film and assume there is no reality informing that creativity? Are some of us idiots for assuming someone somewhere is thinking about these things? Of course not. But while we’re certainly not idiots for expecting it, maybe we are idiots for assuming expectation will match reality, when our leaders of their own accord decide what is and isn’t pertinent to address in a timely fashion, if at all. And if we’re not careful to be sure about how exactly they decided this, it may just come down to two things: what’s easiest or least costly for them personally, and what brings them the most shine. 

The Gaslight

You see, leadership is hard and it’s supposed to be, precisely because aside from your capacity to do the job as the situation requires, it’s not really about you. But what’s interesting, is that how hard it is, tends to be mentioned with regard to why things unfolded as they did and why the rest of us aren’t worthy of venturing our criticism. It’s not normally mentioned to argue for why greater vigilance is needed in assessing and selecting or electing our leaders. It’s not mentioned when they just decide to promote the next guy in line by default because he’s been there long enough and he’s just winging it. It’s not mentioned to push for why organizations, especially large ones need to work to develop a deliberate and conscientious leadership culture that prescribes the values and behaviours leaders are expected to exemplify, as well as the traits they should ideally possess, as opposed to relying rather heavily on this rhetoric around leadership style and preference that results in inequality, unfairness and inconsistency.

Accountability is definitely the hardest part of leadership. When something goes wrong, it’s not so much that you’re necessarily to blame for that thing itself, but that people are looking to you for a real and honest answer about what led up to that outcome and how you may have directly or indirectly contributed to it, to any extent. In the case of the Wells Fargo fraud scandal, did the former CEO John Stumpf absolutely need to say “I’m sorry, it was all my fault.”? He never said that by the way. Personally, I don’t think he needed to say that. But saying it was a few “bad apples” who just decided to commit fraud because they were bad employees is vastly ignorant for a CEO and avoids accountability for the part that is his responsibility. It’s also, guess what? Easy! Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy to fire the “bad apples” and say that it’s over. Voila! Problem solved. 

However, his responsibility should have included ensuring non-toxic leadership culture throughout the organization. A culture that acknowledges the relationship between the values leaders are expected to espouse and the actions their employees take to exemplify those values, as well as the way it impacts customers whose loyalty you claim to desire (more on loyalty later). For someone who has worked in banking for decades, it is highly unlikely he had no inklings about such things happening in banking, in general, and that it might be happening within his organization. But again, it’s not a problem until it’s urgentchaotic and toxic. An explanation that perhaps he had neglected this aspect of his role and had perhaps focused far more on the business-outcome side of his responsibility, would have been acceptable to my mind. 

And I’m not saying that’s what happened. The truth could well be that he genuinely does not care about his employees or his customers. But my point is that if in explaining what happened a leader acts as though it isn’t their responsibility, and there is “nothing to see here folks”, it inspires little trust in your character and intentions. Not shockingly, the people who act as though the job is so difficult they shouldn’t be criticized quite so much (and that you probably couldn’t do it any better), try to avoid the actual hard part of it as much as possible. The only way they know how to stay afloat is to deny, deny, obfuscate, deny. Did I mention Sarah Huckabee-Sanders? 

The Hardest Part of the Job

Personal experience: I used to buy the gaslighting I received about my feelings and observations until I started asking people I worked for, respectfully. Honestly, I could write a television sitcom around some of the things I heard. Some knew their reasons for not doing what they should have done were absurd but said they weren’t going to do anything about it because they were more interested in being liked and not rocking the boat. Does it have to be noted that leaders should not be people who are pretty much allergic to rocking the boat? Or people who think any movement at all might be considered rocking the boat and who have nearly zero capacity to determine whether it would or would not be worth it?  Note, it’s not that they should aim to rock the boat, it’s that the irrational fear of doing so renders them useless as stewards.

Most of the problem comes down to comfort with soft skills particularly emotional intelligence, and the ability to navigate conflict effectively. Too many people think they possess emotional intelligence because after you’ve told them how you’re being impacted by something, they say something that sounds well-meaning like, “Thank you for telling me this. It’s good that we’re able to have these conversations. It helps me know blah blah blah”. You’re lucky if you even get that. Then they proceed to do nothing, nor explain why they are unable or unwilling to do anything (which would go a long way to validating a person and not gaslighting them, by the way). 

Or perhaps they hear you’re leaving the job and ask to talk to you to “hear your concerns,” so they can make you think someone is listening to you instead of just letting you just go with God (when you’ve suffered enough and they know they won’t do a thing to make it better). To them, that’s enough and all you need. Some lip service. But they don’t plan on doing anything about your concerns. They won’t stick their neck out. You see, it’s about the appearance of caring without any action to back it up or an acceptable explanation for inaction. These are the people who want to hold post-mortems and retreats but tell you not to say anything negative. How they “navigate” conflict is to get you to forget there is one, by saying something nice to you once or letting you play mini-golf in the office. Your problems are not any more solved than they were before, of course. 

Why it Takes All of Us

We all have to understand the pervasiveness and scope of the problem of toxic leadership culture and why it is so imperative to push back against that even just a little. As a matter of fact, most leadership is objectively subpar. If you’ve been wondering if it’s just you or if your manager, CEO, or pick of electoral candidates suck beyond comprehension, it’s not just you and your subjective opinion. In a sense, they are right when they say it’s like this everywhere. The observation is true. But the implication that it’s just fine or that nothing should be done is incorrect and unfortunate. And we, as in you, enable this with silence and acceptance and by allowing ourselves to be gaslighted and misled by toxic leadership culture. We fall into the trap of partisan dialogue and problem-solving and legitimize this behaviour from our political leaders. We continue to buy into myths about leadership and worship those with narcissistic, psychopathic and histrionic traits. Our systems for electing, selecting and compensating, support this toxicity. We believe this is normal and okay. We accept the excuses, and the dodging of accountability and forget that we are entitled to explanations. Our leaders are not gods there only to serve themselves while we do their bidding.

But hey, what do I know? Perhaps we should all just shut up and let people do whatever they want. Let’s let them know that we have zero expectations for how they handle themselves even though they work for us and we are affected by their decision-making. And even in the corporate world, the relationship between a leader and their employees should be reciprocal. You do the work to help them deliver. They ensure your wellbeing so that you can do the work. They ensure your loyalty or trust by earning it so that you stay there.  

This has nothing to do with what your job or area of expertise is in society. If you are a stakeholder, a person affected in any way by the decisions being made and actions being taken by a person in authority, you have a right to ask about outcomes and demand better. You have an experience that is directly related to or caused by those decisions and those actions, which gives you a right to weigh in.

If you have the privilege or have made yourself challenging to get rid of, recognize your value and use your voice. Do not drink the Kool-aid about leadership “style” and “vision” stopping anyone from doing what is right or at least acting like they have some responsibility to minimize adverse outcomes for you. It’s nonsense. They don’t want to because it would cause them some discomfort or conflict, and they don’t have what it takes to navigate those things or they don’t feel like doing it on your behalf. Your pain becomes a whole lot less important than theirs. Yet leadership is supposed to be hard in this regard—putting yourself first, denial and excuses are a whole lot easier, though. 

Where Do We Go from Here?

Coming back to the topic of seeing or not seeing things coming before they happen, let’s not get side-tracked by that. Yes, good leaders should listen when there are red flags raised, and after evaluating the risks, should develop a strategy to mitigate those risks, ideally in a timely manner. But let’s say we forgive that that doesn’t happen sometimes or ever. Still, blatant lies about what they could have known and could have done in order to divest themselves of the responsibility for the hardest part of the job, accountability, falls far below what we should accept from our leaders corporate, political or in any sphere. It points to the one thing that undermines any leader’s capacity to serve before they even start: self-interest.

Make no mistake. Democracy doesn’t function well without the information to make informed decisions about our leaders and their capacity to do the job. This is why we ask questions and demand answers, and we should not accept being dismissed. This is why leaders should be forthcoming when they or the organizations they lead, mess up. Unfortunately, we have god-like leaders, born out of a hero/genius-worship culture, who think their vision for the world trumps truth and our right to assess their actions and decide who leads us. We have god-like execs who believe we don’t get to challenge them or ask questions and people beneath them who shudder merely to say they disagree even in private. Then pass on their fear to their underlings and become skilled in poking holes in what little fight people possess. It’s fair to say that disagreeing in a downward direction is also not hard.

This goes beyond Covid-19. This is about poor leadership across the board and the people who enable them. We’d get better if we asked for better.

Loyalty is To Be Earned

The kind of leadership discussed above does not inspire trust. It creates fear and dishonesty and actions based on self-preservation and desperation. It does not generate real loyalty either from employees or customers, or the general public. Most people are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and for that reason, they will quickly flip to anything that looks it might be slightly less painful. Political elections, anyone? They say millennials don’t demonstrate loyalty as though it’s a bad thing that they have standards. The misunderstanding is exemplified in this joke made by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld during an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. He says, ‘Back in our day, our problem was “Everything is bad, how can we make it better?” Kids today, their problem is ‘Everything is great, why do feel bad?”‘. 

But it’s because we are the generation of a sense of self. We have seen behind the curtain, and the emperor is stark naked AND abusive. When things are bad and you are told to look at all the shiny things, it doesn’t feel good. Things are not great, And loyalty is earned, but not by pretending everything is great. You see, the falsehood that toxic leadership culture promotes about loyalty is that if you show your leaders unflinching loyalty, i.e., the bastardized version where you never disagree with them or use your brain, you’ll be rewarded for it. And you will, for sure. But if you think this leads to the best people “running things” and not just people who go along to get along and don’t question things, we need to look to our neighbours to the south for a rude awakening. I can tell you that it takes a hell of a lot more cojones and integrity to walk away from a toxic situation where perhaps you could have kissed ass, gotten ahead, and made more money. That is someone you can trust to lead you. And the Amazon VP, Tim Bray, gets it.

When people subsist in poor conditions, it’s not loyalty. It’s a lack of options or brainwashing parading as loyalty. It’s because they have no choice or feel like they don’t, or figure it will change with time. It’s the kind of loyalty Wells Fargo tried to fabricate by forcing its employees to hit impossible daily targets for new accounts. If it looks like loyalty on paper to the shareholders, it’s good enough. It’s the kind of loyalty that had its employees desperately setting up fake accounts so they could keep working there when they probably wished they didn’t work there. And it came from the kind of leadership that had people choosing between survival in a job they hate and just general survival. Choosing between business outcomes and just trying to survive as a human being. What it looks like on the surface isn’t really what it is and that is why we need to play our part and ask questions. These aren’t people who chose to be loyal because it was earned with stellar leadership they felt proud to work under. And it does not result in creating stellar leaders either. People following you only because they have to is just barely leadership. It’s leadership in name only.

Like the essential workers throughout this pandemic who don’t want to hear about heroism but want their bank accounts to reflect their value and an accurate, emotionally intelligent assessment of their situation, people want more than lip service. We want more than the appearance of caring. We certainly don’t want to hear leaders say things they know are not true about what they did and did not know when they just chose not to do the difficult thing or failed in some aspect of their duty. We want to hear accountability and see tangible outcomes. Lip service does not demonstrate value. Lip service is the cheapest way to try to appease people. It costs nothing and does nothing, and when people are dissatisfied, it does not work. Leaders are supposed to be people who deliver. But to whom are they delivering?

This culture has to change. For the future we want and need, it must. Today has to be the beginning of the end of doing very little, if anything at all, to ensure the welfare and earn the loyalty of the people while denying that it could have gone differently. It’s just not good enough.

Lisel Douglas is the Founder of Accountable Leadership, and lives in Ottawa. If you are looking for some leadership advice to keep your organization’s culture and health in check, read more on her blog and connect.

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