Extensive research works in social psychology consistently reveals the corrupting effects of power: disinhibition and a diminished focus on those with less power.
Influence distances those with it from those with less influence. At the same time, the ability to understand another’s point of view, and to put oneself in the other’s place, is one of the most critical factors that affects ability to obtain influence and is a critical skill for everyone, including leaders.
There is also evidence, including some wonderful studies, that shows the corroding effects of ego. Leaders filled with abnormal hubris lack internal validation and are more likely to suffer from disease of fixing fat compensation, acquiring other firms and engaging in other risky strategies to feed their egos. Leaders ought to cultivate humility.
They certainly need to build cultures in which people can and will disagree with them over substantive decisions. They ought to get out and experience the world as others see it–maybe actually meet the people they lead, key stakeholders like the electorates, customers and shareholders, and they need to talk less and listen more.
The higher you go in a leadership ladder, the more those around you are going to tell you that you are right. The higher reaches of organizations–which includes government, too, are largely lacking critical thought. That makes it tough for leaders to understand the point of view of others or, for that matter, to uncover problems or to figure out effective strategies. That may explain the reason for communication gaps between the leadership of organisations or nations and the people they lead.
The few leaders who “get it” tend to preside over more effective organisations. The rest cruise along until their arrogance and insensitivity catches up with them.
The following select people strike me as leaders who understand how to motivate people and instill loyalty, even in tough times.
Fred Smith at FedEx in USA got it right in 2009 when he first took a 20% pay cut, then asked managers to take a 10% cut and hourly workers 5%. He led by clear example and made more sacrifice.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, as a military head of state in Nigeria, decided to use locally assembled Peugeot 504 before asking the populace to tighten their belts and go on “low profile” in the 1970s. Of course, Nigerians followed him swiftly with commitment.
Lolu Akinwumi, the CEO of Prima Garnet, a leading advertising firm in Africa, has remained humble in spite of his enormous charisma, power, wealth and close connection with people in authority. The firm has succeeded in securing very loyal employees and clients because he always reminds himself and reiterates the fact that the Creator has placed people in position of authority in order to serve. That has helped him to stay connected to various stakeholders and grow the business from ground zero to an enviable firm which is now part of the reputable global consortium of Ogilvy Group.
I have been working with global firms for over 30 years and became a manager almost 27 years ago. I have also been under supervision of different people with diverse cultures and approaches. I can conclude from my little experience that, if you’re not careful, anybody in a position of authority can lose their perspective. I have also seen it happen to newly promoted executives. They start off humble and with good intentions, but after a while, begin to give in to the drug of “power”, become isolated, lose touch, and start making bad decisions.
So how can a leader, or anyone in a position of power and authority, avoid this trap of arrogance of power? Here’s a starter list, and I’ll invite readers to contribute their own ideas.
1. Lead by example. The most successful way to lead any group of people is to lead by example. Corrupt leadership can not effectively promote the value of integrity.
2. Put your ego under strict control. Remain humble in spite of the trappings and attractiveness of power and authority. Humility is a good choice. When a governor like BR Fashola decides to stay in traffic without using the siren to disturb others, he is demonstrating humility. When you take your turn in a queue at the airport in spite of your position in government, you are demonstrating humility.
3. Encourage and reward some level of dissent among the people you lead. This is easier said than done; it fact, it’s extremely difficult and in reality, could be borderline anarchy. As an alternative to having dissent from everyone, a leader can cultivate a cadre of trusted and honest advisors from all levels, inside and outside of the organisation. At a minimum, we can always rely on our closest loved one to keep us grounded!
4. Spend quality time with the people you lead, stakeholders, electorates, customers. This is not about formal visits with your favourite top executives. Go out with your low cadre employees; sit in and listen to calls at your call center; take a tour of your customer’s business to see how they use your product; be a “mystery shopper” for your own product or service. Arrange town hall meetings before you take major decisions. The late General Murtala Mohammed and the late Col Ibrahim Taiwo understood mystery shopping as they were routinely inspecting government projects.
5. Read and answer your own email. Encourage the people you lead at all levels to email you with questions, concerns, and suggestions. Let employees know that you may not be able to answer every one of them, but you will read them.
6. Be visible and accessible. Don’t become a prisoner to those you have surrounded yourself with in the leadership group. Eat in the general company cafeteria; attend company events; drop in on training programs. Don’t just sit with other executives – sit by yourself and ask employees to join you, or invite yourself to join other employees.