What to Do When Your Boss or Leader Is an Idiot

Will Marré

December 12, 2017

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It's tragic to see that leadership power is gained or granted to people who are skilled at increasing their power but not their wisdom. As I wrote in How to Protect Yourself from Evil Leaders, research from Stanford's Jeffrey Pfeffer confirms the narcissistic and sociopathic behavior is a shorter and surer path to leadership power in most organizations than authenticity, inclusiveness, curiosity, creativity, and moral vision. In fact, he points out that those virtuous qualities are likely to get you excluded from senior positions because your competitors for promotion are ruthless.

This confirms my own experience that often the most astute people in an organization are two levels below the C-suite. Indeed, the Talent Smart consultancy which researches the social - emotional intelligence of leaders finds that people with the highest emotional intelligence are in the middle of organizations ,and people with lower emotional intelligence hold the most senior positions. Dr. Daniel Goldman has spent his life proving that emotional intelligence is the basis for good leadership judgment. This seems to be true because people with higher emotional intelligence tend to be more curious about others' knowledge and ideas and know how to put cognitive diversity to work. They are also more likely to appeal to higher levels of motivation which unleashes both creativity and effort in the people they're leading.

This brings me to the fundamental reason why so many leaders act like idiots and moral pygmies. In 1957, sociologist David McGregor published a book outlining two theories of human behavior.

  • Theory X assumes that human beings are lazy, don't want to learn, and don't want to work. The root of this theory is Puritanism which asserts that man is a fallen creature who is naturally motivated toward laziness and evil. Therefore, workers have to be controlled, rewarded sparingly, and punished regularly in order to get any work done.

  • Theory Y is based on Abraham Maslow's science of human motivation. This model is based on research findings that humans legitimately need and seek physical health and safety, belonging and love, self-esteem through goal achievement, and self-worth through fulfilling their highest potential.

  • Extensive research and meta-analysis of hundreds of studies confirm that more than 80% of human beings operate primarily from The Theory Y mindset. That is, most people if given the chance to not work versus doing meaningful work would choose to do meaningful work. This is not new news. Aristotle noted the inherent human drive to imbue even menial work with meaning. More recently, author Daniel Pink popularized the research of Edwards Deci, which states that most humans seek mastery, autonomy, and meaning through work.

    So why are so many people disengaged with their work?

    What I have observed is simple. Too many senior leaders are idiots when it comes to social intelligence . . . understanding how human beings are motivated. That's because But leaders who are strongly driven by status, power, and wealth have little idea how people might be strongly motivated by service, empathy, high-trust teamwork, and the inspiration to benefit the economic well-being in the quality-of-life of all stakeholders.

    This is not a trivial problem. As I have recently noted, troubling research has confirmed that CEOs, politicians, and lawyers have a 20 times higher propensity to exhibit the Dark Triad disorders of narcissism, sociopathy, and Machiavellian manipulation than the general population. If that's not enough, Wharton professor Dr. Adam Grant reports there is a growing body of evidence from both United States and global studies that business economics classes cause students to shift their empathy-based values to justifying greed and acting on their self-interest even when it hurts others. As the late Stanford professor Hal Leavitt lamented, "Business education distorts students into critters with lopsided brains, icy hearts, and shrunken souls"(Does Studying Economics Breed Greed? Psychology Today, October 22 ,2013).

    Of course, not all CEOs and political leaders are superficially charming sociopaths. I have unsuccessfully tried to coach a number of CEOs to devote more of the retained earnings to employee financial rewards rather than wasting those hard-earned profits on financial engineering tricks to temporarily boost stock prices. But I have also had the great joy of partnering with a CEO who created a corporate foundation to fund a scholarship endowment for college tuitions of lower-paid employees. However, he is a rare leader of great integrity with extraordinary social intelligence.

    So, what do you think? Are there too few extraordinary leaders and too many "shrunken souls" in charge?

    I am rooting for YOU to be extraordinary and coaching you not to be controlled by the lack of wisdom of the emotional Neanderthals who may rule your workplace.

    This is what you can do RIGHT NOW to make a change:

  • Talk to your supervisor about your deepest motivations . . . what engages your effort, imagination, and sense of meaning at work? Don't be timid, and don't expect your boss to be a mind reader. She or he has no idea what lights your inner fire; tell them.

  • Make sure to link your motivations to create value to your enterprise strategy (assuming it is moral) and your supervisors' priorities. Don't expect them to make that connection. They are also busy and overworked, so you have to do the emotionally intelligent thinking.

  • Ask for more power so you can do more. As people become more capable and develop self-vision for their career and their life, it's natural and healthy to seek more autonomy. Yet, it is common for men to resist giving autonomy to women for all kinds of neurological and evolutionary reasons. To make matters worse, women are often punished with fewer opportunities and fewer promotions if they appear ambitious.
    Harvard's Dr. John Kahut has discovered a simple workaround to neutralize this deeply ingrained bias. It's this:

    Make sure and ask for more power and authority, in order to create more success for your boss and the enterprise.

  • When women are viewed as advocates for the success and well-being of others, resistance begins to melt. Conversely, when women are seen as advocates for themselves, they are distrusted. Please do not reject this advice because it should not be necessary. I fully realize how infuriating it is to label ambition in a man as virtuous but ambition in a woman as a flaw. My experience is that bias against women is largely unconscious. Most men are not consciously stupid in their assessment of women. It's their unconscious assumptions that disempower women. Nevertheless, bias is powerful. You have to use Jedi Mind tricks because you are the revolutionaries, and right now the empire is largely run by emotional dunces, and in too many cases "shrunken souls" . . . truly.

    Will Marre

    We have pre-launched the SMART Women Institute with National University and WITI (Women in Technology International). Our mission is to train one million women in five years in the science-based skills of SMART Power. These skills bring to life the mindset of Transformational Leadership, written about by the renowned leadership historian James McGregor Burns. This is not just a leadership theory. It is a disciplined practice that we intend to equip a million women, and the many men who support them, with the leadership vision and skill to create a future we want our children to inherit.

    We will be formally launching the institute on January 30, 2018. To get more information about how you can become part of this movement, please contact us at [email protected]. We will send you our mission-strategy overview, a list of events, and how you can get involved.

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