Cognitive Biases About Leadership and How to Survive Them
When we put our leaders on a pedestal, we do them a disservice - and when we make them into heroes, we tend to forget that they are actually human beings.
A fellow CEO once failed to live up to my expectations of them. Upset, I called my friend, complaining that someone could possibly be that way. He told me that just because I put someone on a pedestal, doesn't mean they asked to be up there: "If the way they live their life doesn't match your perception, that's your problem."
He was right. It's not a leader's job to be who I expect them to be.
Behind his activism, reports of several affairs, group sex, alcoholism and manic depression still surround Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s memory. Gandhi was so obsessed with his celibacy that he slept naked with his teenage grandniece to test his willpower. Doctors described Mother Teresa's missions, as "homes for the dying," with unfit, unhygienic conditions and no painkillers because, in the revered saint's own words, "the world gains much from [the poor accepting their lot and] suffering."
The problem with learning the truth behind history's heroes is not that they were flawed, but rather that we expected them to be anything else. Everyday people like you and I put them on that pedestal because we want to believe they were perfect, not because they actually were. We see our leaders as a collective brand versus a collection of human traits, like all of us.
This is no different with leaders today. We assign them certain qualities because we want them to be that way, as the heroes we prefer, instead of the imperfect humans they are. Leaders can either fall into the fanfare and lose their critical skills, or overcome society's cognitive biases with integrity and authenticity.
Avoid getting stuck on a pedestal
We develop cognitive biases based on our life experience. Just as we expect teachers to be good with kids and surgeons to have a steady hand, we also hold behavioral expectations for our leaders. Today's emphasis on servant leadership has us all believing that leaders are heroes, existing to serve the people and their every action should be a selfless gesture. Then, when they fail to act in accordance with our beliefs, we become disillusioned — the hero has fallen and everything they ever did, good or bad, gets lumped into one big giant disappointment. That's a lot of burden for a leader to bear.
Instead of looking at leaders as one whole unit, we need to see them as a collection of basic human traits. We forget that within every leader is a person, with flaws and imperfections. Instead of putting the whole person on a pedestal as some kind of one-size-fits-all embodiment of goodness, just admire them for their strengths. Unpack what you like about them without discarding the whole leader. Take the good they accomplished for what it is, but don't blame humans for not being angels.
Related: What It Means to Be a Hero
When a company was being evicted, unlawfully, from their building, the CEO from a much bigger company and neighbor in the building told the distraught businessowner they seemed "not emotionally at a leadership level." Maybe from the CEO's school of training, that perspective was accurate, but they neglected the fact that this person went from comfortable and stable one day, to scrambling for another space of equivalent value, look and feel the next.
Instead of speaking with empathy and kindness, the CEO preyed upon the businessowner's vulnerability and criticized what he took to be a weakness. But the idea that leaders should somehow be immune to emotion, in even extreme situations, is an unrealistic expectation for the human behind the suit.
Leadership classes teach you that leaders are supposed to be buttoned-up and poker-faced so no one really knows what's inside their heads. Many leaders feign a sugary façade and then complain about what they didn't like behind the scenes. Leaders may be strong, but they also need patience when situations draw out high emotions as they come to understand the safety nets available. All leaders experience emotion, and expecting them to bottle that up to meet our own cognitive biases is harmful to their well-being and their leadership.
Integrity and authenticity are the antidote
To survive the world's cognitive biases, leaders need authenticity and integrity. Both traits rely on similar mechanisms in the mind: Our own expectations of ourself and our character should align with the person we display.
We expect leaders to be humble, accessible and caring, but all of those qualities mean nothing if a leader isn't genuine. People might expect me, as a leader in my industry, to speak in a certain way and only to certain people. But I can overcome their expectations by acting consistently and authentically, and always in accordance with my authentic self; I do not deviate from what I believe to be right and true. Instead of worrying about a pedestal, I work on connecting with people and communicating a genuine sense of care.
Just as an authentic expression of self can't be faked, neither can integrity. That same discomfort we feel in knowing that our heroes had flaws is the cognitive dissonance leaders feel when their thoughts and actions are incongruent. When leaders aspire to be the hero people expect of them — instead of who they genuinely are — ego and pride can overwhelm their abilities. Then, when they fail, we see them as a fraud.
If you authentically represent your values and principles and adhere to them consistently, even when you make a mistake, people still trust your good intentions and give you more chances to live up to them. To be a good leader, forget about all those Ivy League leadership courses telling you who to be — just be yourself.
Of course, leaders do have a responsibility to use their power and resources responsibly, but we need to be flexible in our expectations of them. Let's agree to stop expecting leaders to be Superman or Wonder Woman. Isn't it more heroic, after all, to show up every day without a cape — to be who they are and do exactly what they say they will?
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