The Conformity Trap

One of the biggest traps we face as we make decisions about life and work is the trap of conforming to societal expectations or conventional paths instead of blazing our own path in life.

Conformity entails behaving in ways similar to others or according to their wishes instead of relying on our own judgment or preferences. We see this all time. We tend to mirror the body language and communication styles of our peer groups.

Our penchant for conformity comes from a strong desire to fit in with the group. It can be conscious or unconscious, and it doesn’t require overt pressure. The pressures can be indirect and subtle yet still powerful (or even misperceived—manufactured by our anxious brains).

As humans, we feel a strong, almost primal need to be accepted and viewed favorably by others. It’s a powerful urge baked into our biology, presumably because we found safety in the group that helped us survive despite all the risks we’ve faced over the ages, most of which are more pronounced and dangerous when we’re alone.

Willing to Go Along

To see how powerful the effects of conformity are, consider the classic experiment by Dr. Solomon Asch, a Polish social psychology researcher, who gave people cards with lines of different lengths on them and had them judge which line was the same length as the target line. When people were tested individually, the success rate was of course near perfect (99%). It was a no-brainer. People could see the lines right in front of them with their own eyes.

But when people were tested in a group setting and there were secret people planted in the experimental group who were instructed by the researchers to give wrong answers, it caused many subjects of the experiment to ignore what they saw with their own eyes.

Overall, they agreed with the wrong answer from the majority about the length of the lines a whopping 37% of the time. So the error rate went from 1% to 37% on a simple and obvious task due to group influences. The point is not that their vision was altered but rather that they were willing to go along with something they clearly knew wasn’t right to remain accepted and in agreement with the group.

Excellent Sheep

“They’re anxious, timid, and lost… heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it. They’re violently averse to risk as a product of being shackled by their academic success.” -William Deresiewicz

In his book, Excellent Sheep, teacher and author William Deresiewicz describes how this problem shows up in elite universities. He heard the term “excellent sheep” from one of his students. It describes a phenomenon in which students “feel toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression,” are in a “constant state of competition,” feel a need for “compulsive overachievement,” go through “endless hoop-jumping,” and are loaded up with schoolwork and extracurriculars and stressed out and miserable most of the time.

The result: a stunning amount of them end up going into the same well paying, high-status, professional careers, dutifully following the herd and the wishes of their shepherds. Yes, problems of privilege, but still problems.

Consider the response of a former student of mine when asked in survey about top challenges faced:

“We feel the pressure of achieving high grades in school, having a job, doing extracurricular work such as volunteering to build up a CV, having a social life, and exercise—all at the same time. Social media makes it seem as if everyone is totally capable of juggling twenty balls at once, emphasizing only positive experiences. Nowadays, the only thing that is important is ‘measurable’ success. Anything you cannot put on your CV or on social media doesn’t count anymore…. Because of all these measurements, I feel like I am only extrinsically motivated. And I don’t want that. I want to be intrinsically motivated and block out everything that others or society expect of me—but do the things that I want to do because I value them.”

The Problem with Conformity

“Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” –Janet Wojcicki, professor, University of California at San Francisco

The problem is that this conformity urge can interfere with our ability to make good decisions—decisions that keep us safe or that leave our character intact.

Bronnie Ware identified the “top regrets of the dying” after years of work as a palliative nurse caring for people in the final weeks and days of their lives. The top regret she noted was this:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

These conformity and pressure patterns start early and continue with great momentum throughout our lives. Common examples during adolescence include pressure to do the following to fit in:

  • bullying, racist, or sexist behavior (going along with it or looking the other way)
  • casual sex
  • alcohol or drugs
  • ditching school or vandalism
  • cheating and cutting corners (according to researchers, we’re more likely to engage in unethical behavior when we see others succeed at it)
  • feeling that our parents will only be satisfied if we do what they want us to do, regardless of what we want, and following their preferences toward safer and more lucrative and prestigious careers (note also that they may have felt similar pressures from their parents, and so on, in some sort of endless family loop; making things worse, we’re conflicted because we love our parents and don’t want to disappoint them but we also want to find our own path in life).

Consider this message from another former student:

“I am facing a few obstacles at the moment, and most of them are related to what is expected of me, especially by my family. I have always been a very good student at school, I got the highest grades throughout high school, I was valedictorian at my graduation, I got into a top university for my bachelor’s degree and my master’s, and I have been working full-time and part-time during my studies as well. I’ve always heard from everyone around me that I would make a great businesswoman, that I would get in to ‘any of the top companies’ I wanted. And now that I’m at that point, I don’t know if that’s the type of success that will make me the happiest…. So at the moment, my major obstacle is internal; do I risk disappointing them for not following the path they would expect me to? Or do I accept the fact that I might end up working somewhere that is not a true ‘fit’ for me to make others happy?… Another obstacle I have is internal; I don’t want to fail. And I am terrified of failing. And this fear of failure is putting limits to what I will allow myself to do…. I am scared of taking a step in the wrong direction.”

When we conform, we can lose our individuality and uniqueness. What’s more, we feel anxiety about having to maintain an image of near perfection.

It’s important to note that conformity is not all bad. We evolved with a desire for it for good reasons, and there are some benefits of it.

For example, it can make our lives simpler and easier because we don’t have to worry as much about being judged harshly by our peers. It also gives us something of a safety net we can fall into when we’re anxious.

The Second-Order Effect of Conformity

Here’s the problem that rarely gets noticed. We move through different social circles during our lives: from childhood and teen friends to early-career colleagues and neighbors, to new people we meet at work or in new places we live or visit, including our spouse or partner’s friends.

Sometimes we make decisions about work to impress certain people and fit in, but we won’t even be in touch with those people in a few years. As we age, we can be shocked by how little it matters what some of those people think, when back in those early days it felt like the weight of the world was upon us. And yet we make big decisions that are hard to change based on those often superficial and unhelpful influences.

The effects of conformity can be long-lasting and hard to unwind, given the switching costs of trying to make big changes later (like a change in career or college major).

What to Do about It

So the forces of conformity are powerful and hard to resist. What to do about it? Here are a half-dozen tips:

First, know yourself. That begins with knowing your story—and weaving it into a cohesive narrative based on the patterns you’ve seen in your life and especially drawing on your sense of purpose, values, strengths, passions, and aspirations. It also means learning from challenges, setbacks, and tragedies but not letting yourself be defined or limited by them.

Second, embrace your uniqueness as part of your identity. That way, you can explain your nonconformity with the group using your difference in a way that fits with your core identity—with who you really are.

Third, build up your courage—the courage you’ll need to resist the Siren call of conformity. How? By practicing hard things. By doing what you think you can’t. Start with something small. See how often it turns out that fears were phantoms, and that the worst cases imagined almost never materialize—and how resilient and resourceful we can be when we need to be. The good news is that, as we develop an increasing ability to withstand criticism and fight against the pressures of conformity, our confidence increases and we develop a clearer sense of our identity and uniqueness. It can turbocharge our life and work.

Fourth, find support from people who value you for your uniqueness and differences—and who don’t pressure you to fit into to conventional boxes. (And be sure to reciprocate.)

Fifth, stop spending time with people who put you in uncomfortable situations. Terminate the toxic in your life.

Sixth, and most importantly, JUST BE YOU. Stop following the crowd and blaze your own path in life. It may make the difference between a lifetime of fulfillment versus regret.

Reflection Questions

  • Are you falling into the conformity trap in areas of your life? If so, which ones?
  • How is it hurting you or holding you back?
  • What will you do about it, starting now?

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Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the Conformity Trap

  • “Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be.” -Parker Palmer
  • “There is nothing more genuine than breaking away from the chorus to learn the sound of your own voice.” -Po Bronson
  • “But there is something that’s a great deal more important than parental approval: learning to do without it. That’s what it means to become an adult…. You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you’ve been taught to care about.” -William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep
  • “To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.” -Robert Louis Stevenson
  • “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
  • “Middle-status conformity leads us to choose the safety of the tried-and-true over the danger of the original.” -Adam Grant in his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
  • “Any day of the week I would choose to be ‘out’ with others and in touch with myself… than to be ‘in’ with others and out of touch with myself.” -Portia Nelson
  • “Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness.” -Shakti Gawain
  • “Cowardice asks the question ‘Is it safe?’ Consensus asks the question ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks, ‘Is it right?’” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular… but because conscience tells one it is right.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his monthly newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

The Importance of Trust in Leadership

There are many ways to think about leadership. For some, as we have seen, it is about control or power. For others, it is about achievement or recognition. For others, thankfully, it is about people and service, along with higher purpose and positive impact.
 
Since leadership by definition involves a relationship between leaders and followers—and, more precisely, an influence relationship—it begs the question of trust. One may be able to command, control, or deceive at some point or for some time, but for an enduring relationship of constrictive influence, trust must be present.
 
Trust is a firm belief in the reliability or truth of someone. This takes us into the deep and rich territory of character, credibility, ethics, honesty, integrity, morality, and values—all of which are essential underpinnings and necessary prerequisites of good leadership. These virtues are good in and of themselves and should be aspired to by all (and, yes, even in competitive contexts such as business and sports).
 
There is also a “business case” for trust. Without trust in an organization or society, things take longer and cost more, due to the need for checks and reviews and the inevitable holding back that comes in such situations. In his book, The Speed of Trustauthor Stephen M. R. Covey wrote, “Trust always affects outcomes—speed and cost. When trust goes up, speed will also go up, and costs will go down. When trust goes down, speed will also go down, and costs go up.” He and his father, Stephen R. Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), brilliantly described leadership as “getting results today in a way that, by inspiring trust, increases our ability to get results tomorrow.”
 
Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the classic book, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the characteristics of admired leaders. More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful:
 
“Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leaders’ word can be trusted…. Trust is the most significant predictor of individuals’ satisfaction within their organizations.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
 
This is not rocket science. Imagine working for a leader or colleague whose behavior has demonstrated that he or she is not worthy of your trust, since he or she has deceived or used you. Imagine living with a family member or having a friend who abuses your trust.
 
Unacceptable. Such a situation requires change, and urgently so.
 
Of course, we all make mistakes and, when we do, thankfully we can redeem and make amends when others are kind and gracious enough to give us a second chance. But patterns of deceit warrant decisive action. Otherwise, we enable abuse and corrosive forces in our organizations and society.
 
Trust is essential in leadership—and in all forms of human relationships and organizations. Chronically failing the trust test is disqualifying for leaders.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). Twitter: @gvanourek

The Root Cause of Ethical Failings (and Our Political Dysfunction)

Scandals. Fraud. Abuse of power. Greed. Corruption. Tax evasion. Coverups.

Once rare occurrences, coming back to haunt us every decade or so, these are now front and center in our daily lives and our daily news cycle. We see them in government, in business, and even in nonprofits and some religious organizations.

It seems as if we are in a race to the bottom.

While these challenges and failings have always been with us, we are not particularly well equipped to deal with them, in part because we fail to understand their root causes—and to hack away at them.

Enter Professor Kenneth Goodpaster and what he calls the “three symptoms of ethical hazard”:*

1. Fixation: obsession with an overarching goal. For example, Enron executives were a group of hyper-ambitious overachievers with something to prove about being number one. Many were ruthless and uninhibited about doing whatever it took to get there. For NASA, it was fixation with set-in-stone space shuttle launch dates, contributing to tragic explosions and loss of life. Some mountain climbers get “summit fever,” where they are so focused on reaching the top that they recklessly risk their own lives and those of their teams.

2. Rationalization: attempting to explain or justify behavior with logical reasons, even when not appropriate. Sometimes values conflict (e.g., truth vs. loyalty). Rationalization entails choosing based on one “privileged feature” (e.g., total loyalty regardless of the truth). This creates “blind spots” in ethical thinking. Examples of rationalization are legion:

  • My boss told me to do it.
  • Everybody else is doing it.
  • It’s just this one time.
  • No one will find out.
  • It’s not my responsibility.
  • It’s not lying. (It’s just not telling the truth.)
  • We really need/deserve this.
  • I didn’t do anything. (I just looked the other way.)
  • You don’t understand the pressure we’re under.
  • “Business is business”: we’re just “maximizing shareholder value.”
  • “Politics is dirty”: we have to do this so we can do X, Y, Z….

“I… rationalized that what I was doing was OK, that it wasn’t going to hurt anybody.” / “I will live with this pain, with this torment, for the rest of my life.”Bernie Madoff, former financier and operator of a Ponzi scheme considered the largest financial fraud in U.S. history

3. Detachment: the sense of not being personally involved in something or of having no interest or stake. On ethical matters, Goodpaster raises the alarm when our actions are detached from our personal values. When detached, people bypass their heart and soul as they privilege only their head, and they anesthetize their humanity in the face of temptations to win or be perceived as successful. Here he draws on psychoanalyst and author Michael Maccoby, who warned that “careerism” was a self-destructive affliction suffered by many successful executives (and politicians, presumably), fueled by an obsession with winning and a “gamesman” view of all actions in terms of whether they will help you succeed in your career or campaign. The person detaches from his or her sense of identity (e.g., as a mother or father, citizen, etc.) and integrity, and one’s sense of self-worth becomes measured by performance in the market, game, or arena. Such detachment corrodes character and degrades mental health, with people leading divided lives between work and home.

Two related dangers here are “ethical fading” and “moral disengagement”:

  • Ethical fading: “when the ethical aspects of a decision disappear from view,” such as when people focus so much on things like profitability or winning that they do not register unethical and illegal behavior (and the related aspects of harm, pain, conflict).
  • Moral disengagement: restructuring reality to make our actions seem less harmful than they are, convincing ourselves that ethical standards do not apply to us in a certain context, such as a political campaign. We mentally reframe destructive behavior as acceptable, and our brains are masterful at this misdirection.

Each one of these three symptoms is dangerous, but the real problem is that they converge into a single, terrible pattern. Goodpaster calls this “teleopathy”: the unbalanced pursuit of purpose. The word “teleopathy” combines two Greek roots: “teleo”: goal, target, or purpose; and “pathos”: disease or sickness.

We can think of it as a goal sickness—as being so focused on a goal that we pursue it destructively:

We must win.
We must be the best.
We must rule.

Thankfully, Goodpaster notes that there are “antidotes” for the three symptoms of ethical hazard:

1. From fixation to perspective. We must see that our goals are part of a larger mission, the common good. We need to transcend our perpetual busyness and reactivity and build in reflection time, renewal rituals, and sanctuary. Without a larger and longer term perspective of community, duty, stewardship, and sustainability, we will spiral down in self-destructive patterns.

2. From rationalization to frankness. Since our rationalizations tend to be subconscious, coming from the older and faster parts of our brain that do not engage our most advanced reasoning capacities in our prefrontal cortex, we need radical honesty and candor through searching and piercing dialogue and healthy conflict with colleagues who recognize the tremendous value of vetting and pressure-testing our ideas and decisions and inviting conversations about whether we are upholding our shared values. We need people who are willing to “speak truth to power,” even when they are a voice of one. Ideally, our organizational culture fosters such questioning and conflict, all in service of making wise decisions and proper actions.

3. From detachment to engagement. This requires engaging our heart as well as our head. A powerful way to do that is to be clear about the higher purpose of the work you are doing (beyond winning a campaign or maximizing profits:

  • What will you do once elected?
  • What value can you create for all stakeholders through the profits you generate?
  • What positive impact can you have via serving others, and are you doing your part for the common good?

Now more than ever we need to identify and hack away at the root causes of our ethical failings and political dysfunction. We need to stop our senseless race to the bottom—in business with our myopic pursuit of profit and growth regardless of the consequences on people and planet, and in politics with our zero-sum game mentality of “I must win and you must lose” with all its attendant cynicism and disdain for fellow citizens who happen to disagree with us on some issues. We need to look for shared values and mutual interests instead of stoking mistrust, anger, and resentment. This race to the bottom is so dangerous because it threatens to destroy the very foundations of our communities and society. With perspective, frankness, engagement, and a healthy pursuit of shared purpose, we can redirect the race upward.


* Source: Kenneth Goodpaster, “Ethics or Excellence? Conscience as a Check on the Unbalanced Pursuit of Organizational Goals,”Ivey Business Journal, March/April 2004.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

The Most Important Questions for Leaders

Leading others well can be a great challenge. It requires courage, judgment, wisdom, emotional intelligence, integrity, and much more. Leadership excellence comes with experience, but it begins with intentionality and commitment.
 
Here are the most important (four) questions to help ground your leadership in a powerful foundation, whether you are a new leader learning the ropes or a seasoned leader looking to upgrade or renew.
 
1. Why are you leading? Is it for prestige? The title? Money? Power? Perquisites? Is it to prove something, or impress others? In truth, several of these may be drivers for you, but the key issue is whether you have found a deeper why. Being a leader does not require being a saint absent normal human influences and motivations, but leading well requires clarity of purpose and a motivation beyond the self. Great leadership has been described as motivating people to accomplish great things together. In our Triple Crown Leadership book, we address the kind of leadership that can build an organization that is excellent, ethical, and enduring—with exceptional, positive, and sustainable impacts.
 
Have you matured and evolved such that you are able to rise beyond your ego and focus on the bigger picture? Followers will recognize selfish motives, especially if they become dominant, and such motives can make your leadership toxic if left unchecked. But followers will respond positively if they see a leader committed to a worthy higher purpose and aspirational vision.
 
2. Who are you serving? As Robert Greenleaf noted, the best leaders serve. With his “servant leadership” framework, he challenged traditional thinking about leadership as a top-down phenomenon. Greenleaf wrote, “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”
 
People sense that call to serve. They respect and admire it, and willingly follow. Greenleaf even developed a conceptual “test” we can use for determining whether someone is a servant leader: “The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
 
At best, leaders serve their followers, and the organization serves all of its stakeholders: customers, employees, vendors and partners, the community, and its owners. The days of any organization serving only shareholders, often at the expense of other stakeholders, are numbered.
 
3. Are you upholding your values? Your values are the things that are most important to you. Think about what you believe and stand for, and your convictions about what is most important in life. While many organizations have statements of their values, many people don’t take the time to discover their own values. There is great power in making your values explicit and sharing them with others—and in demonstrating them through your choices and behaviors. Values matter because they guide your behavior in congruence with your authentic self and deepest convictions. Many people run into trouble when they behave in ways that conflict with their values.
 
Great leaders know their own values and collaboratively elicit a set of shared values to guide the behavior and decisions of people in the organization. They key is not having values. The key is upholding them and infusing them in the organization so they are actualized.
 
“You cannot deliver value unless you anchor the company’s values. Values make an unsinkable ship.” Indra Nooyi, former Chair and CEO, PepsiCo
 
4. What are you doing to develop yourself and others? Learning to lead well is a lifelong endeavor, and the best leaders are incredibly intentional about developing their own leadership through experience, stretch assignments, challenges, crises, active solicitation of feedback, coaching, mentoring, training, courses, reading, peer groups, self-reflection, and more.
 
The best leaders also focus on developing others. According to Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge, “Leaders develop in others the competence, as well as the confidence, to act and to excel.” They go on to say, “The most lasting test of your leadership effectiveness is the extent to which you bring forth and develop the leadership abilities in others, not just in yourself.”
 
Unfortunately, most organizations do not invest nearly enough in effective training and development (or on vetting people during hiring). According to a Hewitt Associates study of 700 senior leaders, most organizations hold their executives and managers accountable for achieving business results, but only 10% hold executives accountable for developing their direct reports, and only 5% indicate that their managers consistently demonstrate the ability to develop employees. In their book, The Talent MastersRam Charan and Bill Conaty write, “If businesses managed their money as carelessly as they manage their people, most would be bankrupt. The great majority of companies that control their finances don’t have any comparable processes for developing leaders or even pinpointing which ones to develop.”
 
Organizations that are great at learning and development improve systematically over time in ways that allow them to excel and outperform others, leveraging the power of compounding and the engagement and motivation that come from learning, development, and growth.
 
So, four key questions for leaders:
1. Why are you leading?
2. Who are you serving?
3. Are you upholding your values?
4. What are you doing to develop yourself and others?
 
How do you answer these questions, and which questions need better answers?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

The Problem of Bad Leaders – and Why People Keep Following Them

With a pandemic and all of its attendant human suffering, with economic devastation and so much loss of livelihood and dignity, with painful but overdue and much-needed conversations about structural and systematic racial injustice and inequity, and with so much division, disdain, and distrust, we need good leadership more than ever. Not because it is a cure-all, but because it is a prerequisite for stemming the crises, healing the wounds, and getting us moving in the right direction. Not just leadership at one level, but leadership at all levels of society and organizations. Not top-down, but leadership all around.

Yet too often we encounter not just mediocre but bad or even toxic leadership, the kind that not only fails to match the moment but that takes us in the wrong direction.

David Gergen, senior advisor to four U.S. presidents (from both parties), and author of Eyewitness to Power, wrote, “Most books about leadership tell us what a person ought to do to become effective and powerful. Few tell us what to avoid. But the latter may be even more valuable because many people on the road to success are tripped up by their mistakes and weaknesses.”

No leader is perfect. We all have faults, flaws, blind spots, and shadow sides. But we have to understand and grapple with the problem of bad leadership if we are to figure out what kind of leadership is needed today and to develop the leaders needed for tomorrow.

Bad leadership comes in various degrees, starting with lacking desirable behaviors, moving to missing essential elements, and falling off a cliff when it comes to toxic leadership. We address each in turn below.

There are many things that can “derail” our leadership. We can avoid difficult tasks. We can be a bottleneck on decisions. We can struggle with effective communication, listening, or delegation. We can get caught up in firefighting—reacting to events without moving toward a worthy vision. We can be too hard or too soft (what we call “steel and velvet” in Triple Crown Leadership book). We can be overly rational and not sufficiently emotional, or vice versa. We can be impulsive, insecure, or intimidating. We can be overly optimistic or pessimistic. We can be perfectionist, people pleasers, or procrastinators. There are many derailers, and most leaders have multiple derailers. Those willing to learn and develop and can turn to coaches, mentors, advisors, feedback, training, books, and more.

Some modern leadership frameworks can inform this discussion. Authentic leadership from Bill George incorporates purpose, values, commitment to relationships, self-discipline, and heart, and these in turn generate passion, connectedness, consistency, and compassion. It is easy to see how some leaders may struggle in some of these areas.

Servant leadership from Robert Greenleaf emphasizes that the leader’s essential role is to serve others—the team, the organization, the community, the nation, the world. At its best, servant leadership involves listening, empathy, persuasion, stewardship, commitment to people’s growth, and building community. Greenleaf wrote that its best test is this: “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” Again, it is easy to see how many leaders might fall short in some or many of these areas.

Transformational leadership (from James MacGregor Burns, Bernard M. Bass, Bruce Avolio, and others) causes significant change in individuals and social systems. In contrast with transactional leadership, which focuses on exchanges of expediency between leaders and followers via contingent rewards, transformational leadership involves emotional influence, vision and inspirational motivation, stimulation of creativity and reflections on values and beliefs, and consideration of the needs of followers. Clearly, this is a high standard, and many leaders fall short of it.

Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the best-selling classic, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the “Characteristics of Admired Leaders.” More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful and surprisingly consistent across nations: “for over three decades, there are only four qualities that have always received more than 60 percent of the votes… for the majority of people to follow someone willingly, they want a leader who they believe is

  • Honest
  • Competent
  • Inspiring
  • Forward-looking”

Clearly, leaders who lack honesty, competence, inspiration, and the ability to rise out of the present moment and look forward are not ones who will motivate and bring out the best in their followers. Honesty and credibility were far and away at the top of the list of things people want from their leaders:

“In every survey we’ve conducted, honesty is selected more often than any other leadership characteristic. Overall, it emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship…. First and foremost, people want a leader who is honest…. people want to follow leaders who, more than anything, are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leader’s word can be trusted, that they are personally passionate and enthusiastic about the work, and that they have the knowledge and skill to lead.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

What we want from leaders can be greatly influenced by the context. For example, during a crisis we want leaders who show humanity and grace under pressure; seek credible information from a diverse array of experts; form a brilliant crisis response team; communicate reality, urgency, and hope; make themselves present, visible, and available; maintain radical focus; make big decisions fast; empower leaders at all levels; restore psychological stability as well as financial stability; use purpose and values as a guide; create a sense that people are all in it together; build operating rhythm with small wins; maintain a long-term perspective; and anticipate and shape the “new normal.”

Bad leadership gets much worse in a hurry when leaders are deeply flawed with what I call mega-derailers. In my experience, ego and fear are the mega-derailers that are most pernicious, and that underly many of the other derailers. Cynicism, derision, and hate are also candidates for this list.

In her book, Multipliers, researcher and executive advisor Liz Wiseman notes that some leaders are “diminishers” who stifle others for their own benefit and aggrandizement, as opposed to “multipliers” who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of those around them. Diminishers include:

  1. Empire builders who hoard resources and underutilize talent
  2. Tyrants who create anxiety and suppress thinking
  3. Know-it-alls who showcase their own knowledge and tell people what to do
  4. Decision makers who make abrupt decisions that confuse people through the attendant chaos
  5. Micromanagers who take over and control things without trusting others to do their work

Importantly, Wiseman notes that there are also “accidental diminishers” who unintentionally shut down the intelligence and potential of others, for example by making others dependent on them by always rescuing them, overwhelming others with a flurry of ideas, consuming all the energy in the room, driving so hard or fast that others become passive spectators, or being so optimistic that others wonder if they appreciate struggles and risks.

Another version of bad leadership takes the benefits of transformational leadership noted above and twists it into pseudo-transformational leadership, which is characterized by self-serving yet inspirational leadership behaviors, discouraging independent thought in followers, and little caring for them. According to leadership scholars Bernard Bass and Ron Riggio, pseudo-transformational leaders are self-consumed, exploitative, and power-oriented, with warped moral values.

Recently, there has been increasing attention given to the “dark side of leadership,” often focused on narcissism (excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, inability to handle criticism, and sense of entitlement), hubris (foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence), and exploitation (taking unfair advantage). To those we can add the scourges of bullying and harassment. And of course there is a long history of authoritarian and autocratic leadership, and unethical and criminal leadership.

Toxic leadership, according to Jean Lipman-Blumen of Claremont Graduate University and author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders, is “a process in which leaders, by dint of their destructive behavior and/or dysfunctional personal characteristics, inflict serious and enduring harm on their followers, their organizations, and non-followers, alike.”

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Clearly, there is a range of bad leadership behaviors, ranging from mild to severe, but the important question remains as to why people continue to follow bad or toxic leaders.

Some scholars have written about a “toxic triangle,” a confluence of leader, follower, and environmental factors that facilitate destructive patterns:

  • Toxic leaders: charisma, narcissism, power, negative life themes and ideology
  • Susceptible followers: unmet needs, low self-evaluation, ambition, similar world view
  • Conducive environments: instability, perceived threats, lack of effective institutions and checks and balances

For years, many have pointed to the allure of charisma (compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others) and charismatic leadership, with people being seduced by leader characteristics such as wealth, power, or confidence. We can also look at the “psychodynamics of leadership,” including the psychological underpinnings of leaders’ behavior. Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye, Jr. wrote in his book, The Powers to Lead, “People persist in looking for heroic leaders.” Abraham Zaleznik, a leading scholar in this field, asks, “Is the leadership mystique merely a holdover from our childhood—from a sense of dependency and a longing for good and heroic parents?” Many people just long for somebody to come along and fix things, abdicating their own agency and responsibility, and they believe it when some leaders make unrealistic promises.

Ethics scholar Kenneth Goodpaster has done important work that I believe may shed light here. He notes that many leaders and followers get caught up in “teleopathy,” an unbalanced pursuit of purpose (e.g., winning in politics or sports, being a market leader in business, launching a space shuttle by X date), which is driven by fixation on set goals, rationalization of questionable behavior and decisions (e.g., everybody is doing it), and detachment from our personal values as we pursue those aims. I wonder if people are willing to stick with bad or unethical leaders because they are so caught up in winning and will do whatever it takes to prevail.

Our brains (and evolutionary biology) may also be part of the story. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:

“People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds…. If you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.”

Our brains have evolved to seek and defend tribes, and to be exceptionally good at rationalizing the behaviors and decisions of our tribe (and its leader), a phenomenon that is often unconscious (so exceptionally difficult to defend against).

As we can see, there are many reasons why good people continue to follow bad leaders, and these neurological, psychological, and social phenomena are complex and powerful (and subject to exploitation by savvy operators and marketers).

In the end, we want leaders who add and multiply, not subtract and divide. We want leaders who get great results, with integrity, and sustainably. We want leaders who create more followers and serve the larger good rather than themselves. We want leaders we admire, who make us better, and who call on our better angels. We need better leaders, and we need them now. But most of all, we need to be our own best advocates and changemakers.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.