This article was originally published on the Human Talent Network
I very much enjoyed the Hunger Games, both the books and the movies. The story is a gripping one, of a dystopian future and the corrupt government that holds power through brutality and, of course, the Games. The portrayal of the political environment and machinations are particularly well done, with one notable exception: a certain major figure makes use of poison to further his aims. As a powerful government official, there is no reason for him to do that: he had the full apparatus of the state at his disposal and a team of loyal flunkies ready to act on his behalf. There was no reason for him to use as crude a tool as poison.
The power of the state, along with some loyal flunkies, was on full display in the news lately. The news this past week with was filled with stories of New Jersey governor Chris Christie and a scandal with the unfortunate, but inevitable, name of “Bridgegate.” According to the New York Times, Bridgegate involves having all but one lane of the George Washington Bridge closed down for four straight days last September, causing complete traffic gridlock in Fort Lee, NJ. Although Christie laughed it off at first, subsequent revelations are showing that people in his office were responsible. Indeed, he just fired his deputy chief of staff when it turned out she was involved.
In the political arena, the questions are, “What did Governor Christie know? When did he know it?” He claims that his staff kept the information from him. I am not particularly interested in those questions; this isn’t a political article. Rather, I am much more interested in what the behavior of Chris Christie’s immediate staff and appointees says about him as a leader and what lessons business leaders can learn from these events.
Leadership is a funny thing, and can take many forms. Some leaders and quiet and self-effacing; others are loud and brash. No matter the overt style adopted by a leader, the actions of the leader set the tone for the group. The leader who is organized and focused on building a good process eventually gets a staff who also value process. The leader who values results at all costs eventually gets a staff that values results at all costs. This is the nature of leadership: the leader is the person out in front, setting the example. The team follows the leader and the team imitates the leader. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and most people like to flatter the boss. People who imitate, that is, flatter the boss, are those whom the boss is most likely to reward.
Thus, how a team behaves when the leader isn’t looking tells us a great deal about the leader. If the team behaves ethically when no one is watching, then odds are pretty darn good that the leader holds to high ethical standards. On the other hand, if a team behaves unethically, that also says something about the example being set from the top.
Most leaders will also at least go through a period when their staff worships them. Good leaders recognize this can happen and work hard to get past it. Weaker leaders are quite happy to be worshipped and are content to foster and maintain that sort of atmosphere. The best leaders build up their followers and transform them into highly effective, ethical leaders as well.
In Governor Christie’s case, it appears that his direct reports deliberately withheld information from him and lied to him when he asked them about it. They also seem quite willing to take the fall for him, at least if the news reports are correct. Assuming this is all true, it tells us a great deal about his leadership and the state of his team.
What sort of example was Christie setting that led his people to believe that their behavior was acceptable? Had it been one person involved, well, occasionally bad apples do get in. The correct behavior is to fire them as soon as you find them. Had the actions in question been taken by people far down the organizational hierarchy, that too would be less meaningful: The influence of the leader is always strongest at the top, and does weaken as we move further and further away from the centers of power. But the people involved in Fort Lee’s Traffigeddon were members of Christie’s inner circle. They apparently thought that using state power to pursue a private agenda was acceptable and that their boss would want them to do it. They also apparently thought that it was okay to lie to their boss about it. What sort of leader conveys those messages to his subordinates?
So how does this apply to business? Ultimately, the attitude the CEO exhibits is the attitude that the staff will imitate. At one maker of scientific software, the CEO viewed the customers as a bunch of incompetent idiots. Why did he take that view? Well, apparently they had the temerity to criticize aspects of his software. Of course, he never expressed his views to his customers, but he was quite open about them in private with his subordinates. This led to a general atmosphere of amusement and condescension when a customer called in for help. The customers, highly educated professionals, were not idiots; at least, they were sufficiently not idiotic to know when they were being laughed at and condescended to. Moreover, because customers were viewed as idiots, their feedback was routinely ignored. Eventually, as competing products entered the market, customers deserted the company in droves. In the end, the company went out of business.
If team members view the leader and the team as indistinguishable, the problem can get even worse. When the leader is too much the center of mass of the team, team members won’t wait for instructions. Instead, they will attempt to do what they think the boss wants, often without really considering whether those actions are necessarily the best actions to take. When you add to that mix a sufficiently inappropriate role model, you have a serious problem brewing. Of course, in Chris Christie’s case, it didn’t just brew; it boiled over, and he will have to clean up the mess. High performance teams, on the other hand, understand their goals, think through the process of accomplishing those goals, and consider the ramifications of their actions.
Ultimately, the more your team likes you, the more they want to impress you. Assuming they are sufficiently skilled to take action without your specific instructions, the actions they do take will be governed by how they feel about you and by the example you set. The initiative they take will be the initiative you’ve taught them is good. In other words, if you’re wondering how your team could have done something amazingly brilliant, or utterly stupid, all you really need to do is look in the mirror. If you want to change what your team is doing, that’s the place to start.