A more ethical leadership based on more equality

Many of us seem to believe that whatever problems society faces can be solved by ‘more leadership’. Invariably, this means that a ‘strong’ leader is required. Such leaders have a superhuman ability to diagnose problems and develop a vision for fixing them. They are ‘decisive’, not easily swayed by contrary opinion and are determined to the point of implacability.

These paragons are often described as ‘transformational’ leaders. What could possibly be wrong with all that?

Recent events have provided some answers to this question. The United Kingdom’s Chilcot Report into the Iraq war documents in painstaking detail what goes wrong when decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of a single individual.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair had a powerful vision, unshakeable self-belief and absolute determination to follow through on key decisions, such as invading Iraq. Bereft of critical insight, his delusions became policy, with disastrous consequences for millions.

In truth, no human being knows everything, all visions have defects, every decision has unintended consequences and sometimes a ‘reverse gear’, something Blair boasted that he didn’t have, is absolutely vital.

God-like figures may be found on Mount Olympus but they are in short supply on planet Earth. Studies have also found that people with power are less empathic towards others, are more likely to excuse their own bad behaviour and are less likely to seek advice, precisely in circumstances where they are most in need of it.

In one now infamous study, three-person student teams engaged in a joint writing exercise. More precisely, two people engaged in the task while one evaluated them. When a plate of cookies was provided, the evaluators were more inclined to take a second one, while chewing with their mouths open and spraying crumbs in all directions.

They had become more focused on their own needs and wants and begun to act as if normal social rules no longer applied to them. There is truth in the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ethics easily gets lost in a fog of self-regard.


But power also affects how followers interact with leaders, to the disadvantage of both. When people meet someone in authority they generally exaggerate how much they agree with them. This is known as ingratiation theory.

Moreover, most of us react instinctively against criticism, an ‘automatic vigilance effect’ that discourages others from giving us accurate feedback about the decisions we have taken.

The result is that leaders easily become out of touch with the real world around them. Too often, they resemble a rock star surrounded by a sycophantic entourage, with equally lamentable results.

These problems are compounded by the fact that most of us have a higher opinion of ourselves than is merited. For example, over 90% of us believe that we are a better than average driver, a statistical impossibility. So when followers tell leaders that they agree with what they are doing, it is natural for leaders to believe them.

This helps to explain why we so often find leaders who are completely out of touch with reality. When such leaders fail, their fall from grace is absolute. The savant hero of yesterday becomes the village idiot of today, deemed solely responsible for whatever mess we are now in.

I argue here for a different view of leadership and followership. There are no miracle workers. The search for them is demeaning, dysfunctional and ultimately doomed to disappointment.

A different view of leadership and followership

Of course, visions can be good things. Leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela articulated powerful ones that enthused millions and changed the world. But most leadership deals with far more prosaic issues than did King or Mandela.

Under normal conditions, visions need the input of many if they are to be in tune with the real world, if they are to have any prospect of capturing support and if they are to be implemented successfully.

Yet most organisations remain enraptured by the image of a pyramid. Power flows up, not down, and feedback flows down, not up. The CEO’s office is usually on the top floor rather than the basement. It is these images that really need to be transformed.

Tim Harford’s excellent book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure provides a good illustration of what I mean here. As a young captain, the future General Petraeus became a junior aide to Major General Jack Galvin. What happened is unusual: “Galvin told Petraeus that the most important part of the job was to criticise his boss: ‘It’s my job to run the division, and it’s your job to critique me.’ Petraeus protested but Galvin insisted, so each month the young captain would leave a report card on his boss’s in-tray.”

Formal and informal systems of this kind need to become the norm rather than the exception. It is also clear that status symbols, such as excessive pay for CEOs, discourage followers from speaking truth to power.

Such symbols need to be bulldozed into oblivion.

If we really want engaged followers, purposeful organisations and sustainable models of business then people have to be treated at work much as they are out of it, where they make important decisions on a daily basis and do so without an authority figure micro-managing their every effort. Most are parents, a much more difficult assignment than any they get at work.

A key question we all could ask much more often is: what decision-making authority can I relinquish today? A football team cannot succeed if only one player hogs the ball. The same holds true of decision-making in business. Conventional approaches to leadership theorising and development have blocked this realisation for too long, becoming part of the problem that we now face.

A more democratic, ethical approach may sound maddening. It is certainly a challenge. But running a dictatorship is even more maddening, sometimes literally. Totalitarianism is ultimately ineffectual, in both countries and corporations. It is time for a fresh start.

Dennis Tourish is professor of leadership at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK, and author of The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership, published by Routledge.