The disease of copying superiors

Recently, Tom Peters shared this insightful article – The 15 Diseases of Leadership, According to Pope Francis – on his FB page and titled it Wow & Wow & Wow!

It got Tom’s attention; who am I to ignore it?

It turned out to be a really insightful read, and its author Gary Hamel has articulated it so aptly.

While all the pointers have the potential to be a wake-up call for many of us, point #10 struck the chord. Here it goes:

The disease of idolizing superiors:

This is the disease of those who court their superiors in the hope of gaining their favor. They are victims of careerism and opportunism; they honor persons [rather than the larger mission of the organization]. They think only of what they can get and not of what they should give; small-minded persons, unhappy and inspired only by their own lethal selfishness. Superiors themselves can be affected by this disease, when they try to obtain the submission, loyalty and psychological dependency of their subordinates, but the end result is unhealthy complicity.

I cannot agree more with this insight. Rather than learning from their superiors, many people in today’s workplace tend to blindly follow their superiors for different reasons.

However, I have observed that many middle managers at startups or smaller companies often court their superiors because they want to become like them. While their objective is not always to gain the superior’s favor, they are absolutely more impressed by their superiors than they should be and often commit the mistake of following their actions (and not their point of view) in similar situations.

These people are not small-minded, unhappy people inspired only by their own lethal selfishness. Instead, these people are mesmerized by how their superior deals with different situations. They think that they will also be able to lead similar situations if they adapt to their superior’s style.

They get inspired by the heroic actions of their superiors and tend to “copy” them.

They get psychologically dependent on their superiors and become loyal to their superiors instead of being committed to the startup’s mission.

Often, such acts look innocent and give the superior a sense of personal fulfillment, but it might bring negative consequences down the line.

Here is what is likely to happen when such a situation occurs

a) The superior starts feeling good about his subordinate’s act

b) The subordinate starts feeling good by keeping in the company of the superior

c) The subordinate starts simulating his superior’s actions in most of the tasks he undertakes – while hiring people; delivering; managing difficult situations with the clients; while doing their day-to-day work …

d) The superior start noticing it and often tend to conclude that by following him, his people will also produce great results

e) This might result in a missed focus on being as agile as possible, moving fast, failing small and failing fast, gathering as much data as possible, and building an infrastructure upon which the startup or the small business organization can stand for years to come

Four Ideas for Superiors to Deal With Subordinates Who Copy or Idolize Them

Such situations may plague the organization. Here are some of the ideas that might help the superior deal with such situations:

  1. Be aware: Of your own act. Of your people’s actions and identify matching patterns and see if those patterns indicate that your people are blindly following you, innocently or intentionally – and do something about it.
  2. Substance over smartness: Reward substance over smartness in each act that your part of the business entertains. Even if the substance is not extremely good in style, reward it more over styled smartness which does not have an equivalent substance.
  3. Communicate candidly: Talk to your subordinate and communicate what you have observed. Tell him that instead of being an inferior version of yourself, he should choose to become the BEST version of himself. Sure, he can choose to look at the situations from your point of view but he must understand and accept that merely copying your act won’t give him desired success.
  4. Lead thyself better: Now, this has more to do with yourself rather than your subordinate. Empower your people, so they are inspired by the beauty of what they intend to create and not your heroic style. This is easier said than done but absolutely necessary if you want to create a mission-driven organization that gets things done!

In closing, copying superiors is indeed a disease, and it must be dealt with upfront and as fast as possible. The key is to accept that it is a disease and then take corrective measures.

Question: Have you observed any such situation? What are your views about it?