Can institutions be caring servants for a greater good?

In the opening to his monograph The Institution as Servant (1972; rev. ed. 2009), the late Robert K. Greenleaf stated:

THIS IS MY THESIS: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions — often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.

Greenleaf devoted much of his life to advancing the philosophy and practice of servant leadership. I was introduced to this concept by educator Steven James Lawrence, who tied it into the quest for greater dignity in our workplaces. This led me to the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Atlanta, which describes servant leadership this way:

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. 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…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Linking institutions and individuals in a servant leadership mode

You can see the challenge, drawing heavily upon Greenleaf’s thinking:

  1. Organizations have become the conduits through which society does much of its “caring work.”
  2. Organizations are only as good as their citizens, especially their leaders.
  3. Thus, to foster better, more caring institutions, we have to create and empower more caring leaders eager and willing to serve in a servant leadership capacity.

Uh oh, this isn’t going to be easy, right? It runs smack dab into commonly-held notions of self-interested ambition and advancement that are drilled into the heads of high achievers early on. Think family expectations for success. Think the cultures of business schools, law schools, and elite colleges and universities. Many of us (myself included) are where we are because we bought into that achievement ethic, at least in part, and perhaps at times at the cost of conducting ourselves in a servant leadership mode.

Furthermore, changing existing institutions is hard work. Organizational cultures set in good and bad ways. Greenleaf wrote The Institution as Servant especially for trustees in businesses, universities, and religious institutions. However, stakeholders at all levels must be invited to play a role in positive transformation. Also, it may be easier to imbue new organizations with a spirit of servant leadership rather than trying to move existing ones that seem stuck in place.

Finally, as some protested when I first wrote about servant leadership over a year ago, some leaders claim to be operating in servant leadership mode when, in reality, they’re doing quite the opposite. Thus, servant leadership has been hijacked in some instances by individuals who tout themselves as being something they’re not. (I’ve seen folks like this in academic workplaces. They’re also fond of using terms such as “transparency” and “shared governance,” and the more they invoke them, the less they practice them.)

Still, this is all worth pursuing. To a large degree, our society is the product of the institutions that shape it. Better organizations and better leaders can only help us.

“It’s not my responsibility”

(image courtesy of clipart kid.com)

A conversation with a friend last night and an episode of a TV crime drama I recently watched served to crystallize this line in my mind: “It’s not my responsibility.”

Naturally I thought about “It’s not my responsibility” and responses like it in the context of my bailiwicks: Workplaces, law and policy, and the community. But before I share some thoughts on that, let’s get a definition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines responsibility as “the quality or state of being responsible,” such as a “moral, legal, or mental accountability.”

Okay, sometimes “It’s not my responsibility” is simply a truthful, accurate statement of circumstances and limitations. At work we may have defined responsibilities, and exceeding them or stepping over those of others could lead to chaos and disruption. The law establishes responsibilities and obligations, too, and exceeding those boundaries could lead to unwanted consequences. Family ties may mandate responsibilities legally and morally, especially based on closeness of relations.

Beyond that, however, there’s a huge realm of discretion where we can choose to accept or undertake responsibility or not. This may occur in the context of taking a stand, helping or protecting someone, or contributing financial support. When we exercise our discretion to take responsibility, we are making a commitment notwithstanding the lack of external obligation to do so. That commitment should be every bit as strong as an institutionally imposed mandate.

Despite religious chest-thumping by some, I have to say that we are in an age where serving as each other’s keepers does not appear to be in style. Whether in our workplaces or other communities and relationships, I hope that will change.

Psychopath CEOs, organizational culture, and workplace bullying clusters

“Okay, bosses, count off by fives…”

When talking about abusive work environments, it’s natural to focus on individual aggressors, bullies, and harassers — especially if you’re on the receiving end. However, we also know that bullying and mobbing behaviors are typically enabled by organizational cultures that promote, defend, and/or allow such mistreatment. In attempting to understand these two perspectives, it helps to go straight to the top: Look for a CEO, president, or executive director who embodies the worst of these qualities.

On this note, I’ve been meaning to write about a study conducted by Nathan Brooks (Bond U.), Katarina Fritzon (B0nd U.), and Simon Croom (U. San Diego), suggesting that roughly one in five corporate CEOs demonstrate psychopathic personality traits. As reported last fall by Michael Arria for AlterNet:

According to a new study, one out of every five corporate bosses is a psychopath.

The study surveyed 261 corporate professionals and determined that their “clinically elevated levels of psychopathy” were on par with the prison population. Nathan Brooks, a forensic psychologist at Bond University and researcher on this study, told ABC, “Their personality usually leads them to exploit every avenue open to them, whether it’s in a criminal setting, or within organizations.”

. . . According to Brooks, a certain “successful psychopath” has been allowed to rise in the corporate world, despite the fact that they’re more likely to break the law or engage in unethical activity.

In other words, it starts from the top. Good CEOs hire good mid-level managers and good HR directors. Toxic CEOs hire managers and HR staff who effectuate their abusive leadership practices. It rolls downhill from there, in either good or bad ways.

The bullying cluster hypothesis

For what it’s worth, the 1 in 5 figure makes sense to me. For example, in a 2013 post, I looked at various prevalence studies and assessments and concluded that “between 1 of 6 and 1 of 7 bosses may behave in a manner that causes underlings and other co-workers to think of them as psychopaths.” Close enough, yes?

The figure also may support a hypothesis I floated in 2012, namely, that some workplaces are “bullying clusters.” I suggested that “(b)ullying behaviors are not evenly distributed among all employers. Rather, bullying behaviors are disproportionately concentrated in a smaller number of toxic workplaces.” I further asked, “might the old chestnut, the “20/80 rule,” apply here? Could, say, 20 percent of our workplaces host 80 percent of the bullying?”

So…a 20 percent psychopath CEO rate…and a question speculating that 20 percent of our workplaces may account for 80 percent of workplace bullying. Maybe we’ve got something of a match here.

***

Related posts

Is the “psychopath boss” theme overhyped? (2013)

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012)

Is our psychologically ill economy fueled by psychologically ill business leaders? (2011)

Timothy Snyder on standing out

Historian Timothy Snyder (Yale) has written an important little book for our times, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), which belongs on the must-read lists of change agents who are confronting abuses of power. Essentially it’s a 128-page expanded essay that can be read in an evening — and hopefully will be re-read to reinforce its core lessons.

Among the 20 short chapters of instruction, number 8, “Stand out,” resonates specially with me:

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

For this chapter, Snyder draws heavily upon examples of heroism during the Second World War, especially that of Winston Churchill. Citing the Prime Minister’s political leadership and brave oratory, Snyder notes that “had Churchill not kept Britain in the war in 1940,” the Allied forces would never have had the chance to win the war. “Today,” writes Snyder, “what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time he had to stand out.”

Of course, even in the fiercest of onslaughts, battles must be picked. Snyder briefly mentions the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, a massive operation that rescued what remained of the British expeditionary force after France fell to the Nazis. Dunkirk illustrates how fighting to the bitter end is not always the answer. Sometimes you need to retreat and regroup to fight another day.

History provides us with guidance only; it is not an instruction book. But as Snyder observes, “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

In academic leadership, resume and character are separate entities

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Image courtesy of clipartfest.com

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned during a quarter of century in academe is that one’s resume and character are separate entities.

Okay, a quick clarification: In academe a resume is called a curriculum vitae, or c.v. A c.v. is a resume on growth hormones, detailing activities that normally are summarized in a page or two. For someone with a lot of publications and speaking appearances, a  c.v. can easily top ten pages.

In any event, whether we call it a resume or a c.v., the bottom line is that an impressive paper record and upstanding personal character do not necessarily go hand in hand. This is especially the case with professors who enter the world of academic administration, harboring ambitions of deanships, college presidencies, and other high-ranking positions.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are plenty of good, ethical people in academic administration. Many bring a spirit of servant leadership to their work, as opposed to raw, preening ambition. But there’s another group, a pretty big one, that calls to mind writer William Deresiewicz’s excellent essay on leadership, based on a talk he gave to West Point cadets:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.

I have quoted often from this essay in this blog. The piece is well worth reading in its entirety. For dwellers in academe, especially, there’s at least a decent chance that you’ll see some people you recognize in his descriptions — hopefully none involving a mirror!!

The rise of the type of leader described by Deresiewicz is one of the problems infecting academic life today: Too many ambitious climbers, not enough servant leaders. At a time when higher education needs its best people at the helm, I’m afraid it’s a very mixed bag.

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream

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Thanks largely to Donald Trump, the term “gaslighting” is now going mainstream. The American Dialect Society has declared it one of the “Words of the Year,” defining it as “psychologically manipulat[ing] a person into questioning their own sanity.” Wikipedia may not be as academically authoritative a source, but its current explanation of gaslighting is right on point:

Gaslighting . . . is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent is to sow seeds of doubt in the targets, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. . . . Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

I’ll get to the Trump connection in a minute, but for now, a bit of background.

Origins of the term

It starts with an old movie.

I first became familiar with gaslighting several years ago when folks in the workplace anti-bullying movement used it to describe crazy-making behaviors at work. In my December 2012 piece about gaslighting as a form of workplace bullying (which has become one of this blog’s most popular posts), I shared Dr. Martha Stout’s explanation of the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

In the movie, Bergman’s psychological deterioration accelerates when she cannot get anyone to believe her claims.

America’s Gaslighter-In-Chief?

Gaslighting started to appear in the mainstream media last year, largely associated with Donald Trump’s conduct on the campaign trail. Last spring, for example, U.S. News contributing editor Nicole Hemmer wrote an insightful piece about Trump’s gaslighting behaviors via his campaign tactics and rhetoric:

Trump is a toxic blend of Barnum and bully. If you’re a good mark, he’s your best friend. But if you catch on to the con, then he starts to gaslight. Ask him a question and he’ll lie without batting an eye. Call him a liar and he’ll declare himself “truthful to a fault.” Confront him with contradictory evidence and he’ll shrug and repeat the fib. Maybe he’ll change the subject. But he’ll never change the lie.

The gaslighting tag continues. Here’s a snippet of Frida Ghitis’s commentary for CNN about Trump’s behavior, published earlier this week:

Is Donald Trump really a “big fan” of the intelligence community, as he claimed on Twitter, or did he disparage intelligence professionals when he repeatedly referred to them and their work in sneer quotes about “Intelligence” briefings and the “so-called ‘Russian hacking'”?

Did Trump mock a disabled reporter, or did your eyes, and the Hollywood elite make you think he did?

Did he convince Ford not to move a car plant to Mexico, saving American jobs, or was it all a fabrication for publicity?

Did he win the election with a historically narrow victory, or did he score a “landslide”?

. . . Reality is becoming hazy in the era of Trump. And that’s no accident.

The fact is Trump has become America’s gaslighter in chief.

Trump’s behavior has pushed buttons on a very personal level as well. After the election, Suzannah Weiss, writing for Everyday Feminism, invoked gaslighting in describing how Trump’s candidacy was a triggering event for abuse survivors and now relates to our political future:

As a survivor of emotional abuse, one tactic of Trump’s in particular reminded me of my manipulative ex partner: gaslighting. This is when someone tells you that your thoughts aren’t based in reality, to the point that you start to distrust your perceptions.

. . . Since I’ve learned about gaslighting, I’ve understood that all the things my partner blamed on me weren’t actually my fault. Looking at Trump’s words can also help us understand our own relationships, as well as the ways gaslighting can shape our political climate.

Lately even the academicians are getting into the act. For example, English and journalism professor Ben Yagoda (U. Delaware) delves into the history and use of the term, leading to Trump, in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece:

The new prominence [of the term] came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.

Significance for workplace anti-bullying movement

It appears that Donald Trump’s gaslighting behavior was not simply for the campaign trail. As Frida Ghitis writes in her CNN piece, “If you’ve never heard the term, prepare to learn it and live with it every day.”

How will this modeled behavior impact the workplace anti-bullying movement? Will Trump actually validate gaslighting and bullying behaviors, in essence sending a message that if it’s appropriate behavior for the President, then it’s right for everyone? Or will the nation recoil at this recurring manipulative, deceitful conduct and realize that we need a lot less of it everywhere, including our workplaces?

These questions of personal conduct have quickly transcended political lines. As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin writes for the Washington Post:

Rather than a generic label for Trump, Americans require blunt, uncompromising language to describe what he does. He lies. He violates (as of noon Friday) the Constitution. He enables an adversary of America. His crude insults disgrace the office to which he has been elected. He defiles the presidency when he tells us that a black lawmaker’s district is “falling apart” and “crime infested,” as if African Americans represent only dystopian wastelands.

Trump will be president. Telling Americans why he doesn’t deserve to be president should be the goal of political opponents. Stopping him from accomplishing aims that damage our constitutional order, international standing, economy and social fabric should be the goal of all patriotic Americans.

Searching for great bosses

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For better or worse, it may be easy to find a bad boss, but how do we engage the search for that seemingly more elusive good boss?

Isvari Mohan, in a piece for the Boston Globe, reports on a 10-year study by management professor Sydney Finkelstein (Dartmouth) that included over 200 interviews — all in a quest to identify the qualities of great bosses and how to find them. A few highlights from the Globe piece:

  • “Great bosses roll up their sleeves and work closely with their employees. They are ambitious, drivers of change, interested in the message of the company, and willing to delegate authority.”
  • “Superbosses are geniuses at helping other people accomplish more than they thought possible, and they focus on generating talent on a continuous basis, says Finkelstein. They want to see you leave and do well; they optimize talent flow, not talent retention. They find unlikely winners to hire. They don’t care about traditional resumes.”
  • “Finkelstein says there are three groups [of great bosses]: iconoclasts like Jon Stewart who are so obsessed with their jobs that their dedication motivates others; glorious bastards like Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp. who are driven by a desire to win and know they need talent to do so; and nurturers like cosmetics queen Mary Kay Ash who simply like helping others get ahead.”

Finkelstein’s findings appear in his new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent (2016). I look forward to checking it out.

Faithful readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time talking about bad bosses, especially those whose behaviors cross into the realm of bullying and abuse. It’s also vitally important, of course, that we talk about the qualities that make for good bosses, so we can have something to aspire to for ourselves and our co-workers.

Here are some previous posts that offer more commentary on this topic:

What makes for good bosses, leaders, and workplaces? (2015)

Positive qualities of my best bosses (2012)

You want good leaders? (2010)

 

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