Our leaders, or not

A columnist of the 1990s — I’m thinking P.J. O’Rourke or Dave Barry, but I can’t find this quote attributed to either — once wrote that he had been managed by others for years and was therefore trying to avoid being managed.

This comes to mind in reading Arthur Brooks:

I always thought people liked me. I make friends easily and am at about the 99th percentile in extroversion.

But when I first moved to the American Enterprise Institute as president in 2009, I often felt a distinct distance from my colleagues. As I approached the lunch table, I’d see my colleagues laughing and telling stories, but when I sat down, they would look down at their plates. I started to take it personally.

But then I read the work of Princeton University’s Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize laureate in economics although he is a psychologist, and my relational isolation suddenly began to make sense. Kahneman’s work reveals a hard truth: Tyrannical or not, people don’t enjoy being around leaders all that much. In a well-known study, Kahneman and several colleagues looked at sources of unhappiness in our ordinary lives. They found that the No. 1 unhappiness-provoking activity in a typical day is spending time with one’s boss. Leaders who think their employees look forward to seeing them are basically fooling themselves. Many leaders want to be the exception to this; few are. Why? Because most people find it stressful to be bossed.

Most of us in leadership roles make an uneasy peace with this truth. I, for example, started eating lunch at my desk. Tyrants, on the other hand, embrace it fully. The canonical text for despotic leaders is Niccolo Machiavelli’s classic The Prince, in which he famously advised, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” By process of elimination, since you cannot be loved and still be the boss, go ahead and be feared.

People who follow Machiavelli’s advice are what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls “coercive leaders” in his seminal Harvard Business Review article, “ Leadership That Gets Results.” In his research, he studied the leadership styles of nearly 4,000 CEOs. The most hated? “Coercive leadership.” The coercive leader, Goleman wrote, creates “a reign of terror, bullying and demeaning his executives, roaring his displeasure at the slightest misstep.”

That doesn’t sound like a leader most people would be eager to follow, but it does sound like a lot of current leaders and the general tenor of our political discourse. From television to social media to everyday politics at the highest level, we see powerful people belittling, maligning, and mocking those with lower status. Citizens, colleagues, and opponents are all routinely insulted and shamed in a system that rewards the loudest voices and most audacious claims.

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