Picture the scene: It’s a wet Tuesday morning. I’m a little late in and swearing under my breath as my laptop begins to boot up. You see Yesterday’s Adam left school without doing his printing for today. Yesterday’s Adam thought today’s Adam would have plenty of time. Yesterday’s Adam is a bit of a selfish prat according to today’s Adam and should have known better.
As I frantically dash to the printer before morning duty I reflect on how, as a leader, I should know better and how if a member of my team did the same thing I would probably remind them of the fact that they are better off having everything ready before they leave as things go wrong sometimes.
This made me think about hypocrisy in leadership. After all, surely people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones?
So is there a glasshouse for leadership? Should leaders be mindful of their own previous inclinations when dealing with team members? Or should leaders wipe the slate clean and have higher standards of their team than they personally demonstrated?
Before I give my answer let’s look at some of the factors that might inform a decision.
Human brains are limited and they have a number of shortcuts to help them out,some of these cause problems and are called cognitive biases. Two relevant ones here are hindsight bias and egocentric bias. Hindsight bias does exactly what it says on the tin, you find it hard to remember the accuracy of past events. We tend to remember them as being more positive than they were. This is like when my nan tells me stories of the blitz. Egocentric bias is all about us thinking of ourselves more favorably than we should. These two combine to form an issue. Essentially the older I get the better I was. This can mean, as a leader, it is hard to accurately recall our own performance as a team member and often we are prone to overestimate our prior performance.
Standards and clarity.
Standards and clarity are two of the climate dimensions of leadership. That’s just a funky way of saying people need to know what’s expected and if you expect a lot it’s probably going to be better than expecting less. I think this is a valid point. After all, a top athlete would hire a coach to train them even though it’s obvious their skill is significantly less. They provide direction, support and accountability. All things that help. So there is a strong case that we should set sky-high expectations to get the best out of our team.
Walking the walk.
However there is another side to this. Leaders are always considered stronger if they are authentic. Authentic leaders are ones that walk the walk as much as they talk the talk. Does an awareness of a leader’s limitations by the team undermine an approach of high expectations if the leader themselves has struggled to meet them in the past? Does asking for more than you were capable of leads us back towards this uncomfortable idea of hypocrisy? I certainly feel that the current or prior behaviour of a leader can massively undermine the message they transmit to their team if the two are not synchronous. Maybe a leader’s inability to meet their own expectations and the negative effects it has provides some evidence that the glasshouse of leadership does exist?
People need accountability to provide an invisible hand to guide them to make the right decisions when they have two opposing priorities. If I have a break duty but also need to get my printing, without accountability I would be late to my duty and the slippery slope would begin which would ultimately end in a potential safeguarding issue. And yes I know that if you ensure people understand how important it is they will prioritise it, but c’mon seriously that’s not actually how people behave. I need to be challenged to nudge me to make the right choice sometimes and I’m sure you do too. However accountability is a double edged sword. Holding others to a high standard prompts them to ask the question “is my leader meeting their own standards?” it can undermine what we are trying to achieve and sometimes create a blame culture which erodes discretionary effort. When we have a mismatch between the message and the actions it never ends well.
So is there such a thing as a glasshouse for leaders?
Yes I think there probably is. Which is a relief because I am 700 words in right now and I’d hate for it to have been a waste of our time. I think as leaders we should all try our best to remember what it is like to be a team member and work hard to critically examine our expectations.
However I think we can bypass the glasshouse some what. If we acknowledge that we used to struggle with certain things, but recognise their importance and value, then we have a chance. We can then explain why this is so important and how the systems will support us to get to the highest possible standard. When we challenge we can challenge with candor but also compassion. We can ask first and check the state of a team member before we challenge them and modify our tone and approach to suit their situation. Do we still challenge them? Yes! Do we want them to be better than we were? Of course! We want them to be the best they can possibly be because we care. I often think this aspect of accountability is the part that gets pushed to the wayside as the ‘alpha’ mentality takes over.
So in conclusion I do think it’s important that leaders remember the glasshouse and avoid throwing stones. However the best leaders instinctively know this and communicate to their teams the desire to understand and also challenge them for the good of the team and the students.
Do you agree? I’d love to know.