These days, my feeds are awash with the names Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Those names are inevitably flanked by Warren Buffett, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, and others. To quantify the popularity, just search “Jeff Bezos” on Google and count the millions of results you’ll get. It’s a demonstration of the trend of executive worship, where founders, executives, and C-suite leaders tend to put a few exceptionally successful leaders on pedestals and analyze their every word and routine for some crumb of replicable insight. Even when the discussion holds criticisms, there are few other players in the picture as alternatives. This trend isn’t beneficial, and it might do a tremendous disservice by leaving professionals demotivated and demoralized rather than inspired.
It’s Normal to Need a Role Model, but They Shouldn’t be Perfect
We all need someone to look up to, who can show us what’s possible if we apply specific effort, skills, or traits. This desire is expected when we want to find a sense of self, wholeness, purpose, and belonging.
Role models are necessary for our well-being, but not any role model will do. Research from psychologists Emily Kleszewski and Kathleen Otto reveals that people don’t respond well to leaders who subscribe to the old-school idea that they must be flawless. Instead, people look for quirks, mistakes, and humanity because they know they are not perfect either. When someone famous or in a position of authority makes a flub and owns it with humor and grace, the flub endears them to their audience. Psychologists call this the Pratfall Effect.
A research study by Huang-Yao Hong of National Chengchi University and Xiaodong Lin-Siegler of Columbia University demonstrated the Pratfall Effect by showing that people are more inspired when they can see both a person’s successes and difficulties. The researchers provided students with Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Galileo Galilei’s theories. They then gave another group of students materials praising the accomplishments of those scientists. They gave a third group text that talked about the scientists’ struggles.
The group that heard only about what the scientists had achieved developed stereotypical views of the scientists. However, the group that learned about the struggles had less stereotyped views. That group also remembered the information better, did better at solving complex, open-ended, problem-solving tasks related to the information, and became more interested in science.
In other words, you don’t just need a role model; you need a relatable role model. Part of that relatability is also the ability of the role model to empathize with you. They need to have a basic grasp of your experiences, needs, and ways of thinking. Without that, it’s challenging to make a strong connection and have a deep, meaningful relationship that can help you grow.
It should come as no surprise then that even as leaders still fear exposure as frauds and tend to overcompensate, two of the biggest highlights in leadership are authenticity and empathy. The idea that “incomplete” leaders are praiseworthy is front and center, and there’s an enormous buzz about managing your legitimacy for people to like and follow you. Vulnerability now is the stuff of legends and “hero leadership” is out.
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Why Executive Worship Fails
Executive worship, however popular it might be with founders, entrepreneurs, and C-suite leaders, effectively tosses the Pratfall Effect into a ditch. Rather than stress the humanness of the people at the top, it touts them as having accessed success through idealized – yet still somehow rare and mysterious – characteristics and behaviors. This emphasis is merely a continuation of the “Great Man” theory. Since many aristocratic people in history provided leadership opportunities to family members, researchers who saw many leaders in one family but who didn’t assess leadership effectiveness subsequently thought that leadership was divine or innate according to a bloodline. It also completely ignores that employees and others in the public also call out many leaders highlighted in executive worship, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, for being out of touch. These actions coincide with a broader view that leaders are out of touch overall.
So instead of being inspiring, the leaders who have become household names feel distant for many because there isn’t a sense that those leaders understand “the little guy.” The average professional Joe or Jane desperately looks for a North Star who can provide a sense of direction and confidence. Still, they don’t find one because there’s little hope of ever having a relationship with or understanding from the “perfect” people higher-ups often tell them are getting it right. It’s confusing when higher-ups claim they value empathy and authenticity because the leaders they hold up as examples usually don’t match those values. If you’re attempting to encourage workers to aim high and work hard, this approach simply doesn’t work.
Backyard Mentors Hold the Key
Executive worship does have an antidote. Higher-ups need to present leaders within their communities as examples. These backyard mentors often do not lack degrees, certifications, or real-life experience in their industries and thus shouldn’t be sold short in terms of technical offerings. Yet they typically not only can better understand our circumstances but are more likely to have the time and physical presence necessary for influential connection. In the post-pandemic recovery, where people need support and motivation more than ever, we need to tap these individuals. The sooner we crush the pedestals to sand and walk next to our knowledgable neighbors who honestly care, the sooner we’ll reach the potential we all have stored inside us and enjoy significantly better mental health.