For some, one of the perceived “perks” of promotion is the earned right to look down on others from a higher leadership perch. You’re not imagining it. Leadership contempt, to quote from Alanis Morissette’s 1995 classic, can be a little bit “ironic, don’t you think?”
It’s still all too common in the work place to have leaders that are downright ruthless, mean and unapologetically self-interested. Of course, there are notable exceptions, but history teaches us that that kings and queens of our shared past got high on their own tyranny. Having contempt for your subjects was the norm—not something to be ashamed of or hidden. And it was expected. Leaders had power, and those with power used fear to get what they wanted—often at any cost.
Over time, our beliefs about effective leadership have evolved (thankfully). Today, the leadership qualities we most value share some similarities with the past (such as vision and decisiveness), but also more contemporary thinking on inclusiveness and the ability to use positivity to motivate.
This leadership evolution has made our world and our organizations better, but it hasn’t erased some of the antiquated habits and attitudes that our organizations’ leaders carry around today. The gulf between the leaders we idealize and imagine and the ones we work with down the hall is very real but hard to reconcile.
Because leaders are products of their past and their present and still struggle with dichotomous forces as they lead. On the one side, leaders, giving in to natural human tendencies, may decide to wield power to get what they want (and now!). On the other side, they may foster their more intellectually driven desires to nurture their staff and work collaboratively with teams. Regardless of the inner struggle, present-day leaders who show signs of being on a primitive power drive are far from revered. Such leadership is largely seen as unacceptable.
So how do leaders make sense of these two sometimes conflicting personas? Especially those who lean toward the power drive and opt to use less than revered forms of leadership? Some leaders put on a different face for the world—a kinder, more polished, more measured version of their leadership selves. But for followers, this may mean that we talk about leadership in one way, but experience it as something quite different.
This dichotomy, in part, fuels the business industry’s insatiable appetite for inspiring quotes, insightful blog posts, researched articles and “how to” books on the topic of leadership. There are hundreds published every day. Yet at the core of that appetite is a desire—on the part of both leaders and followers—to smooth out the inner conflict and seek better leadership balance.
Recognizing leadership contempt for what it is can be sanity-saving at work. Many people who see or experience firsthand these behaviors in their boss take it personally. And who wouldn’t? Those of us who have experienced it can’t help but pay attention to someone with a significant influence in their lives—especially when that individual plays the role of performance assessor and career guidance counselor.