Leadership and Self-Deception

Many, many years ago, I was asked to read Leadership and Self-Deception published by the Arbinger Institute. The book’s main point is to talk about how to build a better relationships, especially in an organization. Rather than 250 pages of prose on organization culture (which I do have on my book shelf), this book uses the story of a fictitious company where one of the new executives is “failing”.

Throughout the book, the main character Tom is in a series of meetings led by his bosses and eventually the company founder. In each meeting, we peel away at the layers that is leading to his failures. Those failures are not so much about performance but his attitudes and interactions. Yes, a corporation’s output and profits are very important, but those things can be affected by having toxic cultures where the leadership is about the biggest ego and treating their employees like objects.

The self-deception part is the fact that many individuals and organizations don’t even realize they are doing it. Furthermore, we deceive ourselves by blaming others. We’re not the problem; they are!

In this book, they mentioned the true story of Dr. Ignaz Sammelweis. Sammelweis was a Hungarian doctor in the 1840s and was the chief doctor at this neonatal ward with the highest number of infant mortality. People couldn’t figure out why until one day the doctor went on vacation. While Sammelweis was away, the number of deaths dropped drastically. When he returned, the numbers went up again. Turns out HE was the problem; back then before knowing about the transmission of germs, Sammelweis had been teaching by using cadavers in the morning and going to examine the babies without washing or changing. Oops. Nowadays, everyone scrubs down, all utensils and linens are washed thoroughly (or discarded), and a host of other safety procedures are in place.

Thus when an organization or a relationship is bad, don’t look at others first. Look at yourself and see if you contributed to the problem. Blaming others and refusing to take responsibility only makes things worse.  

Secondly, the authors invented a term called “The Box” – the place where you 1) treat others as objects and 2) see only the bad in others to justify your continual bad behavior towards them. To illustrate, one of the characters is a father perpetually sees his teenage son as lazy and irresponsible (even if it’s just teenage moodiness). When the teenager wants to borrow the car for a night out, the man is reluctant to do so and sets a curfew. Even if the teenager returns the car with 2 minutes to spare, the man is still angry: “cutting it close, aren’t you?” 

In a healthy relationship, the father would have said: “Did you have a good time out? Thank you for being back on time. I am proud of you.” Years ago, I was listening to Focus on the Family on the radio where one of the guests being interviewed said something to this effect:
1. “I love you enough to set standards.”
2. “I will love you even if you don’t meet those standards.”

That is how to get out of The Box. It is to value another person as a person and not as an object or a means. If you think you can pretend to care so that it doesn’t look like you are still using people as a means, don’t. people can smell insincerity a mile away. #crocodiletears

If you are a leader of any organization or team, you are the one who sets the tone for how your teammates function. If you play the blame game or power trips, or if you demonstrate integrity and take responsibility, your teammates and employees will follow. Same rules apply in a family: the parents set the examples, whether it is alcohol, conflict resolution, and money.

Ever since I joined the work force in 2000, I have worked in academia and in corporate America. I have worked for good bosses and bad bosses. The good ones practiced many of the virtues in this book unknowingly just as the bad ones practiced all the vices. I wish more leaders would read this book and ask themselves: “How I have contributed to the problems in my organization? How have I been in the box and treated my employees like objects?”

No one ever goes out to sabotage their own organization or team or even marriage which they invested so much in; it’s just that they can’t see their own faults without someone lovingly (hopefully) points them out. To quote Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
for the eye sees not itself,
but by reflection, by some other things.

I hope this book review was helpful, even if you never read the book.


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