The Dear Leader Fallacy

An admired monarch sits on their throne.

It seemed like the rounds of applause would never end. The Dear Leader gave the gathered crowd a warm smile and picked up another piece of paper, folded it slowly into a plane, and threw it at the dust bin a couple of meters away. The plane flew over the bin, bumped into the wall, and fell to the ground.

– Excellent shot, General! The adjutant looked at the Dear Leader with an expression of admiration in the face. I don't think anyone have got that close before!

We might laugh at such displays of uncritical subordination, well known from military dictatorships and corners from the world where the culture often is both collectivistic and authoritaritan.

In the free West, especially up in the liberal North, this doesn't happen, right? The well-educated critical thinkers raised in the democracies of the world would never display this kind of double-think where you praise questionable levels of competence as long as it resides within a person with high rank and status!

Or?

Democracy may have created a culture where all people can and should hold those in power accountable. In politics, that is. But what about other areas? The clubs, the non-profits, the governmental agencies, the companies?

Truth is that this tendency to ascribe high-ranking individuals qualities that they don't possess, that tendency is inherently human. Present all over the world, in all of us. It's like all the other cognitive biases we have: they are part of the human condition, hard to evade, and rests fundamentally upon the wiring in our heads.

I call this particular fallacy: "The Dear Leader Fallacy".

How Does It Work?

The underlying mechanism, I believe, is a mix of power and fear combined with a psychological thing called the "Halo Effect": if one person possess one generally impressive quality, we tend to think that other impressive qualities goes with the first.

There is logic to this. Humans want to put those in power that are competent: especially those who are smart, cool and strong. IF someone is smart, cool and strong, THEN that person is more likely a better leader.

Problem is that when we make our judgements, we do them very fast. We do them so fast that we don't have the time to engage those slower structures of our brain where we actually can do logic. We are stuck to using fast brain-networks that operates on quick feelings and associations.

"Smart, cool and strong people are leaders, you say? Well, then our leaders must be smart, cool and strong, right?"

The halo effect attributes smartness to strong people even if they just have average intelligence. It actually attributes smartness, coolness and strength to people even if they are just good looking and expose a confident behavior.

Or, for that matter, attributes everything to people who have a high rank in our society. Who, by the way, often display confident behaviors.

Status, the Collaboration Enabler

Social rank, or status, is an interesting phenomenon. It is a human intuition that we should let some people have a greater say in what we do.

One of the great strengths of humans, what has made us able to take over the whole planet, is our ability to use collective intelligence. We can collaborate on seeking facts and generating ideas, and then we can make pretty good collective decisions about what facts and ideas to actually focus on.

The trick is in the decision making. Can we decide on a prosperous common path forward?

When looking at a well functioning team, no matter where in the world, you see how they constantly shift who is in charge. The members know each other's areas of expertise, and naturally let the most knowledgeable member of the team lead. Depending on the current situation.

But in a larger collaboration the dominance structures are more permanent. And probably for a good reason: it is harder for us to coordinate on a larger scale. Fleeting emergent leadership based on the situation is more seldom an option. But decisions need to be made anyway, so why not a centralized more permanent command?

Tribes have chiefs, clubs have chairmen, and companies have bosses. That is an order of things that enable us to coordinate our efforts. And thrive.

Fear

Psychologically the hierarchies are upheld by feelings. The feeling that I am entitled to tell folks how it is. The feeling that I should probably be quiet about my own view and instead follow what that other person says.

Especially if that is what my peers do. If everybody follows what Joanna says, chances are that I will do the same.

And if I should decide to follow my own command, chances are that people would feel that I am somehow challenging them, that I question their behavior. I believe that especially Joanna would feel that.

So correction starts. First mildly, then using jokes and mockery, and if nothing stops them, violence will occur. Up to the point of the ultimate punishment: being driven away. Or killed, which basically is the same thing if you live as a hunter-gatherer on the savanna.

Dominance is about who is supposed to influence who. That includes deciding on who should belong to the group and who should be driven out.

Fear of becoming expelled from a community is something that often runs deep inside of us. We are born helpless and would die if we weren't accepted in our families. That continues in adulthood. Being left alone feels like you are forever left on your own in the plains or in the woods.

So we humans many times accept being part of an abusive relationship with a person or a community, rather than to be left alone. Being abused means pain, yes. But it also means survival!

So threats of being isolated, they work. Accept us correcting you, follow our Dear Leader's wise command, or you will be driven away from the group!

The Days of the Autocrats

Before democracy there were autocrats: kings and lords and princes.

The autocrats felt, and still feel, pretty much the same entitlement that high-ranking individuals within our organizations feel:

And, sometimes, the entitlement to abuse, even sexually, those who are below them in rank.

And the Dear Leader Fallacy prevents many of us to question this.

We don't even see the underlying fear. We just accept as a fact:

That the Dear Leader is more competent than the actual experts they hire.

That the Dear Leader is more correct when questioning a subordinate than the other way around. and should have both more perks than others.

And that the Dear Leader should enjoy our silent consent when they behave abusively.

A More Prosperous Way

The Dear Leader Fallacy is strong within us.

So it took a long time, and certain historical circumstances, for us to realize that by questioning societal authority we can actually be more intelligent together! We can be more like a well-functioning team where we let the leadership flow back and forth.

Enlightenment, democracy and everything that went with it: the ability to question what authorities said and exploring new ways to prosperity, has brought a tremendous welfare to the people living in democratic countries.

But we are genetically the same now as before. The shift into a system where we can eat everyday and stop being killed by trivial diseases could have taken place anywhere and whenever. We just needed to move away from the Dear Leader Fallacy, creating structures that enabled us to lead a society where the leadership was questioned on a regular basis.

Business Agility

And the same can actually be done within organizations. I, and many others, have experienced it ourselves.

There are highly productive ways of working that build more on local self-organization than on top-down command-and-control. Ways that create business agility, where we can quickly respond to the changes of the world and find new ways of creating even more value.

What we see when we help organizations move into more agile ways of working is this: The same benefit can be reaped from moving away from the Dear Leader Fallacy within public and private organizations, that we saw in the society as a whole when democracy came about.

The same innovative capability, the same well-being for the people in the system, and the same tremendous increase in the ability to create value.

If we just stop acting out our intuition that the Dear Leader knows best what to do in every situation.

Do You Want to Explore This?

If you want to, we can talk about this. Because I believe that this is something that we need to fix, if we want to have modern nimble organizations that can create a lot of value for all the stakeholders. Including value for those who are in the organizations.

I have worked with these questions for almost fourteen years now, and I believe I can help. And I think that you have all the insights needed to actually change the situation where you are, into something more helpful. If you get access to the tools to make it happen.

I'd love to have a conversation on how I can give you my knowledge, or even sell you my help if you want to.

Did you give trainings as well?