The Leadership Mystique


George Orwell once wrote that “a ruling class has got to have a strict morality, a quasi-religious belief in itself, a mystique.”

In this writing, George Orwell was referring to world leaders when he used the term ruling class, but the quote can also be assigned to leaders that are closer to home, such as those in the work place, the home, the softball team, and all walks of life.

There are good leaders and bad leaders on every level. There are two different types of leaders, those that are born to lead, and those that learn the ropes in the everyday interactions that leader can have with their subordinates.

The question I have, as it pertains to any that display leadership qualities, is how does a Human Resources (HR) representatives (reps) for a multi-national corporation select their company’s leaders of tomorrow?

How often does an HR rep select a candidate five seconds after that individual enters the room? Put another way, how often are they convinced that a man or woman has the characteristics necessary to lead, based on the superficial qualities of this candidate? How often is an HR rep convinced by characteristics that are symbolic as opposed to substantive? Is there a quantifiable quality that HR reps look for, or is it all based on intangible and indefinable determinations?

For those not born with magical, born leader qualities, self-help guides list off a number of quantifiable qualities of leadership that anyone and everyone can memorize for an interview, but a qualified HR rep should be able to see through all that to the core of a person to determine if they are a leader.

The question, if the HR rep is attempting to look beyond a self-help list of qualities to the true man, is what are they looking for? Are they looking for the charismatic qualities of a leader, and can these qualities be faked throughout an hour-long interview? This degree of charisma could arguably be called a person’s leadership mystique.

Does a quality candidate have that indefinable quality that so many self-help guides have sought to help us achieve? What are self-help guides, but a way to assist those lacking in natural leadership qualities into projecting a leadership mystique? Some of us memorize a few Churchill quotes and go into that interview with the idea that we, too, can be leaders of men and women. Then the HR rep sees right through us, and they hire the other guy. What happened?

Did that person project that image better than we did. Is it easier for an attractive person to project that image? Is it easier to convince another of leadership qualities if that person is in great shape, freshly groomed, well dressed, male or female, of a certain ethnicity, and born into an economic class? Or does the HR rep go into the series of interviews with a mindset that specifically goes against these archetype definitions of a leader to prove that they can better spot a leader? Is it a series of lies, façades, and mindsets, or can an HR rep truly spot a qualified leader in one hour-long interview?

I’ve worked in corporate America long enough to know that even the most solid, experienced HR rep, with their breadth of experience in interviewing people, cannot see through a façade that candidates have created for them before that interview started. Some candidates are simply better at constructing a façade, a lie, about themselves than others, and most people, HR reps included, cannot see through it. I’ve witnessed too many eventual managers —put through the grueling, three tiered interview process— come out as incompetent, dishonest people, to continue to believe that HR reps know more about the leadership mystique than I do. I’ve witnessed it so often that I can’t help but believe what one of these eventual managers told a friend of mine: “If you want to get anywhere in this company, lie your ass off!” This leader turned out to be the worst employee I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked in the fast food industry. How did she get through the grueling three-tiered interview process? She lied, she deceived, she exaggerated, she deflected, and she successfully constructed an image, and mystique, about herself that made the grade.

I’ve had too many poor managers, and I’ve worked with too many poor non-management types, and upper level employees, to continue to believe that there is something more than the search for an unquantifiable mystique at play. The first question an HR agent must ask themselves in the post-interview grading process is can a candidate think fast on their feet? Yes, if they are good liars. There is a reason that a leader must be a good liar, and it has everything to do with perpetuating the myth of their own mystique, and the mystique of the company at large.

A good, somewhat dishonest manager will never tell you, for example, that they haven’t heard about the latest update on the company website. An honest manager will tell you that they’ve never heard of the update and ask you to relay it to them. The dishonest manager may have a stock answer to such a point, and it’s often something along the lines of, “Why don’t you tell me what you think it is.” The manager may also look the information up later. They both arrive at that same point of information, but the manager that maintains the mystique better has learned how to fib their way through a scenario like this one to uphold the mystique by never letting you see them in a temporary moment of vulnerability.

Unfortunately, we followers perpetuate this myth by what we say about the manager after we return to our desk. If the manager was forthright and said she didn’t know about the update, we return to our desk with this salacious bit of information about the leader. We all seek to poke holes in their myth at every opportunity. We feel better about ourselves in lieu of the fact that we now know that our emperors have no clothes. It’s the American way to dress down our leaders, but there is also a part of us that feels a little uncomfortable with the fact that our leaders have holes in their garb. This is why the perpetuation of the myth is so important. This is why it’s important that the honest manager tell you that she’s heard about the latest update when she hasn’t.

It’s important, because if the good, dishonest manager successfully preserves the mystique, the employee will go back to their desk and tell their co-workers, “She said she knew about it, but I know she didn’t.” That co-worker might then questions the employee’s assessment of the leader, until the employee begins to question their own assessment. Why did the employee feel the need to question their leader’s leadership qualities? What does this say about them that they felt that need?

The obfuscation that the good, dishonest manager employed feeds the myth, so that it can survive another day. The employee finds that they are actually more comfortable in a world where questioning leaders exists without substantial proof of the leader’s vulnerabilities. Everyone walks away happy.

Does anyone know how to define leadership qualities are on a case by case basis? No, but you know it when you see it. It’s a certain mystique that they have constructed and maintained over time, be it honest or dishonest.

Another manner in which the mystique is perpetuated is in the grading process. The leader is in charge of the grading of the performance of their employees, and their method of grading will provide the employee the most tangible proof of their myth. If the manager grades that employee poorly, they feel less substantial and a greater need to prove themselves to their leader in the next quarter, even if the poor grade doesn’t portend eventual dismissal from the company. One on hand, a better grade means a better chance at promotions and raises, but it’s more than that to us. We want their approval, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to please them and the way they want things done.

Some of the grading process is based on tangible qualities, such as production numbers, but in many instances —in my corporate America experience— the process is often more arbitrary than many of us know.

Employees, in my most recent employment experience, were graded on a scale of one to five. Fours were given to the best, most outstanding employees, and twos were given to those employees most in need of assistance.  I know what you’re thinking, you think the grading scale went from one to five. I heard of one case in which an individual received a one in a particular category of employee’s assessment. I also heard of more than one instance in which an employee received a five in an individual category, but those instances were so rare that they should be considered anecdotal evidence. My guess is that the managers were informed that the corporation doesn’t want to demoralize an employee, and a score of one will do that. My guess is that the managers were informed that a score of one should only be used in extreme cases, and that the manager would be held to account for each and every score of one that they issued. My guess, and this is an educated guess I have based on the evidence I provide below, is that a score of five is held to the same standard. All scores between two and four inform the employee that they may either have to do some serious work to meet the grade, or they have to do more work to reach what they might believe to be perfection. Whatever the case is, the employee still has more work to do to prove themselves.

Whether he was making a conscious effort to poke a hole in this area of the myth of leadership or not, one particular manager in our company decided to give every one of his employees fives across the board. He stated that he genuinely believed that every one of his employees were “five” employees. This particular manager was chastised for this action, by our company. The company forced him to go back and change the scores to lower scores.

“Why would you think this is unfair?” I asked the friend who told me about this event and thought that this manager be forced to adjust his scores.  

“Because it’s unfair to the rest of us,” the friend said.  

My friend, a true believer in the system, had no idea how correct he was, or on how many levels he was correct. What made the “all fives” scores, for every employee on his team, unfair was the arbitrary nature of it. His employees were lucky that they had been arbitrarily assigned to a manager that would arbitrarily score them so high, and the rest of us were unlucky that we weren’t arbitrarily assigned to his team, and we had been arbitrarily assigned to a team that had a manager that arbitrarily assigned us lower scores.

This manager created a problem in the company, because he exposed the myth to we “three” employees that our threes were arbitrarily considered by our arbitrary managers, or that they had a cap on their scoring that would merit scrutiny if it went to the extreme. The message that we threes learned is that the scoring process is not a precise measurement of ability. It’s equivalent to a multiple choice question in which the student that doesn’t know the answer guesses ‘C’.

‘Why try?’, we “threes” asked, if we happened to learn of the manager that arbitrarily gave out fives, and we compared them to our arbitrary threes. If I have a manager that follows the HR rules, to the letter, and they feel the need to abide by the rules inherent in the leadership mystique by arbitrarily giving out threes, what’s the point of busting my tail for the company.

“Keep your own records,” a friend of mine said when he was put in a position to deliver me my manager’s scores. “So, you’re saying that these scores I received are set arbitrarily low?” I asked. “What evidence do you have to prove your manager wrong?” he asked.  I didn’t have any, and I told him so. “Keep your own records,” he repeated. “Keep your accomplishments in a spreadsheet that you can present at the time of grading, and then present them if you decide to dispute their scoring.”

It’s all arbitrary.

The point of the naysayers, I have found when I confront them with this flood of information, is nestled somewhere in the idea that we all need something, or someone, to believe in. As the information piles in to suggest that our federal government is either corrupt, or something that we should remain skeptical about, we learn that our state government may be as corrupt, and that our local government is full of incompetency. Knowing all this gives us a feeling of being a knowledgeable skeptic, in the time-honored American tradition of being a skeptic. When we question the method of operations of the company we’re employed in, or the supervisors or managers that we’re employed under, it hits so close to home that we are made to feel uncomfortable.

If we can believe in nothing else, even ourselves, we want to believe that our company knows us, and that they put forth their due diligence into properly evaluating us, and judging where we stand among our peers. We understand that it’s difficult, based on the size of our company to always be exact, but we want them to be as exact as humanly possible.

When information begins piling in to suggest that this might not be the case, we learn that our fellow employees are left feeling uncomfortable by our findings. The first thing they do is question our scores, as if low scores will reveal our frustration for what it is. When they find out that our scores are similar to theirs, they either say “Shut up!” mentality, or a kinder, gentler “Okay, I got it” dismissal that borders on patronizing condescension. Whatever their actual response is, they unknowingly inform the skeptic that they do not want their personal foundation shaken up in such a manner, and they prefer to draw a line in questioning the idea that that which they’ve used to define themselves against mediocre employees cannot be based on a “Fudge” in the system in which we all operated. The alternative is too random. They need believe in the system, even after it’s pointed out to them that the apathetic guy that sits next to them, received the same arbitrary scores that they did. They need to believe in something, so they choose to reject all that you’ve said, and they prefer to believe in all the illusions, delusions, and the mystique of leadership that they are fed on a day-to-day basis.

The cynical portion of my brain can’t help but think that the grading process was also created to provide distance between the follower and the leader to strengthen the mystique of the manager, leader, and score decider. A “five guy” may think he’s two steps away from the leader, and he may think less of the manager in that light, but a “three guy” knows he has a lot to work to do if he ever wants to consider himself on par with his leader.

“I’m only a three?” I asked, after receiving my evaluation in a one on one. I worked harder for a company than I’ve ever worked for a company in my life. “Actually,” my manager said, “You are a 3.8, but the grading process requires that we round down.” I was confused. “So, a 3.99999 is still a three?” The manager had a half-smile, “A three point eight is great. You should be proud. It puts you in the upper tier. It means you have fewer areas of concern than a 3.00 employee might.”

That manager is then deemed by those subjected to her arbitrary scoring process, a leader worthy of impressing for the coming quarter, or that’s the hope. She’s on your side, in this matter, and she’s going to go to bat for you, even if this relationship exists on a superior and inferior plane.

The Orwell quote, “The ruling class has got to have a strict morality, a quasi-religious belief in itself,” placed the focus on the leaders, but in my experience the role the followers play is just as vital to maintaining a mystique. Leadership requires that the followers believe that “our” leader has qualities that they may not have. If we believe that our leader exhibits the qualities we assign her, we may see it as in our best interests to kiss her coccyx in a figurative manner. It’s my contention that kissing coccyx is a function performed by two relatively innocuous individuals for a mutually agreed upon result that benefits both parties involved. The person that a follower chooses to assign characteristics achieves such a level in a vicarious manner, and while they may enjoy ridicule or skepticism directed at leaders, or the systems those leaders abide by, most followers do not enjoy it directed at “their” leader for it undercuts one of their primary functions.

In my experience with the psycho dynamics involved in the leadership mystique, it is those that “question everything” that tend the most vulnerable. They are often the most surprised by evidence unearthed regarding matters that are close to home. They are often more susceptible to falling back in line when the dust clears. The reason for this, I can only guess, is that they believed that their decision to follow their leader was a skeptical, informed decision that was predicated on the idea that everything they’ve achieved to this point, under the guise of a supplication to “their” leader’s mystique has benefited them in a manner that they prefer not to question.

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3 thoughts on “The Leadership Mystique

  1. Pingback: Brutal Honesty in the Age of Being Real | Rilaly's Blog
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