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.”

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 who are born to lead, and those who learn the ropes in the everyday interactions they have with their subordinates.

The question I have, as it pertains to any that display leadership qualities, is how does a Human Resources representative (HR rep) for a Fortune 500 corporation select their company’s leaders of tomorrow?

HR reps will tell us that they can spot their candidate five seconds after they enter the room? How often are they convinced that a man or woman has the characteristics necessary to lead, based on their superficial qualities? How often is an HR rep convinced by characteristics that are symbolic as opposed to substantive? Is there a 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.

If the HR rep is attempting to look beyond a self-help list of qualities to the true man, what is it they are 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.

Can a quality candidate fake indefinable qualities the self-help guides teach us? 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 a certain 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 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 my 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? First, she was great at answering questions quickly and confidently. Those answers involved lies, half-truths, exaggerations and deflections to successfully construct an image, and mystique, about herself that made great impressions.

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. A more honest manager might 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 at 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 knowledge, but the manager who 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.

We 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 emperor has 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 notable holes in their garments. 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 I feel the need to question their leader’s leadership qualities?” they might ask themselves. “What does this say about me that I felt the need to do that?”

The obfuscation that the 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, the employee feels 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. On the other 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. My guess is that the supervisors were informed by their managers that we don’t want to demoralize an employee, and a score of one will do that. My guess is that the supervisors were informed that a score of one should only be used in extreme cases, and that they 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 was 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 supervisor 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 supervisor 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 that is unfair?” I asked the friend who told me about this event and thought that this manager should 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 supervisor who 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 supervisor who arbitrarily assigned us lower scores. Except they didn’t arbitrarily assign our scores. They followed the manager’s order.

This supervisor created a problem in the company, because he exposed the myth to we “three” employees that our threes were arbitrarily considered by our arbitrary supervisors, or that they had a cap on their scoring that would merit scrutiny if they went to an 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 learns that it is statistically proven that the best guess is (‘C’).

‘Why try?’, we “threes” asked, if we happened to learn of the supervisor who arbitrarily gives out fives, and we compared them to our arbitrary threes. If I have a supervisor who 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 supervisor 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 overriding point of the naysayers occurs in response to 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, incompetent, 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. Learning these details from an informed skeptic might illuminate us, but we maintain a certain level of detachment from it, because we hate politics, and we think most political discussions don’t hit home. When we question the method of operations of the company we’re employed in, however, or the supervisors or managers that we’re employed under, it hits so close to home that it makes us a little 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!”, 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 to 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 that 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 such characteristics achieves that 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 directing at “their” leader for it undercuts one of their primary functions.

In my experience with the psycho dynamics involved in the leadership mystique, those who obnoxiously “question everything” are vulnerable. They are often the most surprised by the evidence we’ve unearthed regarding matters so close to home. We are also more susceptible to falling back in line when our peers scorn them for questioning everything they took for granted. They took for granted that their company’s scoring system was a fair, well-thought out quantifiable system that awarded merit, as opposed to a manager arbitrarily deciding scores. The reason for this, I can only guess, is that they want to believe that their decision to follow their leader was already skeptical and informed, and anyone who says anything otherwise serves to undermine everything they’ve achieved to this point. The problem with questioning everything everyone believes in is if your argument has any merit at all it might serve to undermine it, and at that point they will have nothing. It’s at that point when the busybody who unveils a chink in the amour of the leadership mystique that everyone reconsiders that we’re embittered “three” employees, because everyone wants to believe in something.