The Harvard Business Review this week reveals some fascinating — and somewhat disturbing — insights into the ways followers create and respond to leaders as if they were what they imagined them to be. It’s a powerful effect, one that can bolster a leader’s power and influence, at least until the imaginary bubble pops, and the true leader is revealed.
They look at leadership in a business setting to argue that “Employees create pictures of what leaders seem to be, based on the bosses’ accumulated emails, tweets, speeches, and videos, plus whatever tidbits are picked up here and there.” They not their “extensive research suggests there are four rules governing how people create and respond to the imaginary leaders that live in their minds.
Rule 1: Employees tend to judge a book by its cover. In saying this, we are not being disparaging toward employees; everyone does it. People are content to base their assessments of a leader’s ability and appeal on very little information. In fact, they prefer to have skimpy information, since it’s easier to digest.
Rule 2: Employees look for answers to a few specific questions: Does the leader care about me personally? Have high standards? Offer an appealing vision of the future? Seem human in a way I can relate to?
Rule 3: People prefer to get answers to these questions in the form of stories, which are then used to create the mental image. The image helps people decide whether to believe in and follow the leader.
Rule 4: In assessing stories, people pay attention to those they perceive to be trustworthy, and disregard the rest. In assessing trustworthiness, people look for unexpected moments of candor and unbiased third-party accounts, communicated through unscripted and informal channels. Formal, planned interactions don’t provide these moments. As trustworthy stories are retold, they take on a life of their own, affecting people throughout the organization.”
HBR notes that this human tendency can be great if followers believe those in power are benevolent and caring, but once the worm turns, distrust isn’t far away. They recommend that leaders make an effort to really BE the caring, attentive, consistent leaders they want to be perceived as. Integrity and authenticity go hand in hand to make sure that follower perception matches leader reality.
They emphasize the positive value of reality-based inspiration and good leadership, and don’t write much about the dangers of false advertising. “Rest assured that if you keep doing the right things, people will eventually notice and spread positive stories about you. And those stories will form themselves into an army of mental images that will mobilize people to achieve your goals.“