Are you a leader … or a predator?

Are you a leader … or a predator? October 20, 2015
Cowboy hat and sheriff's badge
And just who made you sheriff, cowboy?
Image by photogal/Shutterstock.com

What makes a true leader?

Is it a tough guy, hard-as-nails, fire the bottom 10% approach like Amazon.com apparently has? Reward the good, punish the bad, and insult the ugly?

Not so much. Anyone can issue rewards and punishments, and their effectiveness is limited.

In introducing this blog, I defined leadership in terms of gaining compliance despite the “principal-agent” problem, in which “principals” are people concerned with getting their “agents” actually to do what they were recruited to do. The “problem” is that agents’ efforts can be hard to observe, especially in complex projects or in field work at remote locations. “Shirking”—not working—is easy, and active opposition—”sabotage”—can go undetected. It’s easy for a principal to reward and punish the wrong things. Yes, you’ll get more of what you reward and less of what you punish, but unintended consequences are so common that the effects are often chaotic.

A true leader’s team pursues the mission even when they can’t be observed. The mice don’t play when the cat’s away. In fact, the “mice” act so much like the cat, they actually become cats, not mice at all. But how?

Survey says … train, protect, and earn trust

Book cover
Teaching, Tasks, and Trust from the Russell Sage Foundation

Evidence-driven answers are found in very fine pair of books by a very fine pair of political scientists, disciplined scholars of public administration. John Brehm and Scott Gates published Working, Shirking, and Sabotage in 1997 and Teaching, Tasks, and Trust in 2008 (see this group’s shared Zotero library). Both books are based on extensive observation, surveys, and simulations of government workers: IRS agents (tax collectors), social workers, police officers, and a variety of other public servants and “bureaucrats.”

Brehm and Gates describe typical management’s approach to leadership as “coercive” based on rewards and (possibly) punishments:

[H]ow do I persuade my employee to work harder?

One solution—an intuitively natural one—is to monitor the employee’s performance by some objective set of standards and to reward the employee for meeting the standards. This is both an old and a strikingly modern approach to the problem.  —Teaching, Tasks, and Trust (TT&T), page 4

But, as the book’s title indicates, coercive supervision isn’t the real powerhouse in leadership that gets results. Government employees—such as 509 North Carolina social workers surveyed in 2000—say they work harder when they trust their supervisors, when they have plentiful training and learning resources, and when they have broad discretion to direct their own work. Meanwhile, “the effect of the more coercive aspects of supervision is negligible but positive.” (TT&T, page 127)

Not only is coercion fairly ineffective as an effort booster, effort improves when supervisors protect their subordinates from external pressures, such as other supervisors and the media.

[B]y setting the boundaries, the supervisor has to accept responsibility for standing up for her or his subordinates. … Supervisors win the trust of their subordinates by shielding them from such encroachments. (TT&T, page 147)

The evidence is that supervisors are most effective not when they pressure employees to perform, but when they recruit team members who are drawn to the mission, model high performance personally, and provide plenty of encouragement and opportunity to learn. Attracting enthusiastic imitators is far more effective than carrot-and-stick tactics.

Application: Golden Rules and Good Shepherds

If we want to lead, we have to earn the trust of our fellow Christ-followers. Hypocrisy won’t do; we have to practice what we preach, model the behavior ourselves that we want others to emulate.

Trust is earned by demonstrating trust and equipping them to be leaders, too. The shiny gold on our sheriff’s badge comes from the Golden Rule: lead others as you would have them lead you (see Luke 6:31).

Pastoral ministry and workplace responsibility aren’t so different: one of our biggest responsibilities is to protect the (other) sheep from wolves (see John 10:1-21, the parable of the Good Sheriff, er, Shepherd). A punitive boss who takes pleasure in harassing “slackers,” or a pastor who takes pleasure in pointing a finger from the pulpit—both are wolves inside the sheep pen. They’re not leaders, they’re predators. We may take pleasure as long as they’re biting someone else, but the real test of our leadership is whether we’re willing to put ourselves at risk, as Christ did, to save the sheep.

If we’re to be good sheriffs, we’ve got to take on the outlaws and train the law-abiding populace.

In the next major post, we turn from research on government workers to research on business, considering Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense by Stanford business scholars Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton.


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