We’ve all encountered them at work or see them daily in the political arena: Leaders that are essentially bullies. They threaten, intimidate, tease and ridicule followers in an effort to get others to do their bidding. When it comes to bullies in the schoolyard or playground, as parents, we call them out (or at least complain) and we expect teachers and other authorities to police the bullies. Why then, do we, as adults, allow ourselves to be bullied by bosses, politicians, coaches and other authority figures?
1. We Value ‘Strong Person’ Leaders. Perhaps it’s because of our evolutionary history, but when we select leaders we often seek out the “alpha” male (or female) – the dominant individual who will threaten or fight our enemies. Historically, we’ve elevated warriors to positions of leadership (e.g., generals who were elected U.S. Presidents), and we’re drawn to leaders who appear strong, confident and who seem to take charge. The problem is that a portion of these individuals are bullies, or have gotten ahead by using bullying tactics.
2. We Believe the Ends Justify the Means. We’re often so focused on our well-being, that we’re willing to allow leaders to use unacceptable tactics to get us there. As long as we win, or get the outcome we want, we’re willing to look the other way when the leader uses bullying tactics to get the win. We see this daily in partisan politics.
3. We Enable Them. Bullying leaders cannot succeed without willing followers. In many instances, bully leaders attract other bullies who help the leader do the dirty work. Sometimes, this inner circle of followers are worse bullies than the leader. Hitler, for example, surrounded himself with henchmen who were his equal, or worse, in terms of their cruelty. This band of bullies can be quite formidable and make it difficult for others to stand up to them. We’re seeing this play out daily in areas like Seattle, DC, Chicago, Atlanta, etc.
4. We become bystanders. When we witness instances of leaders bullying others, we’re outraged, but often don’t intervene. If other observers are present, a diffusion of responsibility occurs where everyone expects someone else to intervene, and the bystanders are essentially paralyzed. Moreover, we may fear that the bully’s wrath may turn on us if we take action. In other instances, we may blame the victim and rationalize that he or she had it coming. Sometimes we simply look the other way. This bystander effect allows bullies to stay in power.
5. Our Trusting Nature. When we elevate someone to a position of leadership, our general tendency is to trust they will do the right thing. We want to believe that our leaders are honest and have good intentions, so we give them the benefit of the doubt, and wait for (and wish for) positive outcomes. The problem is that a bully got where they are by bullying, and unless followers stand up to the bully, nothing is going to change.
When it comes to selecting leaders, we should put our energy into weeding out the bullies, the narcissists, and the sociopaths. Gone unchecked, one bad leader can do a tremendous amount of damage.
We’re seeing that play out daily, as well!