Why Leaders Keep Getting Better—Yet Their Reputations Keep Getting Worse

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The bar is being raised, and the standards of evaluation for great leadership will only get higher.

Jim, a newly minted manager at a top technology company, asked us a fascinating question: “Do leaders today act more like bullies than leaders in the past?” 

He went on to elaborate, “It seems like every week I read stories in the press about bad leaders who intimidate people and engage in disrespectful behavior. Do you think that leaders are worse today than ever before?” 

Jim was very surprised at our response. 

We believe that the overwhelming majority of executives today are much better leaders than at any other time in our history. The leaders we coach are far more inclusive, caring and respectful than their historical predecessors. 

How can leaders be more inclusive, caring and respectful in the face of an increasing sea of negative comments about bullies and bad leadership? 

Members of today’s workforce have become much more discerning and willing to publicly express their opinion than ever before. They are no longer afraid to tell the truth as they see it. 

Let’s go back in history. Almost all our ancestors lived in some form of a “class society.” The Code of Hammurabi in 1750 BC describes a totally different set of rules for the upper class and everyone else. Historically, this pattern continued for centuries. No one challenged the king. Anyone who challenged the leader was severely punished. Bullying was just part of the natural order. You did what the leader said, or you paid the price. 

A fascinating New Yorker article, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” explains in great detail why “fitting in” throughout history has almost always been more valued than “rationality.” If you look closely at our history, people who fit in and bowed to authority were accepted. People who “rocked the boat” or challenged the system were ostracized—even if they were being “rational.” 

The wonderful fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” illustrates how people lived in fear of authority and would pretend even obvious lies were true rather than publicly disagree with leaders. As in most great fables, behind a simple and funny fantasy lies a deep and painful truth. 

We live in a new world. Today’s top knowledge workers are no longer intimidated by their leaders. These professionals know they can get another job. No one in the past enjoyed being bullied by their leaders. They had to put up with it because they had no choice. 

With the advent of Glassdoor and other organizations that publicize the work of leaders, two new necessities have emerged: 

• Today, great professionals have a choice. They do not have to tolerate bad leaders. 

• Today, top organizations have no choice. They cannot tolerate bad leaders! 

Leaders today are being publicly chastised for behavior that was common—even 20 years ago. We believe that in the future, executives and managers at all levels will continue to become more considerate and more effective leaders of people. We also believe that as leaders get better, the bar is being raised, and the standards of evaluation for great leadership will become higher and higher. 

Leaders at all levels will need to realize that the behavior that was tolerated, or even celebrated, in the past will not be encouraged or even allowed in the future. 

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