One of the fundamental tenants of corporate culture is the principle of “shadow of the leader”. In essence the behaviour of the leader and or leadership team casts a shadow over the entire organisation. It is mostly understood by consultants of leadership and culture that the behaviour of the leaders is mimicked and magnified as you look down into the organisation. Poor teamwork at the top tends to breed poor teamwork at all levels.
It’s not that leaders push their behavioural traits onto others so much as lower levels of managers tend to see the behaviour of their bosses as acceptable and what is required to get ahead. For example, the leader that focuses mainly on sales and financial numbers tends to see that same focus at all levels, often ignoring other drivers of business performance.
“Organisations are shadows of their leaders. That’s the good news and the bad news!
But the principle of leadership shadows is not so simple. Most consultants study leaders and the practice of leadership without really studying those who report to the leader or are one or two levels down. For the past several months I have been studying the impact of leader behaviour on middle managers and the principle of shadow of the leader is much more complex, and interesting, than most consultants of corporate culture and leadership would have us believe.
For example, let’s suppose we have a leader at the top of a large organisation that yells, pounds the table, swears at people in public, calls them weak and babies when they don’t meet their monthly or weekly figures, and threatens to fire them all. This is the bosses normal behaviour when disappointed with business performance.
How do direct reports and next level managers respond? In most cases it is not a simple mirroring relationship. Perhaps there would be a cascading set of behaviours if the actions of the leader were demonstrably positive, developmental and encouraging. But I believe all middle and upper managers have an internal “professional moral compass” as to what is good and bad leadership behaviour.
When managers look up at leaders for guidance and direction, they are really looking at two aspects: the position and the person.
The Position: In most cases, middle and upper managers respect the position. They respect the authority and responsibilities that come with a senior position. “I may not always agree, but she’s the boss so let’s see if we make it work!” Respect for the position is often the element that keeps a company together and moving forward. Certainly in military situations where lives are at stake, respect for the position is vitally important. Senior officers have more knowledge and experience than junior officers and their position and authority are respected.
The Person: The other aspect is respect for the person. And here is where the “moral compass” and not the “organisational compass” comes into play. When upper and middle managers respect the leader as a person, there is a willingness to try new things and a motivation based on that respect. On the other hand, when the leader is not respected as a person, usually due to multiple outbursts of bad behaviour, the motivation to “enthusiastically follow the leader’s suggestions or decisions” is lacking.
Respect for the position, but not for the person.
The resulting manager behaviour is what I term compliance and blind obedience when what is really needed for business success is creative problems solving and fired up motivation to win. For those faced with recurring bad behaviour from the boss, the daily motivation often becomes just to survive, not to win. To follow orders rather than innovate and improve. To do the minimum when the maximum is needed. To be “9 to 5” rather than engaged and alive.
Most middle managers don’t mirror or replicate the behaviours of a bad leader. Many try to overcompensate to protect their own staff. Others just go through the motions with compliance and survival as their focus.
Next time you see a company with good products and a strong marketplace that is under-performing, look at the real day-to-day behaviour of the leader. Analysts would do well to understand the behaviour of the leader as much as they try to understand the business metrics or market dynamics when evaluating a company for investment purposes.
One of the best performance improvement quotes I have heard is,
“Change the leader or change the leader”!
It is my observation that when a new leader comes into an organisation and creates a dramatic improvement in business performance, its is more a result of better leadership behaviours than a bigger brain or new ideas.
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
John also writes thriller novels!