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In Search of Illusions of Leadership...

Dr Alexandros Psychogios, co-author of Neuroscience for Leaders, on the dangerous illusions business leaders fall for


“There is no one worse than someone who believes they are always right”, my grandfather used to tell me. Since my childhood these words have always resonated with me and then I had to understand what it actually means, especially in a family and school environment that presses us to always be ‘right’. The right person, the right pupil, the right citizen. But this environment never gave us the chance to reach ‘rightness’ through one’s own practice and judgment. Through mistakes, by recognising and trying to understand human nature and how this can influence our ability to make sense of things around us and take action, we learned.

None prepares us about human illusions, the situation where your mind (including knowledge, experience, emotions, beliefs, values, etc.) thinks that is right, and drives you to perceptions, decisions and actions that are far from being ‘right’. 

Illusions are always there, to limit our ability to think and emotionalise in a ‘correct’ way. Illusions are part of the daily life of leaders and people that make decisions and take decisive actions related to other people.

During my nearly 15 years as a researcher and consultant, I have met more than 3000 people in leadership positions. With many of them I had a professional relationship, with a lot I had an academic relationship and, with some I had a personal relationship. The majority of these people inspired me to study and understand the phenomenon we know as leadership. They also encouraged me to follow their steps (well in some cases...), giving me a unique chance to observe their behaviours and try to understand them. By doing so, my grandfather’s words came to mind.

Although many have positive leader attributes such as energy, intelligence and self-confidence, at the same time I have seen a tremendous incapability to take into account the people they are leading (followers) as well as the context within which they were are acting. Many times, their attitudes were borderline arrogant, although they were claiming otherwise, neglecting the real needs and situation of their people, and the real circumstances surrounding the context of their actions.

Thinking again of what was happening and why these people were behaving in such a manner, I realised that one of the causes of this behaviour was a series of illusions that many were suffering from. I have searched and found strong evidence for 8 illusions in total, although I believe that there are more that may have skipped my attention. Consider the list below and how many times you may have been trapped in the same illusion. You may have a better chance to avoid it next time, but remember there are no magic recipes here. 

  1.        The Illusion of understanding all the time.
  •          The first illusion is the false belief of leaders that they always understand what is happening around them. It is the fact that they have done this correctly many times in the past? It is related, to their overconfidence that they can understand and read between the lines? It is something else? It doesn’t matter what the cause is, what matters is that this illusion is there. The more we believe we can understand what is happening and the reasons behind it, the more we are trapped in this illusion and the greater the chances to misread or misunderstand a situation. 
  1.        The illusion of knowledge 
  •          The second illusion is linked to leaders’ beliefs that the things that they know are enough to guide them in all decisions. These may be based on technical knowledge (expertise) and/or vast experience. These two knowledge sources are very valuable and nobody is suggesting ignoring them. HOWEVER, this is also a tremendous mistake because the over-appreciation of this knowledge in relation to neglecting the complex world that we live in can drive us toward incorrect conclusions. Leaders base their decisions and actions on technical knowledge and experience neglecting that, sometimes (I do not want to say many....but it is many), both of them are insufficient to help us make the right choices. We also need to utilise our practical judgment which can be activated into action if we abandon the notion that our practical knowledge and experience are enough. 
  1.        The Illusion of numbers and quantification
  •          This illusion is associated with the decade’s long managerial phenomenon which unfortunately still exists.  Leaders argue and decide based on numbers. They mainly base their decisions on numerical evidence, being blind by, or simply neglecting, that there are many things in life that cannot be easily quantified but still have an impact. I have seen leaders claiming that numbers always prove the truth (which of course is a lie) and nothing can beat mathematics or even worse statistics. I am not claiming that numbers harm us, but leading people based on this belief can only guarantee: demotivation, demoralisation, less performance, turnover.    
  1.        The Illusion of superiority and loneliness 
  •          The fourth illusion is related to the assumption of many leaders that they are in a position to achieve anything by themselves, without the contribution of their people. The strange thing about this illusion is that nobody will actually claim they are suffering from this. The truth is also that I have seen this decreasing over the recent years, which is very positive, but it is still there. Leaders tend to act and decide based on their capabilities and the fact that they could the job better than others. This has a double effect. The first is that a lot of them work a lot and are soon burned out. The reason is that their ‘mania’ to be involved in everything makes them less able to consider the important things that they must do causing them to lose brain power on everything. The second effect is that they demotivate their people since they show them less, or no, trust in doing something without their direct involvement. They end up alone.      
  1.        The illusion of collecting more and more information
  •          The fact that leaders believe that they have more and better information than others is yet another illusion. We are living in a world were information is everywhere and plentiful. Not all information is valuable, but the problem here is two-fold. First, as humans we do not have the ability to critically analyse a lot of information in a rational way and drive towards the right decision. Secondly, the more we try to collect and analyse information the more we become confused and paralysed. I have seen leaders pushing many options and attempting to avoid not taking most of them into account provoking delays and confusion within their teams. In contrast, I have seen some of them, recognising the human limitation of over analysis, focusing on a few options and only some information. Guess which of the two groups are more successful?   
  1.        The Illusion of prediction
  •          A very common illusion of leaders is that they believe that they can predict the future based on past data all the time. As I said above, they usually use numbers to verify decisions, and these numbers are historical data that confirm something that happened before. Automatically, leaders tend to ‘bet’ that since it has happened before will happen again. Big mistake!!! This is a common illusion that a lot of us (independently if we act and behave as leaders or not) suffer from. Why should leaders be an exception to this? Leaders are, more than else, human beings and they are also love prediction. Prediction can save us from the fear of uncertainty and it feels good when we are able to predict. No problem with that, but can we actually predict? The answer is yes, but with extremely limited capability. So, what is happening when leaders believe that they can with a higher frequency based on past data? I think you know the answer....they are trapped, once again.
  1.        The Illusion of control 
  •          The seventh illusion occurs when leaders believe that they are in control of their contexts (projects, departments, units, organisations, etc.). This illusion is not a new one and it is rooted on our (as humans) need to predict and control our environments, increasing the chances to survive literally or metaphorically. Usually, leaders try to control others’ behaviour through the typical human reaction: they set rules. The moment that leaders set rules and emphasise their application is the same moment this illusion emerges. In other words, leaders set rules, many rules, in order to bring order and control. They believe that people need to follow these rules and they are going to do this all the time. This is a fallacy. What we tend to do as humans is to routinize the application of rules. Not because we are mean, but simply because we are humans and we tend to routinize a lot of the things that we do daily.  This is fine, but the problem starts when everybody externalises a repeated, routinized, rule on her/his own way. Chaos and confusion most probably will emerge; disorder rather than order. I am not against rules, well at least most of the times. What I am suggesting here is that leaders are trapped in the illusion of control when they believe that human behaviour can be put in a box full of rules and then be predicted. Control is an illusion itself especially when this is linked to the application of more rules. Leaders need to remember that.    
  1.        The Illusion of leadership prototypes
  •          The last illusion I consider as the ‘mother of all illusions’. Leaders read and are informed about leadership, usually prototypes of leaders, and they tend to rationalise their decisions and actions based on additional decisions and actions of their prototypes. Usually in my Executive MBA classes I ask my students to name a good leader. Most of the times I receive well-known names from either the business or socio-political spectrum. Then I ask them: how you now know that these are really good leaders? Usually, silence follows. Some of them may say because we know. Yes, but from where and how, I insist. Then they tell me, realising my point, that the information is based on books, media and lately through social media. They have never met these people, they have never had the chance to realise what specifically they did. They were not part of their contexts, they are prototypes. There is nothing wrong in having a prototype. The problem is when you are influenced that much from her/him and try to imitate, neglecting diversity, people and contexts. Even worse, you put yourself in the trap of this illusion when you reason around your behaviour based on what your prototype has done. Big mistake.  When this illusion conquers a leaders’ mind, you can observe (I have seen this) that they may be blinded by their own limitations and mistakes, and more easily blame others or the situation, when they fail. I like to say in my classes that we have much more to learn as leaders from people that have failed (though usually no book or media cares about them or their case) since they are the majority and definitely have something more and better to say. Also, we have much more to learn, and imitate if you like, from people close to us, who are part of our daily routines and have the same contextual experience that we have.

Returning, back on my grandfather’s perspective, I need to say that he was right. Unfortunately, I could not understand him at that time, but my experience with all these people, and many more, have helped me to understand his point. Unfortunately, the environment that I grew up in could not protect me from these illusions, by letting me develop practical judgment. The latter could be the key for avoiding, not eliminating, the above illusions.

So, now you have two choices as leaders. The first is to think about these illusions, to increase your awareness of them, hoping that this can minimize the odds for bad decisions and actions.

The second is the option to do nothing and continue on the same pattern of behaviour. But this, again, is a good option….well for me, since it will enrich my search and hopefully the list of illusions that I will analyse in another article in the future.            

alexandros-psychogios.jpgDr. Alexandros Psychogios is a Professor in Birmingham City Business School at Birmingham City University. His specialization is on Leadership & Complexity, Neuro-leadership, International Human Resource Management, and Performance Management. Prof. Psychogios has a wide-range experience of participating in various consultancy and research projects on issues of leadership development. He also delivers innovative executive training seminars and consultancy in complexity and applied neuroscience for leadership across the world. He is co-author of Neuroscience for Leaders, published by Kogan Page.