Are leaders “playing God”?

By Dr Pierre Casse, IEDC Professor and Elnura Irmatova, IEDC Research Assistan

“I sometimes think that God in creating man somewhat overestimated his ability”

Oscar Wilde

Background

God (the ultimate leader!) has always been questioned and even challenged. It seems that human beings have a very strong need to get an answer to a simple question: Why do we exist?

Humankind has been extremely imaginative in acknowledging or inventing a supreme power that can answer that question and explain everything. It goes from a higher belief about the God responsible for our existence TO nature that explains who we are. The main common feature of all the models is that “God is Powerful!”. Some scholars and philosophers are now talking about the “Homo Deus”!

The big fallacy!

“Are you playing God?”

We have been puzzled and sometimes shocked to see corporate leaders “playing God” i.e. acting as if they had the ultimate power to decide on what is right and wrong with an individual, a team, an organization, or even a society.

The incentive to do so is that they get good rewards if they were right in assessing people (they get re-elected) and in most cases no sanction would be applied if they were wrong (somebody else is guilty).

Furthermore, what about those leaders who by their actions (or inaction) put their organizations in trouble and left with a nice financial reward for incompetence (and in some cases “corruption”). What can people do when they see that their leaders are making the wrong moves, putting the business in trouble, and claiming that they know what they are doing?

Our advice has always been: Stand up and challenge your leaders with other options! But be prepared in case something goes wrong. Before standing up, check your options (inside and outside the organization).

Some leaders tend to blame others for their own incompetency and mistakes. We also suggest that challenging the leaders can be done smartly: How you formulate your ideas, the timing, and the context can be very important and selected appropriately!

Playing God

“How do you feel playing God?”

Did you notice how good some leaders feel when they grade someone? We have witnessed many leaders deciding unilaterally what was good and not so good in people working for (sorry “with”) them.

A striking example is the practice of the so-called “performance review process” that still exists in many working places. Isn’t it incredible to have a human being telling you what you did well and not so well at work; to give you good and bad marks including on your talents and even potential; to take the liberty to tell you what you should do with your life?

And…the shocking part is that most people who are judged unfairly do not (at least openly) protest. Many people go through this demeaning process without saying a word. People are usually quite happy to hear the good news about the positive sides of their work but are also waiting (expecting even) the keyword “BUT” that comes inexorably at the end of the meeting. How come so many leaders feel that they have to find and say something negative when assessing the performance of one of their team members?

The right to play God

“Who gave you that right?”

We must ask the following question: Where is that right coming from?

Three reasons can explain why so many leaders behave in a God-like way:

  1. Many leaders are under strong pressure from the organizational culture. They feel that it is part of their role and that they have to know their people, get as many good outputs as possible from them, and make sure that at least some of them grow on the job and get ready for other assignments or roles in the corporation. Those assumptions justify the use of value judgments which can be very subjective and sometimes plainly wrong. Judging others can be a very sensitive thing to do. Some leaders are good at it. Many of them are not quite so and they sometimes overuse the power they think they have to judge other human beings.
  • Many employees are still asking for feedback on their performance believing that a good one will lead to a set of specific rewards including better career prospects. Strangely enough, that’s what many people want from their leaders. Many recruits want to show first to themselves and to their managers that they can do a good job and deliver great results. They become too dependent on their leaders’ opinions and judgments.
  • The power drive that is part of human nature is pushing leaders into that role. Some people are indeed extremely eager to control their lives and influence other people’s destinies. Without realizing it, they get into the “God” role, and many of them fall into the trap of enjoying it. Power is addictive and its use can lead leaders to indeed believe that they can decide (directly or indirectly) what people can expect from their own lives.

There is no right to play God in the corporate world. Can we live without it?

The alternative?

“Do we really need God-like leaders?”

Many will argue that God-playing behavior just happens in the organizational world and that it only affects the professional side of a person. Is that so? Isn’t it a part of the natural human way to organize themselves in groups and organizations? Just think about who is playing God in the following social environments such as

  • Family,
  • Schools,
  • Hospitals and health centers,
  • Religious groups,
  • Military entities,
  • Banks,
  • Helping institutions (Psychologists and psychanalysts).

It seems true that power and its unequal distribution is the push that incites people to get into that role.

The question is then: Can we change our human way to handle power? It seems that all the attempts (including democracy) have failed so far…

Let’s think further together on the challenging quote:

Tell me what you’re gonna do

 When you can’t play God no more”

Bob Dylan

Flash survey

We asked Mr. Jean Noël Lequeue (Managing Director, jnl S.A.) to share his opinion on the points presented in the article:

“Some leaders are “playing God” because they don’t know how to act differently. Sometimes with delight, they play an allotted role of immanent authority to reassure themselves. A few leaders are sadistic… and others, especially in large organizations, become fools and arrogant by losing the perception of reality.

But lots of leaders, including in the small organizations, are driving their team in all honesty, giving guidance and, at times, corrective advice to their collaborators”.

Others articles from Dr Pierre Casse