I heard the most horrible leadership story the other day and, quite frankly, it made me very sad. As a subject matter expert, a friend of mine was invited to lead a session for a Fortune 500 Company. It was a large group so they divided it into two – with a group of 30 top-level managers in one room and 60 middle-managers in the other (many who reported to the leaders in the small group). My friend, a seasoned presenter, took the larger group and brought in another highly-regarded subject matter expert in the industry to lead the content for the smaller, more senior room.
The day started off without a hitch, but within about 30 minutes, things started going sideways with the more-senior group. From what I understand, a question was asked and when the presenter didn’t provide satisfactory response it unleashed an ugliness that spiraled quickly out of control. The “leaders” in the room, sensing vulnerability, decided to make a sport of it. One after another they launched questions, like grenades, at the guy presenting – not in attempt to understand more deeply, but with a clear intent on bringing him down.
Meanwhile, in the other room, with the group of 60 middle managers, the energy was high, the group engaged and insights were popping. By all measurements the first bit of the morning had been a rousing success. So you can imagine my friend’s surprise, at 10:30am, when the HR Manager approached him in a panic about what was going on across the hall.
It was decided that the only way the small group could be salvaged was to add them to the larger group, in hopes that my friend could save the day. So, to the group of 60 highly-engaged middle managers, they added the 30 cynical-smarter-than-thou top level leaders – the “bosses”. They were seated around the periphery of the room like force field.
As you can imagine, that changed some things.
The middle managers, in an environment that was no longer safe to say the wrong thing or ask the wrong question, stopped saying much at all. While the rest of the day unfolded without drama, I’m not sure a whole lot of learning was going on. The session had been hijacked.
Now, I wasn’t there. I don’t know how good or bad the original presenter was in the small room. He may have been brilliant, but, worst-case, let’s assume he was absolutely dreadful. Does that justify the behavior that went on? Were they right to make him their fool and take him down? Is there any scenario in which openly taunting another person is acceptable?
Imagine how this dynamic plays out in their workplace.
Imagine the cost to the organization. To the culture. The implications, when it comes to creativity and innovation. Consider how it would feel to go to work every day in this environment. To survive you’d do one of three things: join the group, avoid being noticed by the group, or leave altogether. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a single path in this scenario that looks positive. In a business environment that demands that people give their all, we cannot afford to host bullies in the boardroom. The cost is too high. If we’re truly committed to results this must change.
Think about someone you know who is truly powerful. How do they show up in the world? They’re not spending their energy making others small – why would they? It’s time to redefine how power and strength show up in the workplace. We need a new kind of leadership.
I look forward to the day when situations like this seem so absurd that they’re almost funny. But today, I just find it sad.
©OnStage Leadership, 2014; Kimberly Davis is the Founder/Director of OnStage Leadership, a full-day experiential leadership workshop.
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