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25 Jul 2011

Leadership’s Dark Side

Leadership Creates Heard Mentality in Many

If you research leadership, you’ll find virtually all leadership models promoting the concept as something approaching divinity. What we don’t address is the dark side of leadership: the herd mentality it can create in many of us.

For instance, in the February 7, 2011 of The New Yorker, John Seabrook writes in “Crush Point” about a study designed by Iain Couzin of Princeton University and led by Jens Krause at Leeds University. It found that a group of 200 randomly walking people, injected by a few purposeful walkers, ended up following the latter even though they had no idea where these purposeful walkers were going. In a previous post, we also saw people believing leaders over facts.

As a result, leadership will encourage a state of mind in which some, and likely many, followers neither think nor introspect; they just follow. This will occur whether leadership is good or bad. Even a good leader can’t ensure all followers will develop their thinking and questioning skills so they can evaluate what’s best for them. They will need leaders to make decisions for them.

This also explains why confidence can be the tool of the incompetent. It encourages those, who can’t or don’t want to think for themselves, to follow someone with a purpose, no matter what that purpose might be. It plays subtly into the idea that “going somewhere is better than going nowhere.” Thus, people can achieve a purposeful life by following someone, anyone.

In reality, leadership is subjective. As a result, especially if we don’t learn to think for ourselves, we could easily follow leaders who are good for others but not good for the rest us.

Think about it. If not, ask a leader to do it for you.


7 Responses

  1. Another excellent post, Mike!

    Don’t think…just follow me.

    This post ties directly in to what I was sharing in regards to how leadership begins at home. This falls into the ‘do as I say but not as I do’ mentality that many people were raised at home with.

    Naturally, this same thinking extends into the adult world and culture as well. It also ties into our educational system. I don’t know if you are familiar with Seth Godin’s free e-book: Stop Stealing Dreams? He was doing his part to help at least instigate some thought and discussion on education transformation. He touched on how our education system was initially created; based on the need to create factory workers to fill those jobs. So it’s primarily a system designed to create compliance.

    I believe that all of these factors have contributed to much of the ‘herd’ mentality you have described. At least in this country.

    People follow the herd because that is what they (we) have been conditioned and trained to do. To actually THINK for ourselves was not really encouraged on any level. Perhaps for a few. Certainly not the majority.

    Your thoughts?


    1. Samantha, thank you for the compliment. I’m not familiar with Seth’s book, but my wife is a retired school teacher of thirty years so I’m well aware of related literature.

      Yes, there is a herd mentality in humans. Leaders are proof of that. Many times when we talk about leadership, we only talk about it from the perspective of the leader: What does that leader have to do? We rarely, if ever, talk about the effect leadership has on followers unless it’s to say something like, “If you want them to do X, the leader needs to do Y.” Also, when we do, we tend to treat followers as some monolithic group. We don’t acknowledge that a leader can do Y, but only some followers will do X. That’s why I say leadership is subjective. Just as there are different kinds of leaders, there are different kind of followers. Two people might be following the same leader but for different reasons. Some might follow leaders because they have good ideas while others might follow because they don’t prefer some decisions being made for them.

      The herd mentality exists in every country. It just takes different forms and is the result of different factors. You mention one: education. Traditions, culture, laws, society, religion, politics and organizations are other ones. All have the potential to create a herd mentality. In the U.S., we are very legalistic, so we teach people to obey laws, follow the rules and respect authority. In other countries, other things are more influential in creating a herd mentality than laws because many countries have bad laws and corruption. They might rely more on traditions, culture and religion to create group cohesion.

      Also, we need to remember that all of us are different. What is freedom to us might be chaos to another. What is order to us might be slavery to another. There is safety in following leaders; you don’t have to think, you don’t have to take responsibility. If something bad happens or you do something wrong, you can just blame the leader because you were only doing what you were told. It sounds too simplistic to be real, but we forget that many of the followers of dictators try to declare their innocence of war crimes because they “were just following orders.”

      You’re point about thinking for yourself is valid. I would just elaborate on that by saying many times we believe we are teaching people to think for themselves when in actuality we are teaching them a process for thinking (teaching them how to arrive at decisions). The process has certain benchmarks by which we evaluate decisions. Since you can alter outcomes by altering the process, we teach people ways to arrive at the decisions we want by giving them a thinking process that will tend to lead them in that direction. For instance, weighing pros and cons is one thinking process, the scientific method is another, emphasis on quantifiable factors in business is yet another. This is very similar to “controlling the agenda” in a meeting so we can guide where we want it to go. Thus, as a result, we give people the impression that they are making their own decisions when in actuality we are still controlling how they think to a large degree.

      So, yes, herd mentality exists in all countries just in different forms. Leaders are proof that such a mentality likely exists at least in a significant portion of the population.



  2. Thanks again for such a thoughtful reply.

    When you initially described herd mentality in humans, I couldn’t help but think of how manipulative it all is. And I’m not saying it’s always on a conscious or intentional level either! haha I’m also considering how we are as parents with our own children. (generally speaking) Even if we are wanting to do the ‘right thing’ I can’t help but realize it still revolves around getting them to conform in some manner. Whether that is our rules in the home. To the rules at school. To obeying the laws of the land, etc. That said, I can’t really think of how to completely avoid this either without have some very unruly children! 🙂

    And come to think of it, when you said ‘Just as there are different kinds of leaders, there are different kinds of followers.’ I hadn’t thought of that before, however, you are right! Once again, I couldn’t help but think of how very different my own two daughters are from each other and how they each respond differently in the same or similar sets of circumstances.

    Beyond family, there are so many different factors involved for different people. When you talk about the safety in following leaders: about not having to think or take responsibility. Again, I’m reminded of our cultural ‘learned dependency’. To not have to think and avoid responsibility are the ‘pay offs’ a person is receiving for being dependent or compliant in home, work, or society. Please note, I’m speaking in a rather broad generalization here. The most important point being the pay off, which we may not always be conscious of. Most aren’t.

    As for military situations and war time, I could ramble for quite awhile, however, I’ll put myself in check right now in order to spare you! 🙂 I will say that part of the ‘I was just following orders’ is a result of the autocratic nature of the military itself. At least in this country. (I used to be in the military) In this country, once you sign the dotted line, you basically give up all rights to your life. You now belong to the government. Basic training is designed to condition people to follow orders. ‘When I tell you to jump, don’t ask why, ask how high’! ‘This is not Burger King! You cannot have it your way!’ The military is designed in such a way that it NEEDS people to follow orders quickly and efficiently, without question. So this does have a tendency to cut into a persons own conscience. ‘If I’m being ordered to do it by my government, then it MUST be the right thing to do.’

    A Few Good Men was an excellent film that addressed this issue. I”m also quite fond of Crimson Tide for the conflict of interest scenario it presented during a time of acute crisis. You have the old timer captain of the sub who will follow orders WITHOUT question. And he gets paired with a free-thinking newcomer who also has quite a conscience, especially when it comes to war. He was willing to question orders in order to the right thing, while still trying to preserve the rules and follow chain of command.

    For even more fun on this topic, we could also cover the transitions from military to civilian life. Not everyone can transition and give up that autocratic structure and hierarchy. Which is also another area that I have seen play a big role in family dynamics, but I digress. 🙂

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on these things. Your posts and comments inspire my own thinking.


    1. You’re welcome, Samantha.

      I always like to look for the two aspects of a person: conscious and unconscious. Grasping both helps us to explain why people do what they do. For example, consciously people will say they don’t like negative political ads however, unconsciously negative ads influence them. You’re right the herd mentality doesn’t have to be conscious. Humans tend to have a natural propensity for being in groups and for following leaders. However, we need to realize that many times leaders (including their advisors) will very consciously work to leverage the herd mentality. The herd mentality will vary by person; to a large degree its innate, but it’s also related to upbringing.

      These two aspects dramatically affect business strategies. Market researchers know that focus groups often don’t give a direct indication of what consumers want. Netflix finds that even though people always put some “serious” movies on their lists, they rarely end up watching them and order the action/adventure ones. People always say they want “serious” and “good” news, but hits on news sites show that people tend to go for the crime, negativity, sex, gossip and scandal first.

      I don’t believe I’ve seen Crimson Tide. I’ll have to put it on my watch list! Other than that, I’m not sure what I can add to your military comments except I agree. However, in the movie A Few Good Men, let’s keep in mind that some people “can’t handle the truth” simply because it undermines their beliefs. For example, if we acknowledge a problem, the question becomes, “Then why don’t we do something about it?” Thus, it’s easier to say there isn’t a problem because then we don’t have to do anything about it. Denial means less work . . . for the moment that is.

      Yes, transitioning from a structured environment to an unstructured one is difficult for many. In fact, about 20-30% of the people who retire suffer depression to some degree. A good friend of ours had a nervous breakdown when she retired. She no longer had the regimen of waking up everyday and going to work. It wasn’t until she “structured” her retirement that she overcame this. Yet, on the other hand, some people will go batty if they do the same things every day, every week or even every month.


  3. As for conscious/unconscious, I have found that for most people, (myself included) that what we ‘think’ we know and believe is often very different from what we actually DO. So there can be a huge gap sometimes between the two. I have found this to be true even for various teachers/leaders/preachers. If we were to shine a spotlight on all that we ‘think’ we know and then consciously looked at whether or not we live what we know, we would be shocked to learn that our ‘enlightenment’ is so far less then we imagine it to be.

    Now this observation is not meant to be a ‘diss’ against any of us, as I am lumped in right along with everyone else! 🙂

    In the same vein but slightly different viewpoint, I’m reminded of a scene in the movie Gladiator where Maximus is having a private conversation with Marcus Aurelius following the battle in Germania. When Marcus confronts Maximus with his personal revelation of truth that he ‘brought the sword…nothing more’. Maximus is then faced with trying to come to terms with it. He did not want to believe or accept that his men fought and died in vain. Marcus asks Maximus…’What would you believe?’ And Maximus speaks of Rome. How it is the light. How he has traveled all over and what he has seen is dark. He fights for ‘Caesar’ and for Rome because that is the ‘light’. Then Marcus points out, ‘And yet you have never been there. You have not seen what it has become.’

    This is a great example of how we can fall in love with various ‘ideas’…even SERVE those ideas…whether it’s the ‘purity’ of our country, the ‘sanctity’ of a particular religion, a leader, or any person. And yet the reality of things can be so very different.

    Which leads right in to what you said about A Few Good Men and ‘You can’t handle the truth.’ I’d have to add, how often do we even KNOW what the truth is? And yes, there are times when the truth doesn’t coincide with what we believe, and to believe the truth would be terrifying because we have relied on our own beliefs for our existence, or as a crutch or support of some sort.

    This is why it can sometimes be dangerous to rip the masks off of things for people. It can quickly introduce an internal state of crisis.

    As for denial: it is to continuously opt for the short term gain that only results in long term pain.

    That said, it’s still not always easy to snap out of denial and act on our own best long term interests sometimes.

    Thanks again for the reply and additional perspectives. 🙂

  4. Nice entry and discussion, thanks. It’s why I tend to emphasize and encourage personal leadership – that is, learning to take responsibility for one’s own actions. So important both for leaders and the potentially led.

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