Is it possible that many, even most leaders, are addicted to leadership? That leadership is, or can be, a pathology for many of us?
No, I am not talking about leadership as in power; that people become addicted to the power of leadership, although that can be a (small) part of the issue. I am talking about addiction to leadership as in normally leading.
How would that impact selection and development of leaders if it were true?
Well, to examine this issue, let’s just take out a learning moment from our busy schedules, to talk about obesity. These days, obesity is a big subject. It’s discussed at length everywhere because it’s such a major public health problem. Nowadays we know a lot more about than we did.
What we particularly understand is that there is a substantial neurological component to obesity. We eat too much because the pleasure centers in our brain glom onto particular tastes and then become addicted to them.
So obesity is a food addiction (at least in part). In particular it’s an addiction to particular flavors. These include especially sugar, salt and fat but there are many others. Their flavors trigger our pleasure centers and then, bang, we’re gone: suddenly 30 pounds heavier than we should be.
To the cognoscenti it’s all about neuroscience. And neuroscience is particularly about addiction and pleasure centers, inter alia. Now we can explain a lot about behavior just by thinking about these pleasure centers. We can even use this paradigm to unpeel the onion of leadership behavior.
In this new way of thinking, leadership is also about behaviors. And just like any other behavior, the major driver is the triggering of our pleasure centers that occurs from particular ways of leading. Leadership comprises the particular types of decisions that that person characteristically makes that activate these pleasure centers.
All leaders prefer to do things in particular ways that are driven by their own particular constellation of traits which in turn reflect these neurological factors. The types of decisions we prefer to make are the ones that trigger our pleasure centers. These are what we can think of as particular decision flavors.
The decision flavors we describe collectively constitute what is known in the neoclassical leadership canon as our “comfort zone”. Translated into the vocabulary of neuroscience, our comfort zone comprises the decision flavors we habitually resort to, since they trigger our pleasure centers.
Another way to view this is that these decision flavors that we resort to represent an addiction. Leaders who resort to one type of leadership style and type are operating within their comfort zone. That is, they have an addiction to particular types of decisions as compared with other types.
Bad leaders are those who are not aware of this addiction. The good leaders are aware of their decision flavor preferences and are capable of ditching the habit. It’s like kicking smoking, salt or sugar.
What are some examples of decision flavors to which leaders can be addicted? Well there’s a litany and it includes:
• Gut-only decisions
• Highly analytical decisions
• Very fast decisions
• Very slow decisions
• Technically-driven decisions
• Sales-driven decisions
What, you might be asking, is the problem with any of these? Of course, it’s not that decisions are made based on these factors. It’s when a leader is so driven by one of these particular decision flavors that he uses it for all her decisions instead of varying it for the circumstances. Like eating lots of sugary foods instead of a balanced diet with fruit and of course lots of yucky vegetables.
Decisions made based on these different approaches are not wrong in themselves. The issue is whether the particular flavor of decision type used is appropriate for the special circumstances in question and whether the overall portfolio of decision flavors used by the leader is appropriately balanced, instead of being a monotype. That is whether the leader is addicted to a particular decision flavor or has kicked the addiction and now can eat (read: decide using the most appropriate flavor) anything.
In modern behavioral economics and finance, these decision flavors are referred to as cognitive biases. The message is that you must understand your own particular cognitive biases and their impacts. Once you understand them you have a fighting chance to improve. So self-awareness is the first step.
But behavior is difficult to change, just like any addiction. Even once you understand your cognitive biases, you will still need the mental agility to be able to see the changes you need to make and then to actually make them. That’s hard for the vast majority of people. Conversely, those who make these changes can have dramatic impacts on their personal and professional lives. That includes their ability to create profits for their company and wealth for themselves.
The nature of our cognitive biases is such that we usually think we are doing the right thing even when we aren’t. All behavioral addictions are hard to spot. It's probable that the behavioral addictions of decision flavors are the hardest to spot of all of them, because we all tend to think we are doing the right thing. These new tools and concepts outlined here give us all a fighting chance to do something about it.
So yes, you may well have a leadership addiction. Is it one that you can recover from or not? That’s what separates the sheep from the goats.