Monday, September 14, 2009

Leaders Can't Ignore Lessons in Leadership

In case you like driving down 21st avenue blindfolded and haven't realized it, we have been deemed the best education school in America by U.S. News and World Report. Who could be surprised by our intelligent, creative, and inspired student body hosted by a faculty of charming, knowledgeable academics? We students seek out challenge and demand success. And for our newest challenge: studying the theory of leadership and the behavior it produces.

What a scientific proposition! The tone of it seems nearly biological. On the face of things - both in word and in deed - we have not received any lecture or read any text regarding how to lead. Our readings have depicted the evolving views of leadership through time, from an original acceptance of Great Man Theory to a nearly opposite view that leadership is a behavior dependent on applying knowledge and skill in the right circumstance. We have begun to discuss whether there is such a thing as a born leader and whether leadership itself can be taught.

Throughout our lectures and readings, I have done my best to internalize the idea that, again, we are learning about leadership and not how to lead. So is it just me or do we all feel a tug from every assignment that as scholars of leadership behavior we ought to nevertheless consider our own leadership abilities? Who could read Zaleznik's Managers and Leaders: Are they Different? and not wish for oneself the regal title of "leader" over the timecard-punching, paper pushing "manager?"

I have come to appreciate and enjoy the dichotomies present throughout so many of our readings. Not only Leader vs. Manager, but Born vs. Made, Theory X vs. Theory Y, the Authority of Position vs. the Authority of Leadership (according to Barnard, these last two are not necessarily opposed but do not always coexist). As I consider each of these elements, I am sensitive to the fact that while I would like to remain objective, I simply cannot read such words without picking sides and thus trying to glean from them a lesson in leadership. In other words, although we study leadership behavior, this behavior is something that we can relate to. We may try to keep an arm's length and study leadership behavior as though we were studying the behavior of a newly discovered creature, yet our innate relationship to the material seems to make such neutrality impossible.

So here we are, a collection of students of varied ages, backgrounds, and programs of study. Yet in class it feels like a room full of leaders. And as hard as we try to remain objective, and as much as this class is not about learning how to lead, I would like to say that I believe many, if not all of us, will learn a thing or two about proper leadership from the underlying lessons in leadership that I feel are undoubtedly present in our readings and lecture.

The Absence of Personal Leadership and the Bystander Effect in Emergency Situations

In March 13, 1964, Catherine "Kitty" Genovese was returning home from work when she was stabbed to death near her home. In actuality, around a dozen people saw or heard part of the attack and a witness did contact the police either during or at the end of the attack. But the original New York Times article sensationalized the crime with the headlines, “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police”, which prompted an onslaught of criticism and negative stereotypes of how people in large cities have become calloused in large cities. The incident spurred a series of studies by Bibb Latane and John Darley, where they identified a phenomenon known as the “bystander effect”.

Interestingly, in Latane and Darley’s studies, observers are less likely to take action when an emergency occurs if there are other observers around. The greater the number of observers, the less likely one observer will intervene. There are two features of the bystander effect. First, the greater number of people present, the greater the diffusion of responsibility. For example, if a witness was the only person present when a passerby drops to the ground and has a heart attack – the witness would feel compelled to help the passerby. Now, imagine if there were twenty people around when the stranger has a heart attack. The diffusion of responsibility is greater because each person is more likely to think someone else will take action. The sole witness will feel more compelled to help a dying person versus twenty witnesses.

The second feature is a result of social conditioning. In general, people try to act in socially acceptable ways by not over-reacting, especially in an ambiguous situation. Let’s take the same scenario again with the random stranger who is suffering from a myocardial infarction, add some distance between him and the other witnesses, pretend he is mute, and make it really foggy. Suddenly, it is not so easy to predict whether or not witnesses will walk over to check on the person. The situation is not so obvious anymore because witnesses can’t hear him scream or see him too well through the fog and distance. Witnesses cannot tell if the stranger is really having a heart attack or if he is just some man who just tripped and fell. Logically, the only risk the witnesses really would face is to appear too prying in something that might be none of their business. But the small risk of embarrassment is enough for the witnesses not to take action.

Yes, yes. I know it sounds ridiculous to let the mute stranger die of a heart-attack in the fog, somewhere faraway because people might get embarrassed.

What theoretical point(s) or frame(s) does this example bring to mind?

This incident does not make any direct connection to a theoretical point or frame from our class readings. Instead, it makes a case against the idea that a leader may emerge in times of crisis and the absence of personal leadership is more likely to occur if a person’s sense of responsibility was somehow diminished. In Janis Irving’s article on Groupthink, team members isolated themselves from the results of their actions by putting themselves on a higher, impenetrable moral ground. They created this high ground by villainizing others, creating an “us versus them” mentality. In their minds, they did not need to reconsider their actions, they were always right. In Milgram’s experiments, the subjects carried out orders that conflicted with their moral views. One of the factors that allowed them to do this was a separation from the responsibility of the act. The subject transferred the responsibility of his or her decision to the authority figure. With the bystander effect, the responsibility was diffused among a larger group of people, which made it easier for people not to take action. The common theme in these studies is that people are less likely to intervene when there is a way to reduce their connection to their responsibilities, whether if it is by diffusion, transfer, or rationalizing. To create a petri dish for the absence of personal leadership, there must be a way for people not to feel accountable for what happened.

Why is this important?

Not every crisis will produce a leader. There are multiple reasons why a leader does not emerge from a crisis. In Latane and Darley’s studies, it was not the witnesses' apathy but rather a result of the bystander effect. In Milgram’s studies, it was the “dilemma of obedience”. In the Bay of Pigs and Pearl Harbor, it was the pressure of group dynamics. To me, this is important because it can happen in a non-emergency situation but it does not get the same level of visibility. Non-emergency situations don’t leave dead bodies as evidence of the absence of personal leadership. Instead, it may result in less acute but serious examples such as not intervening when you witness another shopper become victim to racial discrimination or obeying a total stranger.