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Leadership Immunity: Why Leaders Act as if Rules Don't Apply to Them

Leadership Immunity is the notion that powerful people believe that rules don't apply to them – they feel immune to normal standards of decency, behavior, ethics, and scientific scrutiny.

by Gustavo Razzetti

January 20, 2021

How "Do as I say, not as I do" has become a pervasive leadership behavior (and what to do about It).

Powerful people learn early in the game that the rules don't usually apply to them.

US Senator Rand Paul managed a workout at the Senate gym as he awaited his coronavirus test results; he received public backlash when he was diagnosed positive. New Zealand's health minister Dr. David Clark broke national lockdown rules and took his family to the beach; he was then demoted.

What's going on with these people? With so much spotlight and scrutiny, why do they engage in such risky behavior?

The reason is simple: they can get away with murder. Their power and position makes them immune to consequences. Someone will cover their tracks, protect them, or give them another chance because they deserve it.

The "do as I say, not as I do" premise is more evident in the public realm. However, it has become just as pervasive in the corporate world, too. Organizations encourage one behavior but then reward the opposite.

Leadership Immunity Is a Cultural Thing

"What's preventing your team doing their best work?"

I've been asking this question for months during our Masterclasses and culture design workshops.

After listening to thousands of executives from various companies across all continents a common theme emerged. People are frustrated by leadership entitlement. Their leaders say one thing and do another, acting as if they're immune to the rules that affect everyone else in the organization.

Narcissism begets power, but the reverse is true as well. Risky, aggressive behavior can often drive success. That's why most politicians, CEOs, and celebrities engage in thrill-seeking, risky behaviors.

Leadership Immunity is the notion that people in power positions believe that the rules don't apply to them. They think that they're immune to normal standards of decency, behavior, ethics, and scientific scrutiny.

"When we have high power, we think of ourselves as exceptional as if the rules don't apply to us," said Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School. "We're much more prone to do what we want because we don't feel constrained in the way that less powerful people do."

Leadership Immunity makes powerful people think they'll never face the consequences for their reckless behavior. This misconception not only feeds entitlement, but also weakens self-awareness and empathy.

A study by UC Berkeley shows that people under the influence of power act as if they've suffered a traumatic brain injury — they are more impulsive, less risk-aware, and unable to see things from other people's perspectives.

80% of leaders claim that they're transparent with their employees. However, only 55% of employees believe managers to be transparent, according to an employee-manager survey. Even worse, 71% of managers think they know how to motivate their team, but only 44% of employees agree.

Leadership immunity is not just a personal trait, but also a byproduct of workplace culture.

Followers shape leader's behavior and not just the other way around

The behaviors you reward and punish shape the culture of your organization. When leaders' behavior is always tolerated no matter what they do, people feel that they are living in an unfair relationship.

Leadership immunity is not created in a vacuum. It requires followers that enable, support, and protect entitled leaders – and even cover their tracks.

The feeling of being above the law is contagious: to comply with an unethical CEO's demands, followers replicate those behavior patterns. As research on financial fraud shows, followers are usually complicit in committing unethical behavior. They believe the rules don't apply to them either because they work for the 'boss.'

Being a powerful person comes with some perks. However, the abuse of that status creates resentment and stress. Employees resist leaders who are unwilling to put in the same effort or abide by the same rules as others. Organizations pay a high price for this: a dramatic rise in employee turnover and healthcare expenses.

Moreover, abusive leadership creates distrust. No surprise, then, that 58% of people trust strangers more than their own boss.  

What Causes Leadership Immunity?

Several factors promote leadership immunity. Some might be more prevalent in your organization than others. Most of the time, it's a combination of the below phenomena.

Hypocrisy and Inconsistent Behavior

The "do as I say, not as I do" motto captures the essence of Leadership Immunity. The question is, why do powerful figures engage in contradictory behaviors at the risk of being called hypocrites?

For starters, they believe that the rules don't apply to them. Most importantly, powerful figures are always trying to please different audiences. They think that their inconsistent behavior is necessary to appeal to a larger base. In their distorted reality they aren't contradicting themselves, but adapting to each audience's needs.

Social psychologist Daniel Effron, an expert on hypocritical behavior, believes that is unfairness, not inconsistency, that really gets to us. People can be inconsistent and still not called hypocritical.

As Effron told BBC, "If a drug addict tells people not to start taking drugs, few people would condemn them for it. But if someone is preaching virtue in public while practicing vice in private, people get angry because they think that person is claiming a moral benefit ¬– of appearing like a good person – which they don't deserve."

Moral Licensing

Psychologists have identified 'Moral Licensing' as one reason that gives leaders permission to do whatever they want. This psychological bargaining phenomenon refers to the increased confidence in our self-image, meaning we don't worry about the consequences of immoral behavior.

Self-licensing occurs when people allow themselves to indulge after doing something positive first. For example, purchasing a green product (a positive moral act) increases the likelihood of buying a luxury product (a self-indulgent act).

Leaders who donate money or sponsor philanthropic causes are more likely to steal and cheat. Doing something virtuous gives them the license to engage in unethical behavior.

Good followers can create unethical leaders, according to a set of studies. Good deeds by subordinates free leaders to engage in subsequent unethical behavior. This confirms the idea that followers influence leader behavior, not just the other way around.

Power Makes Us Feel Powerful

Power is an illusion that goes to our head pretty fast. Holding an office or a title makes people feel greedy, ambitious, and, of course, more powerful. Just assigning power to someone encourages them to eat more than their fair share.

Experiments by the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley detailed how giving power makes people more prone to taking more money from a shared pool, engaging in unethical behavior, and stopping attending to others carefully. The paradox is that the good in us gets us power, but we then use that power to liberate the bad in us.

Power corrupts. Science shows that its effect is so huge that it creates a chemical reaction in our brain.

As Dr. Dacher Keltner, author of the Power Paradox, explains, "When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. Feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power."

The God Complex

The belief that we know all the answers, or the God Complex, drives us to think we have supernatural powers. Not only does it make us believe we are above the rules, but that we also deserve special treatment. The illusion of power inflates our ability, privilege, and infallibility - it limits our capacity to solve problems.

Leaders with a God Complex neither listen to nor consider their employees' thoughts and opinions—even if they are valuable.

There's a thin line separating geniuses from those who suffer from a God Complex, like in the case of Steve Jobs.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the psychological term for someone with a God Complex, is a condition characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, entitlement, a need for admiration, and a shocking lack of empathy. This obsessive preoccupation with power and status gets us to the point where we stop seeing others as human beings.

The God Complex creates a tense relationship with failure. Narcissistic leaders don't want to admit errors, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.

Leaders Simply Don't Care

Building on the above, there's a point where feeling immune to the potential consequences, plus the lack of empathy, makes most powerful people to stop caring. It's not just that they don't care about others; they simply stop caring at all.

When Donald Trump's daughter faced criticism for endorsing a Goya product, the former US president doubled down by releasing a photo of himself with several Goya products on the presidential desk. It's not that Trump or his advisers didn't know that using his position to promote a brand was unethical; they simply didn't care.

A study about narcissism and social media found that people who scored higher on a Narcissistic Personality Inventory tended to have more Facebook friends, tag themselves in more pictures, and update their statuses more frequently––especially with achievements in areas such as diet and exercise. This all points to someone showing how great they are with no interest in anyone else.

How to Neutralize Leadership Immunity

The following practices will help you challenge your own behavior if you're suffering from leadership immunity. You can apply them to help other leaders, too.

1. Uncover Leaders' Blind Spots

95% of people think they're self-aware, but only 10-15% genuinely are. According to self-awareness expert Tasha Eurich, the gap gets even worse when it comes to leaders – less than 5% are truly self-aware.

Blind spots are the things about yourself that others see, but you don't. In the same way that you need a mirror to avoid a car crash, you can benefit from other people's perspectives. Feedback is a critical tool to uncover one's blind spots.

Leaders should focus on requesting feedback from others rather than giving it. This shift is critical to move from the position of God Complex ("I know everything, so I'll tell you how what you must improve") to increasing awareness.

Here's a collection of 15 exercises to increase self-awareness and turn your blind spots into bright spots.

2. Develop Intellectual Humility

As the saying goes, "Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition." The idea of intellectual humility is older than psychology itself. Philosophers have always embraced a "learner's mind."  

Being intellectually humble doesn't mean being weak or caving when your thoughts are challenges. It doesn't require a high IQ or some innate trait, either. Intellectual humility is a meta-skill that can be developed. You must be open to the idea that you might not have all the facts and, in most cases, be wrong.

"People seem to be uncomfortable about saying, 'I don't know.' That's one thing we've never been able to get people to do," wrote psychologist David Dunning, the creator of the Dunning-Kruger effect. He believes that while competent leaders are often plagued with doubt, incompetent ones are blissfully sure of their excellence.

Intellectually humble leaders are more open to hearing opposing views, seeking out information that conflicts with their perspective, and paying more attention to evidence. They lead with questions, not perfect answers.

Read more about how to develop intellectual humility.

3. Don't Surround Yourself with "Yes" People

Most leaders surround themselves with followers that will not only approve, but also encourage them to break the rules.

When was the last time one of your direct reports challenged you at work?

Working with many senior executive teams while helping them design more innovative workplace cultures, I'm always surprised by the lack of psychological safety among those running the company. Senior executives who have worked together for many years still opt to tell their CEOs what they want to hear rather than the truth.

It's hard being challenged, especially when you hold a position of power. However, your team is supposed to bring out the best in you, not lower your standards. Leadership immunity to facts or ethics is usually a consequence of a culture full of "Yes-people."

4. Hold Leaders to Higher Standards than Everyone Else

If you're a member of a board, it's your crucial responsibility to ensure that the CEO not only abides by the same rules as others, but is also held to a higher standard. If you are a CEO, the same applies to you and your direct reports.

Your company culture is the behavior you reward and punish. Most organizations praise collaboration, but then end up promoting the least-collaborative manager. Or say they want to create a culture of innovation, but punish those who make a mistake trying to discover new solutions.

Consistency across levels is critical to encourage other people to follow the rules, too. People are okay with leaders having more perks and privileges, but also expect them to have higher standards.

5. Increase Your Mistake Tolerance

Most organizations view leaders as heroes that will save the day. They attribute CEOs with superpowers, making it seem that they and only they can transform the organization. That's why most boards pay CEOs more than they're worth or turn a blind eye when they misbehave.

As David Swinford, CEO of executive compensation consulting firm Pearl Meyer told CNN, "Don't confuse pay with what people are worth. No human being is worth $20 million, but many executives cost $20 million."

No one questions the importance of a CEO to successfully lead an organization. However, idealizing their position promotes leadership immunity. As Tim Harford explains in his TED talk, companies look for "little gods" to solve complex problems.

In his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, Harford encourages us to abandon this illusion. He recommends a trial-and-error approach – using humility and experimentation to solve problems.

Hartford's words summarize the shift necessary to fight leadership immunity, "We have no idea why a certain thing will work. No idea at all. But the moment you step back from the God Complex and you say 'let's just try a bunch of stuff,' 'let's have a systematic way of determining what's working and what's not,' you can solve your problem."

How to Overcome the God Complex

Neutralizing leadership immunity requires working at both the individual and the cultural level.

The best way not to deal with leaders with the God Complex is to not hire them in the first place. However, we can all fall prey to a narcissist during the interview process. If that's the case, protect your culture.

Consistency across levels is vital; everyone should abide by the same norms. The "do as I say, not as I do" mantra should be neither rewarded, nor tolerated.

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