Lessons in Power from the Chris Christie Kerfuffle

There are numerous lessons from the Chris Christie “bridgegate” scandal for people in high-profile leadership roles. Here are a few.

First, power comes with a) visibility and b) envy. If you are working at a minimum wage job, few people are going to want to trade places with you and few will question your qualifications and performance. As you move up the hierarchy, both things will change. As Patricia Seamann, an executive coach in Switzerland, told me, by the time you get to be CEO (or governor of New Jersey), there will be many people who think they can do the job better than you and there will be many others who will feel free to criticize what you are doing. Some of those who think they can do your job better will be willing to wait, some won’t. Which leads to the related point: with great power comes great attention. So mistakes you can make in low-level roles become magnified once in positions of great power and prominence. The difference between bridgegate and the political paybacks being delivered every day all over the world in both the public and private sector is mostly the attention Christie has because of his status as a viable, maybe even leading, contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

The next lesson seems obvious but, given the media discussion, maybe it’s not. It is a lesson in two parts. First, basic learning theory suggests that behavior is a function of its consequences. That means leaders who don’t want mutiny and an absence of discipline make sure that people who misbehave are punished. My colleague Charles O’Reilly has written about the positive consequences of ritual firings in which people who don’t adhere to company values get dismissed. “Misbehavior” as defined by many, many leaders is manifest in how loyal their subordinates are. Payback is common, as a partner at a large human resources consulting firm when it was still a partnership learned. Having backed the wrong person in the election for head of the firm, the new head told him he had to go. There are stories that under the first Mayor Daley in Chicago, city services such as snow plowing were allocated by the loyalty of the neighborhood’s alderman. Allocating rewards to friend and punishing enemies is common in all domains and in most countries. This observation leads to the second point: just because people are piling on the bandwagon of criticism, don’t expect to not find instances of precisely the same behavior in their past—or maybe even their present and future. Hypocrisy is plentiful, and many of the people criticizing Chris Christie are guilty of similar acts of revenge, albeit possibly not ones that were so photogenic.

Which leads to the third and maybe the most important lesson: since those in power are going to be subjected to public scrutiny and the envy of others who seek power, since people will inevitably make mistakes (or have staff that do), and since then there will be piling-on by people who should read the gospels about not being too quick to judge others, the issue becomes how does the leader respond. We want apologies, because that brings the powerful down to earth. But the research suggests that apologies seldom work, mostly because that behavior signals weakness. Embarrassment is not a strong emotion. One account of Christie’s state of the state speech used terms such as “diminished” and noted a “lack of confidence.” A state senator called his performance “not as bold as usual.”

When leaders are embarrassed, lack confidence, and don’t seem bold—when they appear diminished—we would like to believe that this display of vulnerability will bring sympathy and assistance. But it won’t. People want to associate with winners—to bask in reflected glory. The minute Chris Christie appears “diminished” he will have fewer friends than before and his rivals will be emboldened.

All of which leads to a simple recommendation: people respond more positively to strength than to weakness, and the sooner Chris Christie goes back to being and doing what he was and has done, the sooner people will get beyond bridgegate and get behind him. It is, after all, somewhat appropriate on the 500th anniversary of the appearance of The Prince to recall Machiavelli’s advice on the advantages of being feared over loved if you can’t manage to do both at the same time.

This entry was posted in Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.