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Second-Stage Sensei

by Dr. Dino Signore

Manager of Entrepreneurial Education

Coping with fickle followers

Leadership is an art form that many dabble in, but few master. One of the things that makes it so challenging is what Robert Greene calls “the law of fickleness.”

In his book “The Laws of Human Nature,” Greene writes: “Although styles of leaders change with the times, one constant remains: People are always ambivalent about those in power. They want to be led but also to feel free; they want to be protected and enjoy prosperity without making sacrifices; they both worship the king and want to kill him.”

For business owners, I believe this sociopsychological phenomenon begins to emerge in second stage. With early-stage companies, you might confront some ambivalence, but it’s easier to manage. Typically, startup team members are striving to make a good impression. Motivated by a sense of creating something new, they are actively following you. Yet as you hire more employees and bring on senior managers, distance starts to creep in between you and your followers. In addition, agency theory can come into play: Managers may start acting in their own self-interest, which can cause them to row in different directions, question your judgment or criticize your leadership decisions.

How do business owners recognize ambivalence among employees? Some signs include:

  • Increasing arguments with team members and more resistance to your ideas and projects.
  • People nod their heads in agreement, but don’t follow through on your directives.
  • Displays of disrespect, such as people talking behind your back.

More important, how do leaders deal with ambivalence? Greene says that you need to cultivate “authority,” which he defines as a combination of trust, respect and support. For business owners, I believe this falls into two key buckets:

Creating a vision — Develop and articulate a compelling future about where your company is going — and how you’re going to get there. A clearly defined vision will spark optimism and have a calming effect on the group. People want to have a sense of purpose. In contrast, if there’s no plan in place, you’ll trigger uncertainty, which generates stress because humans want to know what’s going to happen next. And some people need to know more than others.

It’s also important to hold yourself and others accountable to make progress toward the vision. Many business leaders are restless; they become quickly bored and want to chase the next bright, shiny opportunity. This erodes trust and sets off ambivalence among employees. Your team can’t make great decisions because they can’t predict what you’ll do next.

Emotional intelligence — This is about having empathy for the group, being able to read the room, understanding where individuals are at and how they’re reacting to you. It’s also critical to manage your own impulses and insecurities — and understand what your emotions are doing to the group.

Granted, as a business owner, you have certain inherent powers (the ability to punish and reward employees, give directives, and access or control information that other people need.) Yet you don’t necessarily have referential power, meaning that people trust, respect and support you even when you’re not in the room.

Authority is difficult to build and easy to lose. Leaders can incite fickleness from their followers in a number of ways, such as:

  • Misusing your power.
  • Not walking your talk.
  • Feeling entitled.

When things are going well, you may not notice the undercurrents of ambivalence. Yet the attitudes of your subordinates can quickly sour. In order to scale your business in second stage, you need to develop leadership skills — and keep honing them. Earning the trust, respect and support of your team is an ongoing challenge.

(Published on March 22, 2022)