18 Mar 2021 15:49 IST

Inspire performance rather than wrench it out

Abusive leaders need to stop dressing bullying tendencies as tough-minded approach to leadership

After Meghan Markle’s tell-all Oprah interview, the palace lobbed the ball gently back by bringing into the spotlight a bullying complaint levelled by a staffer against Markle. A not-so-subtle reminder that it could be a case of the kettle calling the pot black. In the US, NeeraTanden, Biden’s nominee for Budget Director had to beat a retreat after it became clear that her history of abrasive and nasty tweets was not forgotten. Though the Republicans talking about nasty tweets was a little rich given their former President specialised in that. Andrew Cuomo, the New York Governor has not only faced sexual harassment charges but allegations of repeated and humiliating bullying of staffers.


Meghan Markle and Price Harry in an interview with Oprah Winfrey



In India, while few incidents get publicised, several corporate leaders at all levels of management, repeatedly indulge in bullying. They get away by calling it tough and aggressive, and by implication right style of leadership. Many employees share horror stories from the humiliation inflicted on them by such leaders. But one of the tests of leadership is how does a leader wield her power. Does she use it to bludgeon people or to lift them up and inspire them? When it’s time to be tough, can she wield it lightly, but effectively?

Why does bullying happen?

Corporate leaders who indulge in bullying do so for a variety of reasons. One, as we’ve stated, is the mistaken belief that the screaming, shouting and humiliating is what is required to lift a team to extraordinary performance. These leaders believe that the toughness of their jobs and targets justifies the use of mean, humiliating behaviour. In the 1992 classic movie, A Few Good Men, Lance Corporal Dawson and Private Downey are on trial for the death of Private Willy Santiago. The defence rests on the plea that the men were just following orders to brutally discipline Santiago in a bullying practice called a Code Red. When Col Jessep (brilliantly played by Jack Nicholson) is on the stand being probed by Lt Daniel Kaffee (a power-packed performance by Tom Cruise) he takes the ‘tough-job-demands-tough-leader line: “I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know; that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.” Unfortunately, the corporate world has many such Col Jesseps who think of themselves as tough leaders.

Sometimes it is because these leaders have themselves been victims of bullying in their past and now when clothed with their own leadership power, choose to get back. A Forbes report proposed that: “People become targets (of bullying) because something about them is threatening to the bully. Often, they are more skilled, more technically proficient, have a higher EQ or people just like them better.”

Sometimes leaders use bullying to create or accentuate perceived differences and reiterate their superiority. In June last year, a landmark suit was filed in California against Cisco with two of its engineering managers both upper-caste Indians being accused of discriminating against a Dalit engineer. More complaints about caste bias poured in after this, showing it was not an isolated incident.

In the Jan-Feb 2013 Harvard Business Review article on corporate bullying, authors Christine Porath and Christine Pearson refer to this as ‘workplace incivility.’ Their research showed that almost 98 per cent of employees had experienced some form of workplace incivility. Clearly, leaders need to do better.

How do you deal with bullying?

Bullies are cowards at heart. And often the best way to deal with them is to stand up to them. When the whole crowd is cowering in fear of a tongue-lashing, sometimes it takes one brave leader to stand up and confront the bully. Often the bully will back off. Silence and a passive attitude are the energy that the bully feeds off — when people choose to do nothing.

Employees sometimes place a premium on holding onto their job, over their own self-respect. So, they stomach the abuse. But in truth, not only do they regret it later, but through their lack of action also compounds the problem by encouraging the bully to continue with his behaviour. Today organisations have got more organised about handling bullying and most employees who are bullied, will have some avenue to lodge and air their grievances. They should make use of the opportunity to speak up.

Wielding power right

Real leadership power is demonstrated very differently. Many of today’s top global business leaders demonstrate the right way to wield power. Whether it’s Tim Cook at Apple, or Sundar Pichai at Google or Satya Nadella at Microsoft — you can’t imagine them screaming and shouting to demonstrate leadership heft. Instead through a combination of humility and a steely resolve to drive results, they inspire performance rather than wrench it out. Real leadership wears its power lightly and wields it in a way that its impact ripples out even after their time at the helm.

I recently saw this in action with a leader I have known and worked with. He is a Catholic priest friend — Father Thomas — who plays the role of Vice-Provincial, the equivalent of COO for his region that covers educational institutions, skill development centres, orphanages. He has a team of close to 200 priests and brothers working with him. He is their superior, ranking only just below the Provincial. Last year, one of their priests struggled with a liver impairment that had deteriorated so badly, that doctors said the only hope was a liver transplant. Word was sent out to the whole province requesting a priest or brother with the relevant blood group to volunteer, since a cadaver transplant would take many years, that the sick priest would not survive. On Christmas Day, I visited with Father Thomas at the hospital.

He was the one who had volunteered for the liver donation and saved his brother priest’s life. I found it such an outstanding example of leadership — the willingness to serve and sacrifice. He could easily have waited for somebody else to volunteer or nudge a junior to volunteer. Instead, he stepped forward in a display of what leadership power is truly about. A leadership example that is still resonating through their community and beyond.




Going back to the movie A Few Good Men, one of the key defence witnesses is Lt Col Markinson. In his letter to Santiago’s parents, he confesses: “For my part, I’ve done as much as I can to bring the truth the light. And the truth is this: Your son is dead for only one reason. I wasn’t strong enough to stop it.”

In this honest confession he alludes to what real leaders should be doing.

(Spoiler Alert)

A point driven home when Dawson and Downey are finally acquitted yet dishonourably discharged. When Downey asks Dawson why they are still being thrown out of the Marines inspite of just following orders he asks and declares: “What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong!” But Dawson responds “Yeah we did. We were supposed to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willy.”