Once in high school some of the popular kids picked on me. It humiliated me. That evening I talked to a friend on the phone who told me that many people in the school felt for me and looked down on them. On the phone, I felt I had their support and started developing an idea: I would confront the kids who picked on me in a public venue, like the cafeteria, where the mass of other students would see me taking charge. They would rally behind me and we would rise victorious somehow, winning the confrontation. I didn’t know how and even now I have trouble thinking what I could do, but I knew it would be dramatic and everybody would love it.
Looking back at this unlikely scene, I thought I was planning but I was fantasizing. Confusing fantasy for reality doesn’t create workable plans.
Where did I get the ideas for dramatically rallying my classmates and winning a confrontation? I had never seen a classmate do anything like it. In my years since I’ve never heard of anything like it happening. So where did it come from?
I’d seen it happen in movies and TV many times. It’s dramatic. Drama gets viewers, which sells tickets and gets advertisers, which makes money.
I don’t mind people making money, but unrealistic dramatizations portrayed as realistic create beliefs, at least in me. I believed leadership was based in
- Behaving dramatically
- Spontaneous, unrehearsed performance
- Intense emotion
- Adversarial confrontation
- Winning, in fact, total victory
I have never seen or heard of leadership like that working, yet it’s the standard we show culturally.
While no one would confuse this scene in a comedy—Revenge of the Nerds, which was big when I was in high school—for instruction on how to lead, it illustrates a scene we’ve seen in countless movies. I can think of few counterexamples in popular media of how people effectively led effectively (can anyone else?). One example I can think of is the movie Thirteen Days, about the Cuban Missile Crisis. According to Wikipedia, “The film was a box office bomb,” though I’ve watched it many times after a professor of mine at used it in a leadership class at Columbia Business School.
These scenes illustrate counterproductive leadership behavior. I see people trying to behave like the bullet list above and I imagine they got it from the countless scenes like this they’ve seen and the lack of counterexamples.