Why Bullies Make Bad Leaders

I recently watched “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. It’s a movie about two styles of leadership — one based on love, the other based on fear. Caesar, the thoughtful, alpha male Ape finds himself up against the cunning and ambitious Koba, who seeks to dislodge him as leader. Caeser’s leadership style is calm, firm and fair. He is profoundly respected by the tribe and motivated by a deep commitment to their safety and long-term prosperity. Koba is a bully, motivated by power, insecurity and resentment stemming from his unhappy past.

Picture of ape-man.

The movie reminded me of the fascinating work by one of my heroes, Jane Goodall, who has devoted her life to studying chimpanzee tribes. She has observed that, like humans, some chimps rule by fear and others by love. The alpha males who rely on force and fear to gain and maintain power hold onto their leadership position for an average of two years. Chimps who lead by developing a network of relationships based on trust and commitment remain in power for an average of 10 years. While we may like to think of ourselves as being far more advanced than our ape cousins, the truth is much of our behaviour is shaped by shared drives and instincts.

What goes around comes around

We have all seen leaders who primarily use fear and intimidation to get things done. While in the short term it could be argued this works, the resentment this creates is inevitably used against the leader, who is eventually ousted with gusto by the people he or she has upset along the way. For instance in franchise groups we sometimes see a franchisor CEO use a bombastic, self-serving, dictatorial leadership style with their franchisees. Not only do these people seldom last very long (as franchisees inevitably gang up on them), they give franchising a bad name.

But arrogant, self-serving leadership is not just the domain of franchisors. Sometimes power-hungry, politically-minded franchisees will seek to use their franchisee peers for their own opportunistic purposes. This is usually done by spreading stories that undermine the credibility of the franchisor team and create an “us and them” politically charged environment. These people also inevitably end up getting their just deserts, but not before creating significant distraction and damage all around, just like Koba does in Planet of the Apes.

The psychology of good faith

Because the franchise relationship has its own inherent creative tensions, franchisors and franchisees need to place a priority on maintaining a constructive, not a destructive, approach and remember they are running a business, not a political party. Mutual respect is vital, as is staying focused on the things that matter. These are creating happy customers, protecting the brand, maintaining a competitive edge and maximizing unit level profitability. Recent changes to Australia’s franchising laws now include a “good faith” provision where franchisors and franchisees are expected to act honestly, collaboratively and to respect the rights of each other.

While this legal perspective provides a reason for people to act in good faith, there are other good commercial and psychological reasons for not using bullying leadership styles. Take for instance a study of 300 disputes led by Ray Friedman, Professor of Management at Vanderbilt University, titled The Positive and Negative Effects of Anger on Dispute Resolution. The study found, where a relationship is ongoing (such as a franchise relationship), trying to resolve disputes using angry, intimidating tactics produced inferior results compared to calm and respectful negotiations. It also found anger and intimidation by one party led to the other party using deception as a strategy, undermining trust and laying the foundation for future disputes. On the other hand, calm, solution-focused attempts to solve problems were contagious and reciprocated, improving settlement rates.

While we’re talking about the merits of love and peace, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you and your family a safe, happy and stress-free Christmas.

I look forward to staying in touch next year.

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